The tree of God and other heresies

Up at dawn, as usual, to holystone the rooftop deck. Neighbours far below, awakened by the persistent scrubbing, emerge in dressing gowns to shake their fists. How tiny they look from the lofty vantage point of the poop. It’s good to start the day with nothing between me and the sky. Our new house has two ground-level gardens, one in front, one behind, both in deep perpetual shadow from many mature trees. It’s my first experience at gardening on the forest floor. Even after rain, the soil is dry and caked, the earth riven with roots that suck away every sigh of moisture. Midges dance, rats burrow (this is Chinatown still) and racoons defecate nightly as a sign that they, too, are unimpressed by my horticultural efforts. I am not a fan of hostas but they seem to be the only plant that thrives under such conditions – not counting lily of the valley, surly punk cedar shrubs and a particularly invasive euonymus that is currently suffering from scale. I miss my last garden – a tiny urban sun pit where everything grew like topsy, full of herbs and roses and rhubarb, delphiniums, lilies and a fabulous tree that turned pink for most of the summer and that my Lithuanian neighbour called the Tree of God. The day after we moved out, the landlord sent in a man with a saw to cut it down.

Professional restaurant-going grinds to a halt during Summerlicious – an enforced vacation for me as restaurants morph into curious hybrids of their natural state. Lonely for dining-rooms, I dropped by Nota Bene to see how things were progressing. All three owners were there – Yannick Bigourdin and David Lee of Splendido and Franco Prevedello of the original Splendido and so many other gastronomical palaces of the past. The trades are nearly out and the staff are in, learning the numbers of tables and Bigourdin’s systems of service. It’s on the ground floor of the brand new courthouse building close to the northwest corner of Queen and University and it’s going to be a beauty. I’ll save further revelations until it opens later this month.

Daily trips to Kensington Market produce no Ontario strawberries, just scary-looking things from the U.S. Must find some before the season is over.

This is the weather for drinking the Dreaded Heresy, a mixed drink I first tasted up the Douro on a lovely voyage of discovery tasting some of Portugal’s finest libations. Our fearless leader, William Delgado of ICEP, the Portuguese trade commission, arranged a night’s stay at Quinta de Vargellas, one of the world’s great wine estates, owned for centuries by Taylor’s port house. Waiting to greet us after the parched, dusty and occasionally hair-rising drive along the vertiginous vineyards of the valley – the Douro is the anvil of the sun – was Nick Heath, an urbane Englishman who works for the family firm. After an hour to freshen up, we gathered on the terrace of the quinta. The house was delightful, its many rooms furnished in an elegant English way with photographs, books and family souvenirs. Nick mixed us each a Dreaded Heresy as he explained the history of Taylor’s from its far-off beginnings in 1692. Below us, the river slipped smoothly on through the empty mountains as the sun set – a scene of extraordinary serenity. But Nick could remember a time before the Douro was dammed and the noise of its rapids echoed perpetually in the valley. There were toasted almonds to nibble and some slivers of the local prosciutto – perfect accompaniments to the DH which begins with an inch of chilled white port poured into a tumbler. To this are added two or three ice cubes and the glass is topped up with tonic water. Some garnish it with a twist of lemon; Nick added a sprig of fresh balsamic mint which contributed a whole new dimension of fragrance to the drink – unless that was the sweet scent of the linden trees below the terrace. Come to think of it, I have a linden tree in my garden here – currently serving as a leafy slum for loose-bowelled racoons. They clamber onto the deck. Hence the holystoning.

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