A Rhubarb-Season Reminiscence — My Lunch With Miriam Rothschild

Over a spring lunch complete with fine wine, the author tells her illustrious hostess plucked from the garden.

It was when we operated a back country farm on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia that I’d read an article about Miriam Rothschild’s interest in Israeli wildflowers. She grew them in her greenhouses and gardens and had even won a blue ribbon at the Chelsea Flower Show for her “Jewish” lupines, a striking Israeli blue and white flower similar to Texas bluebonnet. I, too, although not a Chelsea winner, had successfully grown this plant, mountain lupine (Lupinus pilosus). I was elated to think there was someone else in the Western world who shared my love of Israel’s varied native flora. Since I planned to be in London in March to meet a group of British volunteers to work in the Jerusalem Botanical Garden, I wondered if it was just possible that I could talk with her about our shared interest.

It’s a good thing I didn’t look into Miriam Rothschild’s background, because I might not have written her. I knew she was famous, but had only a vague idea why. She belonged to the Rothschild banking dynasty, of course, had something to do with butterflies, and had re-introduced British wildflowers of Chaucer’s day back into the landscape where they had been displaced by farming and construction.

What I didn’t know was that Miriam Rothschild was also among the most celebrated entomologists of the last century for her original research into the behavior of fleas and butterflies. (Her father, Charles, had discovered the flea that carried Bubonic plague.) One of the key findings in her butterfly research was that insects eat substances that are poisonous to their predators. She determined that butterflies’ bright colors were warning signals of their toxicity.

Without any formal education until she was seventeen, she went on to write highly regarded books and scientific papers that combined hard science with charm, wit and an obvious passion for her subject, a hallmark of the Rothschilds whatever they pursued, from banking to breeding rhododendrons. Miriam Rothschild was awarded honorary degrees from, among other places, Oxford (1968), Northwestern (1986), and Cambridge (1999). In 1985 she was made a Fellow of the Royal Society for having made many distinguished advances in scientific knowledge.

I was struck by the desire to meet this impressive woman, not for her scientific knowledge (about which I knew virtually nothing then), but because of our shared interest, even passion, for Israeli flora.

Through the gardening network I got her address at Ashton Wold, her estate two hours north of London. In my letter, dated January 12, 1998, I presented my credentials as the author of several gardening books, who shared her enthusiasm for Israeli wildflowers, which I wrote and lectured about. I said that I planned to write a book on biblical flora and the Bible (“Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants” was published last May). “It would be a great help to me, I added, “to be able to discuss these plants with you when I am in London on my way to Israel.”

I walked down our half-mile dirt lane, now covered with snow and ice, to place my letter in our rural mailbox. Two weeks later when I went to retrieve the day’s mail, I was overjoyed to see a thin blue airmail envelope with “Hon. Miriam Rothschild/Ashton Wold/Peterborough” stamped on the back (in 2000 she was given the title “Dame”). When I got to read the contents — on simple creamy stationery with her name on it — I was thrilled. She wrote that she would be delighted to see me and hoped I would “come to lunch.”

When I got to London, I called Miriam from a public phone booth in Trafalgar Square to arrange the date. She told me that if I took the train to near Ashton Wold, she would send a car to pick me up. That sounded very romantic, straight out of a British novel. But when the group with whom I had been in touch to arrange my trip to Israel — Friends of the Jerusalem Botanical Gardens — learned that Miriam Rothschild had invited me to lunch, there was no problem getting a ride. Country mouse was certainly getting around.

Everything about that spring day was magical. My companion from the Friends group and I drove through Ashton Wold, a quaint village of thatched-roof cottages, then followed the unpretentious sign to the estate. The road gradually narrowed, turning into a dirt farm track, surrounded on both sides by huge shade trees. Suddenly there it was: a large, well-proportioned stone house that gave the impression of antiquity although it had been built at the turn of the 19th century. It was surrounded by naturalized wildflowers and spreading daffodils, and there in the doorway to greet us was Miriam Rothschild herself, sitting in her wheelchair framed by rose and wisteria-covered archway.

We retired to a spacious study lined with books and nearly floor to ceiling uncluttered windows that looked directly onto to a carpet of daffodils, anemones and violets. There was no sign anywhere of modern life. A discreet staff behind the scenes, however, kept things smoothly rolling along. I had glimpsed someone outside weeding.

We talked about wildflowers, of course, those she had brought back from near extinction in England and those she loved to see in Israel’s brief spring, which was why my own visits always coincided with this time of year. “Anyone who has seen the wildflowers in spring in the Judean hills must be impressed by the extraordinary richness of the flora,” she commented — a woman after my own heart. “Be sure and have someone take you to a large rock off the road where I counted over one hundred species within sight!”

The large sliding doors silently opened and a woman announced, “Luncheon is served.”

As in a dream, my companion and I, with Miriam leading the way, entered the dining room. As you might expect, the table was set with gleaming silver and grouped wine bottles. What you wouldn’t expect, unless you knew Miriam Rothschild, were the wooden boxes filled with the three native British species of primrose (they would be planted out later), set on sills of the tall windows that looked out to the wildflowers. Miriam must have planned it this way: a scene of flowering plants from every window.

In truth, the meal was not memorable. Miriam, presiding at the head of the table, with my companion and I on either side, served us some sort of egg dish, then directed us to serve ourselves from chafing dishes at the sideboard: chicken, potatoes, carrots, broccoli, cooked bananas, a dessert of applesauce and ice cream. Standard British fare.

The star of the luncheon was the wine.

Miriam asked us which we would like, red or white?

My companion froze. Quiet up to now, evidently awed in such august company (Miriam’s, not mine), she was unable to speak at all. We noted the labels, “From the Baron de Rothschild’s Vineyard.”

I, the wine connoisseur, replied “White, please.” Ho-hum, happens every day. Miriam herself pulled the cork and poured.

We did drink wine on the farm, but only what we ourselves made, a far cry from what is produced at Chateau Lafite Rothschild, a winery originally purchased by the Baron James in 1868. Baron Nathaniel probably started it all when he bought Chateau Mouton, later Mouton Rothschild, in 1853. These wines are not only very expensive, they are regarded as among the finest in the world. One of Baron James’s sons, Edmund, established the Carmel winery in Israel in 1882.

I told Miriam that we, too, made wines, not from grapes but from whatever fruits, flowers or vegetables were in season. She seemed interested and asked me what these were, although growing up in the country she must have been aware of the humble ways of the countryside. Although a great scientist (she would say naturalist), she always had her feet on the ground.

I described how we picked the flowers of dandelions in late spring, pulled the stalks of rhubarb in early summer, harvested clusters of black currants in mid-summer, and beet roots in late summer and fall, and turned each in turn into wine. Of these, rhubarb, a rich full-bodied white when made from the early harvest, was our favorite. We usually pull fifty pounds a season to make 10 gallons of wine and let it age for a year or two. I didn’t tell her that we make it in a plastic garbage can and age the bottles, not in a wine cellar, but in our back-of-the-kitchen pantry.

We adjourned to the study. More talk of wildflowers, the way they are grown like hay at Ashton Wold, harvested for seed (she designed the machine for this work), packaged under the name “Farmer’s nightmare,” and sold and distributed across the country. She brought out her highly prized nun’s pressed flower book of Holy Land flora with wooden covers from the 1890s. The flowers were arranged in bouquets of meticulous design, some featuring the cross. I had similar books, though not as fine, in my own collection.

We had spent three hours at Ashton Wold and Miriam urged us to stay longer. While we walked around the garden just beyond the door, she whizzed off in her electric wheelchair and brought back two copies for us of one of her books, “The Rothschild Gardens,” then bade us adieu in the flower-covered archway. I was tempted to take a photo just to show where I’d been, but I didn’t want to break the spell.

In January 2005, seven years after our first exchange of letters, Dame Miriam Rothschild died at Ashton Wold, the place she loved and where she spent most of her life.

If you would like to try making the country wine I described to Miriam Rothschild over lunch, you’ll first have to locate a supply of rhubarb, an old-fashioned fruit, really a vegetable, once common in the countryside in old gardens and farms. Through the month of June, you’ll find it in farmer’s markets. In the city, it’s available through July from green markets. Check this site.

If you have your own patch, you’re all set. Be sure to pull, rather than cut, stalks, and trim them at both ends.

Get my recipe for country rhubarb wine here.

Jo Ann Gardner lives in the Adirondacks where she and her husband maintain a small farm with extensive gardens. Her latest book is “Seeds of Transcendence: Understanding the Hebrew Bible Through Plants.” She can be reached via her website www.joanngardnerbooks.com

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