“Light candles, gather shrubbery, do it, do it now,” was Signe Johansen’s advice the other day: small rituals against dark days. Advice is like plastic: there is just too much of it, and I am like plastic in the face of most advice – stubborn and impermeable. But this advice came at just the right moment, so I took it. Also because I needed bay leaves (which come from bay trees, I know, but which can also be shrubs. Or are they a plant that cannot decide if it is a tree or a shrub? A trub? In which case, I needed trubbery.)
One day, I hope to have a garden with mounds of herbs, a tree I can climb and a folly. But, until I do, I gather shubbery, trubbery and herbs, in small quantities, from the scraggy fringes of Monte Testaccio, once an ancient rubbish dump and now Rome’s wildest hill. Bay – alloro in Italian – is a particularly satisfying leaf to collect; it requires a decisive tug, which releases its eucalyptus and tea scent that then fills your pockets as you walk home. My Greek neighbour in London used to dry them on a newspaper in her small front porch, some still on their branches, others laid out like a game of patience, and I would watch them turn from glossy green to muted moss. She was also the person who first explained to me that bay, like oregano, comes into its own when dried, its scent developing a spicy and peppery side, the green bitterness becoming sweeter. After 10 days of drying, bay is at the height of its powers, apparently. Although it will hang on to its fragrance for up to a year in a jar, ready to share its flavour with soups, sauces and stews.