Autumn is almost here and I’m holding the door wide open to usher it in.
This morning felt like autumn.
Mist shrouded the trees, the air smelt different and a gossamer of dew laden spiders’ webs hung from the gates and plants. Who can not be mesmerised by the beauty of the spiders’ webs and a little humbled by the intricate designs of the fine silk, which even the most talented lacemaker could never replicate?
Brilliant sunshine soon burnt off the mist and caught the rosehips as they stretch for the sky.
Lower down in the hedge, hawthorn berries jostle with deep purple blackberries and blue hued sloes. Wild pears and crab apples litter the ground just asking for someone to line them up along the footpath and call it ‘art’.
Much as I love summer, I’m ready for autumn, especially, warm sunny autumn days like this, rather than the torrential downpour that turned a Sunday afternoon stroll into a run for home.
I have a snapshot memory from my childhood of walking across a field on my way for a swim, with my swimsuit under my clothes and knickers rolled up in the towel, thinking about life and what it was all about. I can pinpoint the exact spot, just past the tin shed, as I wondered if we were merely like dolls and farmyard toys, being played with by some unseen hand and if there was more to life than being born, getting told what to do and then dying.
As we lurch from one set of arbitrary rules to another in this Covic-19 crisis, I get a fleeting reminder of that childhood impotence and crave a little control. Nothing major. Not world domination. It’s enough to gather up some fruit or vegetables, to fill the kitchen with the smell of boiling sugar or gently simmering vinegar and make a batch of jam or chutney. To carefully fill the jars and screw on the lids, label them and line them up on the shelf. A ritual that celebrates the late summer and autumnal abundance of the garden and hedgerows with nobody whispering Hands Face Space, Keep Your Distance, Cover Your Face, Stay Home, Eat Out or whatever the latest slogan may be.
I rarely make the same preserves on consecutive years because I often forget which recipe I used the previous year or there may still be a jar or two left on the shelf, so it seems pointless to make yet more. Also, there’s rarely an excess of the same things every year or I realise too late that everything is past its peak.
The quince tree, while not as burdened with fruit as it has been some years, is having a prolific year and we have an overabundance of quince. The knobbly fruit are pressed (from a suitable distance) into the hands of anyone who happens to call in along with boxes of walnuts, of which there are far too many for us this year, even when shared with the squirrels. We swap with friends: walnuts and quince for their surplus pumpkins and chillies, a jar of chutney for one of pickled onions.
The problem with quince is that they are inedible unless cooked, unlike an apple or plum that you can pick from the tree and pop straight into your mouth. A fruit for the cook. My quince repertoire doesn’t usually extend beyond poached quince, which we eat several days running with lemon ice-cream, Greek yoghurt or custard and, new for this year, Walnut Biscuits.
For the first time, I’ve also made Quince and Orange Marmalade. It’s funny how I can have a recipe book and use some recipes over and over again, yet completely ignore others. Then, I see something looking delicious in a magazine or on a blog and instantly want to make it, only to realise that I’ve had the recipe for years but, for whatever reason, have never been tempted. Quince and Orange Marmalade is one such recipe. The original recipe is in The Great British Farmhouse Cookbook, my copy of which is well used and food spattered, but I’ve never lingered on that page. Last week, the photos and descriptions on Fenland Lottie inspired me to find the original recipe and make it. It’s delicious and I wish I’d discovered it years ago. Annie has given a slightly shortened version of the recipe, so try it for yourself if you can get hold of some quince.
It only takes minutes to walk to the nearest shop, so I do all this preserving through choice, not necessity. It seems a little absurd and far-fetched to say it, but having a store of jewel coloured jams and wire clipped jars of chutney gives a feeling of permanence, of laying down stores for the future and being prepared. If nothing else, should there be another lockdown we’ll be able to dine on jam and slices of quince, which (obviously) we’ll eat with a runcible spoon.
Autumn is creeping in. The leaves on the trees are just beginning to change colour, the first hints of yellow and gold appearing as a prelude to the riot of russet, bronze and purple to follow. The hedgerows are filled with sloes, their beautiful blue blushed skins belying the astringent flesh within and the apples are at their juiciest best. The days are cooler and it feels like summer is finally over.
It’s time to pack away sandals and summer dresses; to pick the last blackberries and raspberries; to shelve this blog until I regain my enthusiasm for it; to make chutney; to make plans for adventures; to find a new knitting project; to take long walks in the autumn sunshine; to make the most of my favourite season.
There is a restlessness as the seasons shift and a need for change.
Autumn has arrived. The sun still shines but the days are cooler and the leaves on the trees and hedges are slowly turning colour. The bramble leaves are tinged with red, the field maples are turning yellow and the horse chestnut trees are almost bare, with a carpet of leaves on the ground underneath them.
Crab apples litter the footpaths.
On the farm, the crops are in the ground so Bill and Jack are making the most of the dry weather to do some hedge cutting, though the Old Man’s Beard still manages to thread its way through the branches. They start to cut the hedges in September, once the nesting birds have flown, working around the farm so that most hedges are trimmed every two or three years. Over the years, they’ve had to adapt as they accommodate Beth’s fruit gin business, which means the hedges laden with blackberries are left until after Old Michaelmas Day (on October 10th) to give her a chance to pick as much fruit as possible and the blackthorn hedges are carefully managed to ensure there are enough sloes each year to make Sloe Gin.
In the garden orchard, the Discovery apples are past their best. We picked the last of them at the weekend, but they’re decidedly woolly inside now and the juicy call of the crisp and juicy Sunset, Cox and Blenheim Orange is too much to resist.
By the pond, the quince have started to drop from the tree so I gather them up and bring them inside where they sit perfuming the kitchen until I get around to dealing with them. At first glance, quince seem an unpromising fruit; they’re hard, astringent and definitely not a fruit to eat raw. But, peel them and poach for a few hours in a simple syrup (1 cup of sugar to 1 litre of water) flavoured with a vanilla pod and bay leaf or perhaps some lemon peel or cinnamon stick and the quince soften and the fruits turn a delicious coral colour. Keep the syrup to poach your next batch of quince or reduce it down to make a sweet, thick syrup to pour over your quince or trickle over ice-cream.
Last weekend we cleared The Barley Barn, made up gallons of apple punch, set up some barrels of beer and held a ceilidh with friends, family and farming neighbours ranging from babes in arms to octogenarians. The word ceilidh comes from the Gaelic for gathering or party so it seemed fitting to way to celebrate the end of summer, a good harvest, the new farming year and the start of autumn.
There may be various ways of working out the start of autumn, whether you use the Met Office or astronomical dates or veer towards phenology, guided by the changes in the natural world such as the colouring of leaves and ripening of acorns, but sometimes it’s more personal. Here’s five ways I know that autumn is here.
ONE The countryside is changing colour. From the brown fields where the ground has been cultivated ready for sowing the new wheat crop to the leaves on the trees that are slowly turning yellow, brown and orange.
TWO I feel drawn to wearing browns and purples. This happens every autumn as catalogues drop unbidden through the letter box featuring leggy models photographed in misty orchards wearing felt hats, tweed trousers and brogues. I resist the urge to emulate them as (a) brown and purple don’t particularly suit me and (b) my legs are at least 30 centimetres too short to carry off the look without appearing to be in fancy dress for a war-time drama.
THREE I start knitting. I thought it would be good to knit a neck warmer using the wool that I dyed with plants gathered from around the garden and farm. A sort of knitted story rather like the printed book I made in the spring. It would have been better if I’d worked out how long to make it rather than just cast on stitches until I got fed up (it winds around my neck three times and there’s still a lot of slack). Having decided to knit in the round, it would also have been better if I’d untwisted at Row 3 when I realised my error instead of thinking it wouldn’t matter. Actually, by the time it’s wound around and around, it doesn’t show. Not too much anyway. And yes, it does appear to contain brown and purple.
FOUR The Autumn Menu for The Dinner Party Collective is published. There are recipes for Vegetable Dips, Boeuf Bourguignon and Blackberry Tart together with suggestions for wines to accompany them. Just the thing for evenings around the table with friends. Nothing pretentious or fussy, just good autumn food.
FIVE The kitchen reeks of vinegar or sugary fruit as saucepans filled with chutneys and jams boil away on the cooker. I know that I do not need to lay in stores for the winter like the squirrels that I watch pilfering our walnuts from the tree. For goodness sake, I live half a mile from a supermarket that’s open twenty-four hours a day. But there seems to be some sort of primitive urge to stock the pantry shelves for the winter and anyway, I always plant more tomatoes than we can eat fresh and I cannot bear to see the fruit fall from the trees to lie rotting on the ground. And I can’t walk past blackberry bushes day after day without stopping to pick a few to drop into an apple crumble. And a few to make jam. And a whole lot more for Blackberry Gin. And blackberry chutney. And blackberry leather …
How do you know that Autumn has arrived? Or maybe you don’t notice or even care. Do tell.