On a long weekend in May, the weekend when we celebrated Mother’s Day, I dragged a friend all the way to the Netherlands to visit a garden. It was to be found in the city of Dordrecht, on a strip of land where a water tower used to rise above the Biesbosch wetlands. We quickly found it – who would miss a tower? – after just a little bit of an hour’s drive from Brussels.
For a long time, the water tower was completely forgotten until a group of artists friends, who were already running the New York Hotel in Rotterdam, saw a picture of it taken in the thirties. The aerial view made the water tower looked like a castle, surrounded by a “moat” of water basins and clarification ponds, standing tall and isolated along the Wantij river. To get there, one had to cross a bridge. The 33 meter tower was built in 1882, designed by then the director of Public Works, J.A. van der Kloes, whose building is considered a national monument today. There were several floors in this squarish building: clean water basements, pumping machines on the ground floor, apartments for the operators on the upper floors, the reservoirs and the octagonal towers, one of which was actually a chimney.
The artists friends fell in love with this neglected piece of architecture, though the initial idea was to create an urban vegetable garden and fruit orchard, implementing old pruning techniques. The tower became a hotel, the water basins were covered with earth, equivalent to two football fields, coming from a nearby cabbage plantation and the adjoining pumping station was converted into a restaurant and market. Welcome to Villa Augustus.
We entered the complex on a dirt road that was constructed in 1909, leading to a quay for small boats that takes visitors on river cruises organized by the Villa. We walked through a small gate and found ourselves beside a rectangular pond, an Italian garden and the entrance of the tower hotel.
And since we were there on a “day tour” and were not Sleeping Beauties in a tower, we passed through the reception and walked out to the garden. In early spring, it didn’t look robust or lush, nor teeming with fruits and vegetables ready for picking. Rather, it looked like a post-winter garden where tiny sprouts of potatoes, beans, salads, herbs poked above rows and rows of fresh mounds of earth. At least, there was a profusion of flowers.
We crossed the garden to reach the old water pumping station, transformed into a huge restaurant with recycled furniture, a stone pizza oven, open kitchens, and a shop. The sun was out, the terrace was welcoming, lightweight clothes have finally come out of the closets. But we were tropical girls and wearing no sweaters, the chill drove us inside the restaurant for an early lunch. Everything on the menu looked inviting: fried lamb and asparagus, white bean and garlic soup, north sea crab on ice, lobsters, and a one-choice pizza of spinach, anchovies and egg. I was tempted with the fried goose breast with rhubarb mustard, borlotti bean gratin, kohl rabi and leeks, giving the order to the head waitress who seemed to have woken up at the wrong side of the bed on a Sunday morning. Fortunately, a young charming young man, wearing a blue marine tee like the rest of his colleagues, took over, except that he decided to take a break, and forgot to give our orders to the chef.
Our plates finally came after almost an hour, when my patience had ran out and failed to restrain signs of bitchiness despite an apology and an offer of a free coffee, only to find my goose breast a bit hard, the gratin tasteless, and all these sat on a bed of dying salad rockets. My friend got a so-so steak with blanched zucchinis, again, on a bed of rockets that were halfway in the compost bin. Where are the vegetables of this vegetable garden? Fortunately, the cod croquettes were delicious, with more fish meat than potatoes. But…they were also lying on a bed of near-death rockets.
The view from we were sitting was a rhubarb patch. The crimson stalks looked bright amid large foliage that resemble tobacco leaves. My husband told me stories of how as a child, he and his brothers tried to roll rhubarb leaves and lighted it to pretend as if they were all grown up and smoking or when they dipped the sour stems on sugar and suck them the way tropical children would do with a sugarcane. The rhubarb cigarettes never puffed smoke and the sour stems gave them mouth ulcers, teaching them early in life, that cigarettes and sugar don’t come from the same plant.
Since I moved to Europe, rhubarb has become my favourite fruit. I’m not sure I can say that because, technically, a rhubarb is not a fruit. Though mostly used for desserts nowadays, the rhubarb is considered a vegetable. I love it so much, its tartness, that I planted many of it in my garden and when one of them flowered last year, I harvested a boxful of seeds (at the expense of losing stems). Every year, I find a new corner in my garden to plant them, short of creating a rhubarb plantation that will most likely evolve one day into a rhubarb city jungle. Rhubarbs need to “hibernate” and are impossible to grow in hot countries, except perhaps, if they were planted in high altitudes where cool weather would allow them to survive. Rhubarbs are the first plant to be harvested in the year. They grow all summer, lose leaves in autumn and totally disappear in winter until a red shaft-like protusion peeks around April to herald spring. I make a hundred jams or freeze them for crumbles and cakes.
So, while we refused the free coffee offered by a distracted waiter, I ordered Villa Augustus‘ rhubarb ice cream. It came in a water glass, had a light pink colour and looked tempting enough to end a disappointing meal. No matter how red the stems are, the final colour of a cooked rhubarb will be green. I get green rhubarb jams from my red rhubarb plant. A pink rhubarb ice cream is, therefore, dubious.
In between scoops, my thoughts stray to my latest employment adventure. For a long time, I thought the kitchen and I were no longer friends but one day, I got a job offer to work in an ice cream shop. The owner convinced me I was the best person for the job and sold the idea so nicely that I completely forgot how hard kitchen work is except that it was not that, that put me off the freezer trail. I just discovered in time the true colours of my new bosses. I thought they were soft and pink but they were, in fact, green with horns. I was disappointed with their work ethics, the pitiless long hours, the harsh absence of communication. One day, the boss gave me a lashing because I wanted to go home after 10 hours of work, following a ten-day straight duty. And he cut me off when I tried to explain. The next day, the day of the opening, I resigned. That was the shortest job term I’ve ever had. And though the ice cream was really good, I would rather spend my money on Ben and Jerry who want to change the world with their ice cream.
A disappointing job in an ice cream shop. A dubious ice cream in a Dutch garden.
The ice cream was fine but our visit to Villa Augustus was not entirely for food. I think the place is magical and once you enter the shop behind the restaurant, where the cakes are baked everyday and some irresistible bric-a-bracs are sold, the memory of a mediocre meal fades away. I’m not saying the food was bad. I’m just saying that the food we had that day was far from good.
The market saved our day. Heavy chains, cement walls, an iron staircase, old tiles, and the large windows of the old pumping station built in 1942, create a charming and inviting venue that houses a book corner, an air-conditioned vegetable room, a bakery, a large common table where one can have coffee or wine, and plenty of shelves displaying books, chinaware, kitchen gadgets, notebooks, aprons, garden tools.
I was obviously attracted to the Bakery. Freshly-baked sourdough bread, meringue pies, cheesecakes, apple cakes, cookies. Alas, after that lunch, we didn’t have room for a cake and unfortunately, didn’t have time to wait for high afternoon tea.
Instead, we took home some baked goodies, buying freshly-baked bread, slices of chocolate cheesecake and the last three scones available at the counter. And I must say, they were one of the best scones I’ve ever had.
On the way out to the quay, we passed greenhouses for tomatoes and grapes, hotel rooms that step right into the garden, and private nooks among the trees and bushes. There were no cruises that day and we were content to watch the lazy Sunday traffic of the small harbour. Modern buildings have risen on the other side of the river but if you rent the room on top of the water tower, they promise a view of the crisscrossing rivers and you will probably understand why the play of water and light have attracted so many travellers, artists and painters to these shores, most likely in the same depth felt by the new owners of the “weeping tower” of Dordrecht. But next time, I will skip lunch and come for tea and cakes instead!