After forty-six years and nine months of daily meal preparations, when we arrived in Wake Robin last June I turned my back on cooking without a second thought. Good bye, cheese from my goats' milk, omelettes from my hens' eggs, pesto from my kale. No matter that our cottage has a fully equipped kitchen, my cooking days are done.
As we prepared for the move, I got rid of much that was dear to my heart, but I couldn't bear to part with my four potted citrus trees. They survived the move and continued to bloom and set fruit in front of the cottage until the weather turned cold and they had to come indoors. And then my problems began.
Wanting to recreate a Mediterranean climate for the little darlings, I found them the brightest spot in the house, which happens inconveniently to be in the bedroom, right next to our bed, which is also where Wolfie and Bisou sleep. (If I get up during the night I have to watch to avoid stepping on a sleeping dog and bumping my head against a Meyer lemon.) But despite this prime location the trees went into a decline and started dropping leaves.
I got them a lamp with a big fluorescent bulb that I kept on whenever we weren't trying to sleep, but the leaves kept falling--and there is no more discouraging sound that the sigh of an indoor plant's leaf dropping in the night. I started misting the trees with water twice a day, then every time I went into the bedroom. Eventually I plugged in a humidifier and kept it going round the clock. But the leaves continued to fall.
It took me weeks to realize that the weird web-like filaments on the leaves and stems might have something to do with the trees' misery: spider mites! This, coming hard on the heels of my sarcoptic mite episode, was a bit much. But I went to work with home-made remedies and persistence, and eventually the mites disappeared.
By then, however, the Page orange had dropped all its baby fruits. The larger of the two Meyer lemons kept its fruit but retained exactly four leaves (if a tree can look like it has mange, that one does). The small Meyer lemon did only slightly better. But the stalwart Calamondin orange kept on blooming, and setting and ripening fruit as if this were Valencia rather than Vermont. By January, its crop of cheerful, grape-sized oranges was ready to pick.
Unfortunately, Calamondins are bitter as gall. Some people use them as decorations for meat dishes, in lieu of kumquats. But the only way to make them palatable is to turn them into marmalade.
I had never made marmalade in my life, and was tormented by visions of imperfectly sterilized jars leading to death from botulism. In reality, it turned out to be quite simple, the only fiddly part being the slicing and seeding of the tiny fruits. When this was done, I boiled them in water for fifteen minutes, refrigerated the mixture overnight, then added an unconscionable amount of sugar and heated it to 220F. Finally I poured it into four clean little jars and bunged them in the fridge, thus averting botulism.
The results were terrific: an ideal marriage of yin and yang, bitter and sweet. And a feast for the eyes as well, each small jar a translucent carnelian gem.
Since it contains as much sugar as it does citrus, my bedroom marmalade does not qualify as health food. But a little goes a long way, and a scant teaspoonful of the stuff can brighten a generous slice of buttered toast, and my entire morning.
As for that mangy Meyer lemon, yesterday I saw a barely-there bit of green poking out of one of its dead-looking stems--a new leaf! The season of resurrection is at hand.