The Weasel

An evergreen intruder from down under overshadows the smartest of trees at Weasel Acres, while a sugary Ginger keeps smiling
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The Independent Culture
I don't know if you've noticed it, but American magazines ranging from Time to National Enquirer have recently gained an unusual prominence on newsstands. Since the journal I'm looking out for is a quarterly, I may have to wait a while to gain its specialist insight into recent disclosures from Washington DC. I mean, of course, my long-time favourite, Cigar Aficionado.

It was through this publication that I first learned of the President's fondness for cigars about two-and-a-half years ago. Revealing that the great man liked to flourish a stogie while mulling on the world's problems in the Oval Office, Cigar Aficionado noted that that an official ban on smoking in the White House prevented him from actually lighting up, which might explain a lot about subsequent events.

ASIDE FROM the fact that you require a machete to make any inroad, the garden of Weasel Villas is unexceptional in every respect. However, it is not every suburban demesne that can claim to have a significant connection with contemporary literature. I refer to the vegetative star of Murray Bail's acclaimed novel Eucalyptus (Harvill, pounds 12.99). Owing something to the Scheherazade legend, the yarn is set in present-day New South Wales, where a settler promises his beautiful daughter to the first suitor who can name every one of the hundreds of species of gum tree on his property.

I don't think that I would have got very far, since I cannot apply a name to the evergreen bully which overshadows Weasel Villas - at any rate, nothing polite enough to print within the sedate ambit of this column .

The object under advisement is hard to miss. A straggly monster perhaps 40 feet tall, it corresponds to Bail's descriptions: "It's an egotistical tree. Standing apart it draws attention to itself and soaks up moisture and all signs of life, such as harmless weeds and grass, for a radius beyond its roots."

Frighteningly, this antipodean interloper also appears in a volume called The Strangest Plants in the-World: "The gum tree is one of the fastest growing trees and is also known to take enormous volumes of water from the soil." Mrs W, of course, is to blame. She planted the eucalyptus about two decades ago, before I entered her life.

"It was all right when it was regularly pruned," she admitted, "but I somehow forgot about it for a couple of years. By then it was too late..." The result is a corner of south London that is for ever Aussie: a gargantuan fright-wig of foliage upheld by a trunk as substantial as a gourmand's waist. You can almost see the spear-like branches expanding to sustain the ceaseless operation of this photosynthetic factory. Much to our inconvenience - and our neighbour's fury - the arrow-shaped leaves descend throughout the year. In high winds, the whole tree shimmies like Kenyatta's fly-whisk.

Don't think I haven't tried to do something about the brute. One Sunday, I decided to cut it down to size. After hewing away like a man possessed, I had virtually sawn through a mighty bough before I realised it was directly above my head. Despite dodging death by a hair's-breadth, I received scant applause from Mrs W.

Next year, when the reinvigorated plant made a takeover bid for the air space above our neighbour's garden, it seemed wise to call in a tree surgeon. "We'll take 20 feet off," he announced. "You won't need to call us for another few years." Our eucalyptus thrived wonderfully on this savaging and has now assumed the proportions of a sequoia. Something tells me that this egotistical timber has a date with the chain-saw. At least, I'll know its name by then: kindling.

Though I say it myself, my contribution to the Weasel Villas arboretum is much more palatable: Morus nigra or black mulberry. The ancients regarded the mulberry as the wisest of plants, since it is last to come into leaf and first to shed. Even now, the heart-shaped leaves of our small tree are discoloured and mottled with decay.

Little more than a twig when it arrived through the post, the plant showed no sign of fruiting in its first three years. We'd given up hope, but in the following summer, four berries magically appeared - as wonderful on the taste-buds as they are disastrous on clothing. For the past two years, the tree has produced impressive crops. Sadly, we have been able to sample no more than a dozen fruit on both occasions, since the berries are unripe when we depart for our summer break and have shrivelled to currants by the time we return. If the plant is all that clever, you'd think it might wait.

I CANNOT remember an odder cookery series than Upper Crust, currently on BBC-2, which involves a moon-faced nob called Christopher Sykes whipping up quirky recipes at various stately homes. In the first programme, set at Sledmere House, the Sykes family's pile in North Yorkshire, young master Christopher was indulged by a creaky retinue of retainers as he boiled ham with hay and made a pudding by pouring warm cream into a basin from the top of a stepladder. Both dishes, it has to be said, looked pretty tempting.

As I happened to be passing Sledmere House the other day, I popped in to see what was on offer in the tea-room. Though I was lusting for a hay- and-ham sandwich, the menu listed nothing more outre than bread-and-butter pudding. I suppose that's the nearest we lower orders will get to the upper crust.

Rightly, the Hon Christopher sets great store by his family's tradition of fine food and drink. None had a more intimate association than a lugubrious cove from the turn of the century called Sir Tatton Sykes, a toadying butt of Edward VII. When the King saw fit to pour a glass of wine over his head, Sir Tatton famously responded, "As your Majesty pleases." The drenching of the poor sap with ever-increasing quantities of liquor followed by his cringing response became a monarchic set-piece.

Sir Tatton's dinners were more peaceful after Edward's death. Until a night in 1916, that is, when he was informed that Sledmere House was burning down. "But my pudding," was the knight's alarmed response. "I haven't finished my pudding."

DAWDLING IN the wake of Mrs W as she pillaged our local Sainsbury's, my eye was caught by a confection which proudly boasted. "First ever photographic edible image on a cake in the UK." Via this miracle of culinary technology, the five Spice Girls were pouting fit to bust on the iced topping of a Genoese sponge. Truly a landmark for the digestible daguerreotype. But hang on a mo. Five Spice Girls? Were the makers the only people in Britain unaware that their gateau should now contain no Ginger? All was explained when I spotted that the best-before date of this toothsome tribute was 20 September. Another example dated 5 October carried a new snap of the downsized combo on the box. Oddly enough, Geri still grins on the icing. I just hope she's getting a slice of the cake.

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