Why the dogwood flower is the herald of the true new year

By Serena Kenyon Brown

From the Middle Ages until 1752, the English legal year began on Lady Day, that is, the Feast of the Annunciation, which falls — by no coincidence, I’m sure — on the 25th of March, just after the vernal equinox.

Many other creeds and cultures date their years from around this point in the calendar, and as the equinox goes by and we arrive at April, and spring, that seems eminently sensible.

When I was a city dweller I never used to give much thought to the way we see in the New Year during Christmas, bleary-eyed and liverish, awaiting the bills, just as winter’s really starting to sink in its teeth. The only indicators of seasonal change were the London plane trees outside the office window. In the summer they gave the glorious impression that one was working in a treehouse. During the winter they seemed to disappear completely into the permagloom.

I would put my unease around the 1st of January down to overdoing it on the 31st of December, and trudge over Waterloo Bridge into the new year with the rest of the flock.

But outside the urban microclimate it doesn’t make sense, that the year be new when the trees are black skeletons, the hedgerows bare and the fields set thick with frost. It sets us off on the wrong foot, I know now.

The bright red and gold of the Sandhills years brought with them something of a revelation.

In England, spring is all as advertised by the great poets: racing lambs and a host of golden daffodils. Yes, the weather can be a tad cruel — it might warm up in June — but the days are lengthening and the shadows shrinking rapidly.

Here in the Sandhills the dwarf irises are poking up through the pine straw. The evenings are sweet with the scent of pine, the longleaf cones swelling to a fecund purple before they explode the golden pollen that will engulf us all this month. Turtles emerge to sun themselves on beaver-fallen logs. Snakes are slow and hungry, chock-full of hibernated poison. The frogs are warming up for their summer chorus.

Best of all, the dogwoods are blossoming. What could make one feel more optimistic than those delicate constellations dotted through the budding woods?

I had been in the Sandhills about six months, long enough to learn a few of the trails and tracks of the Walthour-Moss Foundation, when I went for a ride, just Castalon and the woods and me. Cas was a dignified warmblood of advancing years and bright bay coat, and, unusual in a herd animal, a preference for human company over equine. He was just the consort for such a venture.

It was early April. There was a dreamlike, slow-motion quality to the day. There was a musk of deer catching in the breeze. A woodpecker hammered from time to time. The sand was deep in the firebreak and Cas and I moved at a leisurely pace, reins long, bay ears flopping. We saw no other horses or riders, though a fox squirrel kept us company for a few hundred yards and there was a flash of sapphire as a bluebird dived into a nesting box.

We thudded softly over a wooden bridge and followed the course of a creek that ran clear over its smooth sand bed. We nudged into Cas’ rocking-horse canter, but within a few strides we pulled up. I was spellbound.

This was my first sight of the wild flowering dogwoods. We stood at the entrance to a dappled world of spring green and broderie anglaise. It was as though we had happened upon the Lady Chapel within the longleaf pines’ cathedral.

We walked very slowly along the creek. I drank in every moment. It was spring distilled.

Though I rode on many more trails, through many more springs, I never returned to that place. I didn’t want to add another layer to the gossamer of memory. I fell in love with the dogwoods that day, and looked for them eagerly in every wood thereafter. When we moved to the little house on May Street I was glad to find that two old dogwoods graced the front lawn. Through the seasons we lived there, those trees came to represent hope and beauty and the careful balance of nature.

Hope, beauty, balance. We need that at a beginning. The new year starts when the first dogwood of the season flowers.  PS

Serena Brown is chilling the champagne for Dogmanay, which she celebrates annually on the night before the first dogwood blooms.

Proper English

Tobacco Road

Home is where the nicotiana grows. And where it doesn’t

By Serena Brown

There’s a painting of the McLeod farm hanging above my desk. It was painted around this time of year. The sky is that pale, hazy Carolina blue of summer, thick with humidity; shirt-wringing, not-moving hot. It was a hundred degrees in the shade of the painter’s hat when he made that picture and, after years of washed-out British summers, he was very happy about it.

Back here in England we have tobacco growing in our garden. I use the word “growing” in a spirit of optimism; y’all know the conditions in which tobacco thrives — they’re a bit hard to recreate in a maritime climate. By the time you read this the Sandhills bright leaf will be 4 1/2 feet high and partially, if not totally, plucked from the stalk. Our seedlings have yet to nudge bravely into the Dorset air. We had a heat wave in July  — which in England means it was 80 degrees for the three days until the weekend — so there’s still room for hope.

It wasn’t a deliberate decision, the planting of the tobacco.  Back in the spring we were at our local garden centre stocking up on canes for the sweet peas. The rows of seed packets had caught our toddler son’s attention, and he was gazing happily at the wall of brightly coloured potential.

After a while he quite deliberately walked up to the packets and picked one off. Keen to encourage what I fondly imagined was a burgeoning interest in horticulture, I received it with enthusiasm. I didn’t really look at the packet, just saw a picture of some pretty, trumpet-shaped white flowers and the words VERY FRAGRANT BLOOMS. “That sounds nice,” I thought. I congratulated the toddler on his good taste and put the seeds into our basket.

When we got home and unloaded our shopping, my husband smiled a wry Southern smile and asked, “Why’d you buy tobacco?”


“You bought tobacco seeds. Look.”

Nicotiana. Oh yes. And written in little letters on the back: Nicotiana sylvestris. Common name: Tobacco Plant. So I had.

The flowers look rather different in a close-up photograph of an herbaceous border. And, as everyone in tobacco country knows, those very fragrant blooms don’t get to stick around for long in a field before they’re topped, so they’re not the part of the plant I’d recognise. The only further point in my defence — and it’s a weak one — is that sylvestris is a South American variety of the Nicotiana tabacum with which we’re all familiar.

When “home” means more than one place, there are ways of making bridges and doorways between those worlds, no matter how far apart. When we were living in the Sandhills I knew I had only to breathe in the aroma of those high tobacco plants to be transported back to the old-fashioned, cigarette box scent of my childhood home.

Now we’re back in England, and those portals work the other way. Smelling a fresh cigarette now takes me to those fields around Carthage. The taste of bourbon is a journey to a field off Young’s Road. Once I’ve mistaken a passing vehicle for the sound of the evening train.

If I had been trying to find those quiet gateways for our garden, I have to admit that Nicotiana sylvestris wouldn’t have been at the top of my list. I can sniff a cigarette box for that effect. No, I’m waiting until our roots are a little deeper, when I shall realise my quiet ambition to achieve a grove of dogwood trees. Oh, how I miss the dogwoods.

However, by serendipity we have plenty around us to connect us to the Sandhills. There is a jasmine in the garden of the house we’re renting, so there’s a whiff of the jessamine fence at our little house on May Street. The honeysuckle rambling over our garden works as a gateway between the lake we used to walk round near Whispering Pines, a tangle of wildflowers, snakes and otter trails landscaped by a family of beavers, and the English hedgerows with their birdsong and bluebells and Queen Anne’s Lace.

Our local landmark is a hill topped by a stand of pine trees. We live by the sea, that threshold to, well, Brittany in our case, but if we set a more westerly course — and improved our sailing skills — we’d find ourselves on the shores of Hatteras directly.

I’ve just leaned over to the window and checked the thermometer, a Taylor gem from Carthage Farm Supply, and it’s reading 60 degrees. Perhaps we shouldn’t hold our breath for our tobacco crop. Instead we’ll light the grill, kick back on our (glassed-in) porch, put on an old-time country record and smell the honeysuckle. And whiskey. Home from home, wherever we are.

Serena Brown, the former senior editor of PineStraw, would like to remind everyone to feed the hummingbirds. They like tobacco plants too.

Walking with Dinosaurs

A winter beach is just the thing for soothing the shock of the new

By Serena Kenyon Brown

Here we are in February. It has been one shipping container, seven months, 3,843 miles and 88,632 still-unpacked boxes since the Sandhills of North Carolina.

It is 2 o’clock in the afternoon. The dogs, who normally eat at about 4 o’clock, have climbed into my lap as I sit down to write in order to remind me of their dinner time every minute for the next two hours. They are not lapdog sized and they are inconvenient to work around. Please forgive any resulting errors.

They’ve been somewhat unhinged, the dogs, since we left the pine-scented breezes of Moore County for the salty air of England’s south coast last summer. They’ve never much liked suitcases, and the rearrangement of our entire household on May Street into plastic boxes was a bridge too far. Or so they thought until they were driven to Atlanta, bundled into crates and wheeled onto an aeroplane bound for Heathrow.

As we took our seats on the same plane we asked the air hostess if she would tell the captain that there were dogs on board, so that the hold could be kept at a reasonable temperature.

“Yes,” replied the stewardess, with all the tact of one blissfully unaware of how it feels to have put a pet on a trans-Atlantic flight, “We know. We can hear them. One’s barking, the other’s howling.”


It was rather a long journey.

Have you ever had a dream where everything’s completely normal but for one thing that’s starkly out of place? That’s how it felt when the dogs joined us at our friends’ house in London. And there they were again, popping up unexpectedly at my parents’ house, in the back of our old car, which had been mothballed in a barn for nearly five years, as we set out for our new home. (Shortly before the car broke down and we had to be towed the remaining 140 miles. Not quite the first impression we had hoped to make as we rolled in at 10 o’clock at night on the back of a tow truck like the Beverly Hillbillies.)

Our current residence, a red brick villa of elegant Georgian proportions, is resolutely bearing the indignity of having been reduced to a confluence. Here it’s not just the spaniels’ presence that is jolting. It’s everything. Southern family life meets big city youth meets classical art school. Paintings are jostling for space with bicycles and laundry baskets, resting three deep against desks overflowing with anatomical studies and much-put-off paperwork.

A grill that looks like Stephenson’s Rocket dominates the English garden. The red toddler car is cheek by jowl with a Victorian kitchen table piled high with wine bottles, silk peonies, board games, teapots and Ordnance Survey maps, all crowned by a set of red deer antlers and overseen by an effigy of Dewi Sri, the Balinese goddess of rice and home, who is looking very stern in the face of such domestic disharmony.

We have learnt that we are in possession of a vast library of much splashed and scribbled-in cookery books and another of tomes on art history. The downstairs loo is stuffed to the gunwales with fishing tackle. There’s a 1950s Power Trac in what was once the dining room. A bat is hanging off the chandelier.

But for clearing the mind, if not the sitting room, there’s nothing like a bracing winter march along a beach. Known as the Jurassic Coast, 185 million years of history lie in the black and golden cliffs that lour over the beaches here. Ammonite imprints stand out clearly in the rocks. Ten minutes of searching will yield a handful of fossils. We’ve found veins of wood and sea creatures galore, even a very happy clam.

The dogs and I walked along the bay this morning. As often happens, the wind dropped once we reached the shelter of the cliffs. The waves tipped gently onto the shore and retreated with a gravelly ssshhhhhhh. The sun seared through the bitter cold and sent long shadows dancing behind us. Herring gulls soared and socialised. Or perhaps they were pterodactyls.

Back in the States the spaniels would scent deer and flush wild turkeys. Now they’re startling seagulls and turning up Plesiosaurs. Quite an adjustment, and it feels like it’s taking a long time. But on a bright winter’s morning, when the stick the dogs are tussling over is 140 million years old, the turnover of a season or two fits perfectly into perspective.  PS

Serena Kenyon Brown is missing the PineStraw magazine deadline milkshakes. Even in the winter.  

The Proof of the Pudding

And don’t spare on the Christmas Brandy Butter

By Serena Kenyon Brown

“I am always surprised to hear British cooking maligned by Americans: So many of our best dishes, especially in the South, are absolutely English.”

— John Martin Taylor, Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking.

If you happen to be leafing through the pages of an early American book of receipts for your fall and winter menu plans, you might be struck by how many of the dishes we still eat today. Fricassee, velvet cakes, pilau, fried oysters, kohlrabi. There are also a large number of dishes that graced the American table in days of yore, but would now be considered strictly British fare. Mrs. Rorer’s Cookbook of 1886 gives a recipe for shepherd’s pie and another for bread sauce. In The Virginia House-wife, first published circa 1824, Mrs. Randolph offers the reader a glorious receipt for using up leftover roast beef.

And the Yorkshire pudding?

Sure enough, it’s there. Look for Batter Pudding in Mrs. Rorer’s Cookbook. Or try Mrs. Rundell’s American Domestic Cookery (1823). That venerable lady also offers a Batter Pudding with Meat that sounds a lot like the British classic Toad-in-the-Hole.

While plenty of British dishes have remained part of American cuisine, many more have fallen away. In those early books there are whole chapters devoted to puddings, yet open up a modern American cookbook and you’ll be unlikely to find much beyond the familiar bread pudding.

A pudding might be crumbly and cakey or oozily moist. It is generally boiled or steamed, but can also be baked. The sweet variety tends to be cooked in cotton cloth as opposed to the intestine or stomach that traditionally encases the savory kind.

As the nights stretch into the cooling days, few things make a more warming, rib-sticking ending to a feast than a dark, glossy pudding. It’s time for a restoration. The holidays aren’t far away. Let’s return the plum pudding to the American table.

You’ll find many delectable recipes, both old and new, online — look for “Christmas pudding” as “plum” is an archaic term for a raisin or currant. If you’d like to try your hand at an authentic 19th-century plum pudding, something Dickens himself, the godfather of the holiday banquet, would have recognized, Mrs. Hale gives the most comprehensive method in The Good Housekeeper of 1839:

“As Christmas comes but once a year, a rich plum pudding may be permitted for the feast; though it is not healthy food; and children should be helped very sparingly. The following is a good receipt.

“Chop half a pound of suet very fine; stone half a pound of raisins; half a pound of currants nicely washed and picked; four ounces of bread crumbs; four ounces of flour; four eggs well beaten; a little grated nutmeg — mace and cinnamon pounded very fine; half a teaspoonful of salt; four ounces of sugar; one ounce candied lemon; same of citron.

“Beat the eggs and spices well together; mix the milk with them by degrees, then the rest of the ingredients; dip a fine, close linen cloth into boiling water, and place it in a hair-sieve; flour it a little, then pour in the batter and tie it up close; put it into a pot containing six quarts of boiling water; keep a tea-kettle of boiling water and fill up your pot as it wastes; be sure to keep it boiling, at least six hours—seven would not injure it.

“This pudding should be mixed an hour or too (sic) before it is put on to boil; it makes it taste richer.”

What would also make it taste richer is the addition of a fine brandy. In a brief survey of historic receipts it seems Southern cooks were much more freehanded with the liquor than their Yankee contemporaries. In this grand tradition the British still so saturate their puddings that they can be made a year or more in advance. Silver charms are stirred in for luck. Especially lucky for the person who finds them — and their dentist.

Before serving, the pudding is doused with yet more brandy and set alight. Carry in the pudding triumphant, blue flames dancing around it (though do be careful if you’ve decorated with a lot of greenery). Allow the flames to subside, then dig in.

Whether your pud be Prohibition or 100 proof, you will need some brandy butter to accompany it. A word of warning — you may find your holiday guests making late-night raids on your fridge for this. It’s irresistible, especially in wee hour spoonfuls straight from the saucer.

Brandy Butter

4 ounces softened unsalted butter

4 ounces powdered, caster or soft brown sugar

2 tablespoons brandy

Mix the butter and sugar and beat until soft. Add the brandy very slowly and mix it in. Cover and refrigerate. It will keep for about a week, though it won’t be around that long.  PS

Serena Kenyon Brown is an Anglo-Southern writer. Before her recent return to Blighty, she was senior editor at PineStraw magazine in Southern Pines.