Preserving Autumn

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.

trug filled with autumn fruit

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.

quince

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.

quince poached in syrup

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.

Quince and Orange Marmalade

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.


conker

A Seasonal Change

sloes growing in hedge

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 leaves

Autumn

swing under the horse chestnut tree with autumn leaves

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 on footpath

Crab apples litter the footpaths.

Old Man's Beard

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.

sunset apples and quince

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.

quince poached in syrup

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.

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autumn oak leaves

early autumn

Autumn is here. Hurrah.

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.

Lt Forest field early atumn

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.

Neck warmer

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.

 


paddock in late summer

dyeing days of summer

When does summer turn to autumn? The Met Office defines each season in a neat three month block, so according to them, autumn started on 1st September and lasts until 30th November while for astronomers the start of autumn is marked by the autumnal equinox, which falls on 23rd September this year.

Of course, summer doesn’t just end one day but gradually peters out. The days get shorter and instead of waltzing around all day in shirt sleeves we need a jumper first thing in the morning and in the evening.

hawthorn berries

On the farm the hedgerows are full of colour as autumn creeps in. The red hawthorn berries and orange rosehips grow alongside sloes that have already turned a dusky blue colour, even if they aren’t quite ripe yet and the blackberries are ripening fast so that there are now more deep purple berries than green ones.

 

Once I’ve helped Beth pick all the fruit and flowers that she needs to use in Slamseys Gin, my thoughts turn to the different ways I can use those that remain. Normally, this means making jars of jam or chutneys and baking cakes like these blackberry fudgy fingers but this summer I’ve also been throwing the flowers and berries in the dye pot. Since my initial foray into natural dyeing, when everything I dyed was beige, I’ve read a couple of books, ignored some of the more outrageous claims on the internet and had another go at dyeing over the summer.

wool natural dye colours

I’ve discovered that using plants to dye wool a beige colour is simple and if that’s the colour I need then it’s far easier to chop up a few bramble branches than dig up tiny roots from hard ground. It’s good to know that there’s a use for the feverfew plants when I cut them down (other than throwing them all on the compost heap) and for the seed heads of the docks that proliferate in the rough ground near the pond. If you’ve ever handled green walnut husks, with resulting brown stained fingers, you won’t be surprised that they dye a deep brown colour. I’ve also learnt that natural dyeing with plants is a little addictive.

As summer turns to autumn, I’m looking forward to trying out some new things to use such as ivy berries and elder berries and when I divide the rhubarb in the garden I suspect some of the roots may find their way into the dye pot. If this current craze lasts, who knows, there may be some new plants in the garden.