Walking across the east lawns with the dogs, I duck under a fence to take a short cut through to the Orangery, glasshouses and cold frames. The dogs follow their own paths there but are not allowed into the Orangery, both on account of the plants and the fact that Highclere’s Head Gardener and his team store their backpacks there, complete with carefully wrapped sandwiches, none of which seems to defeat the nose and determination of a Labrador to share what isn’t theirs.
The Orangery used to be part of the original Georgian House and was attached to the south side of the building to what was the Breakfast Room. It is clearly marked out in a drawing made by Sir Charles Barry when he was building the current Castle, before he moved it ½ mile down to sit beside the Monks’ Garden, with its long glass wall facing south.
This rather lovely and practical building was not wasted. It was put to good use as the fruits produced within its glass walls were much admired and valued at a time when this was the only way to enjoy such tender produce from Mediterranean climes.
It had become somewhat dilapidated. We have now repaired it and we are looking at ways to share its produce so that it does not remain just a cost centre. The glass walls allow lemon trees and kumquats – tiny orange trees – to flourish. When I first came here, I used the lemons to make syllabub and lemonade. The expression “making lemonade from lemons” denotes turning something sour or pedestrian into sometime delicious or useful: not everyone may see this opportunity but life is good if you can find a way to be positive about what it has dealt you. Lemons, however bitter, taste wonderful if you are creative with them. Likewise, if we take the time and look, it is amazing what we can see and achieve.
When we were considering making our own Gin, Geordie was particularly keen to put the Orangery at the centre of its story. Thus, Highclere Castle Gin uses the citrus notes from here to refresh and to balance the gin taste. The lemons are air dried and sent to the distillery which now takes priority over my lemon possets and lemonade! Nothing is easy or obvious but the effort to step forwards may be more ingenious as a result.
Equally you cannot use lemons to make something they are not – you can use them for balance and as a flavour but they are still lemons. Many fables and legends are stories, often quite scary ones, about someone pretending to be someone they are not, and usually for nefarious purposes. The last few months have tested many of our assumptions about our daily lifestyles. With humankind less in evidence, in some places nature has cleansed itself from seas and lagoons to city centres. It would be nice when this is over if we could retain some of this achievement.
The Lemonade recipe below is a balance between the tart refreshing taste of the lemons and the sweetness of sugar, perhaps flavoured with a little mint as well. The required balance of the two is up to individual taste so that there is no one correct answer. What is more, it needs continual adjustment depending on the juiciness of the lemons.
The Stoics believe that, within humans, there is a “divine spark” which helps them to live in accordance with nature. My father loved to delve into conversation with my university friends to encourage them to try, to have a go at an industry or a job, and remind them they had spark. He was a lover of William Shakespeare – “We know what we are, but know not what we may be.”
Ingredients: 6 lemons, 150 g of sugar, a few torn mint leaves, 2 1/2 pints of water
Scrub the lemons in warm water, pare the yellow zest from 3 of them using a potato peeler or zester (avoid the white pith which is bitter), Pare a 4th lemon and keep the strips to one side. Squeeze the juice from all the lemons into a bowl, with the sugar and add 2½ pints of boiling water and the torn mint leaves. Stir well, cover and leave overnight in a cool place. Next day stir again, taste to check and add a little more sugar if needed. finally sieve the lemonade through a large sieve and serve with ice cubes and some more mint leaves and the strips of zest from the 4th lemon for colour.