She spoke with an accent from another age. It was hard to get more isolated than living at the end of a fjord in northern Trondelag, Norway in the early 1950’s. And so, in the late 1990’s when I caught-up with Rose in Bergen, her voice sounded more like it should be broadcasting on the BBC World Service at a time when there still was pink patches of empire on the map. We became good friends, despite the 40 years between our ages. I became her “special agent,” adept at gleaning snippets of juicy information about new arrivals in our expat community, while Rose wove these harvested words into a bright tapestry of our transient lives back at her home, which we called “HQ..”
She was a master of connecting and communicating with people. Always seeming at ease with herself, she could work a room and get people feeling comfortable and accepted in record time. In turn, I became her student and she showed me how to open people up like flowers. After a while we could whistle our way through a crowded room and meet-up a few days later to compare notes and continue on our weaving and incorporation of all lose threads. Knots were tied off and new colours and designs always given consideration and thoughtful application.
In our long days of chat, strong tea and wise words she would occasionally cradle Sasha, my first-born daughter. Strangely, always after a while Rose would become nervous and really eager to pass my loving bundle back to me. Then one day, in the warmth of our industrious social activity at HQ, she began to talk about her life by the fjord and her dark days of homesickness for England and her parents.
She had been a young and privileged teenager during the war years in London. Her family had owned a large house in Hampstead and they had watched bombs rain down over London during the blitz. At the end of the war, as Britain celebrated and the party ran on and on, she and her sister visited Norway where her older sister met and married a handsome young doctor. The following summer Rose fell for a blue-eyed widower during her vacation, despite her loving parent’s anguish that both their golden girls would go north. She married her Norwegian and sailed her life towards the midnight sun. It was at this point that Rose stared into the middle distance and mentioned “headstrong,” “willful,” ‘naïve” and ‘you make your bed and you jolly well lie in it, by Jove!” Then she sighed and whispered wistfully,
“England was such fun just after the war.”
It was a couple of years later that we resumed the conversation, as I returned from visiting my parents with then two small babies in tow and an enormous suitcase filled with products from all the great shopping in the UK. I’d sourced a bar of amber coloured Pear’s soap as a gift for Rose. It smelled clean, pure and of another time, I thought that she’d love it. Instead of smiling she looked away and quietly wept. Then told me how she had continued stoically through her first long winters on her husband’s farm with no respite in the equally harsh summers, when millions of midges would descend in the 3 months of endless sun. Of how the local women had shunned her for taking one of the few eligible men from their isolated community, how they had cursed her and uttered how she would never belong and of how she had well and truly sealed her fate by pegging her new brightly coloured London underwear on the washing line; the dour church-going community viewing her then as some evil temptress come to wreak havoc on their mediaeval community.
Inside a small tin box on her dressing table she kept her precious bar of Pear’s soap. When her homesickness would envelop her she would take the box and let her mind rest; the smell of the soap reminded her of her family and the chatter of a London street on a summer’s evening. The soap had been too precious to use to wash with, its aroma alone enough to bring calm and a small glimmer of sanctuary in her difficult life. Yet she underlined how she loved her husband very much, and her old eyes lit-up when she cast her mind back to their early years, she giggled girlishly and I had the feeling that the strong arms of her chosen mate were often enough to deflect the cold and dark that would have consumed many a weaker partnership. As time went by they became parents to a baby boy, her dismay at the coldness of the other women of the village began to fade as she created her own little universe. With the premature arrival of her second baby things became dire though; the primitive health care fell away in the middle of a very cold blizzard-ridden winter; all roads were impassable and Rose and her sickly child had to make the dangerous journey over the encircling mountains in a traction engine known as a weasel. Mother and child survived, but her obvious fear of holding my newborn baby was as a result of the rising hysteria that marked her in those early days.
Rose was a thrifty and frugal cook, but she loved her food; her repertoire of 1950’s and 60’s recipes all carefully collated in a flip photo album. Inedible cakes made from crushed biscuits stirred into melted margarine, sugar and cocoa had me politely gagging. Her triumphant serving of reconstituted dried soup made me smile though, as it was such a joy for her not to have to make a soup from the beginning; i.e. to start by sowing the seeds. Rose had reported to me how as a family they had carefully stored all their potatoes, carrots and turnips in a root cellar below their farmhouse in the early autumn. But, by the first thaw in the spring all the remaining vegetables had rotted into stinking slurry. In those intervening weeks, before the first shoots of radish began to show in the cold soil, Rose with her family and their neighbours would all show the tiredness, light-headedness and bleeding gums distinctive of scurvy. The freezer, the microwave and most of all the convenience store all held such wonders for her.
I have no recipe for Rose; she always inspires, nourishes and refreshes me with her insights and small glimpses of her remarkable past. Recently she told me the tale of how she bought a spit-roasted chicken from her local supermarket, but had devoured it by the time she reached home 10 minutes later. I see her staggering down a wet road with greasy lips, a chicken thigh in her hand and her white hair freshly coiffed from the pensioner priced hairdresser.
This recipe for elderflower cordial is something frugal that is also equally priceless and very refreshing. It’s a recipe that my daughters and I make every year, we find it most successful to freeze the syrup, if you add preservative to the mix then it feels all wrong.
Elderflower Cordial / Hyldeblomstsirup
To be made NOW, in the heady time of early summer the elderflowers come into bloom.
Shake the perfect heads of 30 freshly gathered elderflower to remove any insects. Place them in a large clean bucket with 3 kg sugar, 6 sliced lemons, 40 g of citric acid and 3.5 liters of cold water. Cover with a cloth and leave for 3 to 4 days. Stir and squeeze the ingredients at least 4 times a day with a clean arm. Strain the mixture through a fresh tea towel and pour into pretty bottles. This cordial should be kept in the fridge for no more than a couple of weeks. I tend to freeze big plastic bottles (3/4 full to allow for expansion) of it in my freezer to remind us of the summer in the middle of winter.
This cordial is wonderful served with iced water, sparkling water, white wine, champagne and gin. The tiny flowers that escaped the straining process look beautiful floating in your glass!