As I write, with the rain lashing down outside and not a break in the sky to suggest it will ever stop, I am conjuring sunshine. A last few days or even hours to help in ripening the Strawberry Grape, which are so very nearly, but not quite, ready for the picking.
Such is the way here when the weather turns in autumn and we find that it is now impossible to get onto the fields again until the spring. But the grape holds promise. In a good year, and I still haven’t given up hope, ‘Fragola’ is a reliable outdoor grape, a marker of summer and sunlight captured. Memories of sunnier climes and the dappled light beneath festooned bowers. The joy, in the cool damp of England, of reaching up and picking a bunch for the table.
My vine has a history, as most of the plants will have as time goes on in the garden, but this is one that I am particularly fond of. When I was starting out in my career making gardens, working out of the back of a yellow van to build, plant and then tend, Priscilla and Antonio Carluccio were some of my first clients. My great friend Frances, with whom I was making Home Farm, had introduced us, thinking we might be a good fit and knowing the rigour of Priscilla’s design eye she thought it would do me good. And she was right.
Their property was in Hampshire, not far from where I grew up, but in a totally different landscape high up on a flinty hill on the edge of downland. A thatched, low-slung cottage dating to the 1500’s set the scene and Priscilla approached everything with the care of ensuring that every mark we made felt right in this place. At the time she was the creative director of The Conran Shop and she had the rigour of her brother Terence. With her buyer’s eye everything was considered and she taught me about connections and going deep into an idea to find the thing that captures its essence. Antonio was also a central part of how the brief came together and the garden focused itself around a productive heart from which we later ate heartily. There was a simple hedged enclosure to provide shelter for a kitchen garden with fruits and herbs and hard to come by vegetables, an orchard, a nuttery and a yard full of lavender, tree lupins and oxeye daisies.
We would discuss plans and progress over a simple but delicious lunch cooked and often foraged by Antonio. Mushrooms and filberts from the woods in autumn, hop shoots and wild garlic in the spring. The conversation usually revolved around authenticity, of distilling the spirit of the place and its particularities, and of attention to detail. The curtains in the house were raw muslin and unhemmed, the paintwork just undercoat so that it looked chalky. Hazel we harvested ourselves from the coppice to weave a bower for the rose around the door or to cut stakes for the apples. Tree ties were made from hessian and nothing was used that wasn’t biodegradable. Over the five years we worked together I learned a lot in the doing whilst helping to make this place.
Antonio had a cutting of the Strawberry Grape given by a friend in Italy. He told me about the wine made from them called Fragolino and of the particular taste of the fruit eaten from the vine. I had never encountered it before, but we found a warm spot against the woodshed where it thrived and fruited well after just a couple of years. Sure enough, when darkened by late summer sun, the fruit yielded an unusual flavour. Something between strawberries and bubblegum and certainly not an obvious choice for a table grape. But its ease and readiness in our climate and its good clean behaviour have kept it a place in my heart.
At his invitation I took my own hardwood cuttings from Antonio’s plant as soon as the leaves dropped. The thickness of a pencil, but a little longer, with a sloping cut above a bud to throw the water off in winter and a horizontal cut immediately below a bud, the summer sugars will convert all their energy into root by springtime. In a year you have a new plant, which in two will be ready for its new home. That first plant scrambled over the roof of my flat in Bonnington Square, a cutting taken from that competed with Virginia creeper to smother the trellis at the end of our Peckham garden, and now I have a plant tucked in the most sheltered corner we have next to the outdoor kitchen, where we are encouraging it to grow up and soften the roofline of the building. Over the years I have passed on countless rooted cuttings from my own plant to friends and clients and always with the memory of that first gifting from Antonio, so they are given with the good feelings attached to that memory I describe here. All we need now is a little more sunshine to make good the promise.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 3 October 2020