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.


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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Quince

A quince is a beautiful fruit. If you walk near a quince tree you’ll probably catch the fragrant scent before you see the fruits hanging from the branches like golden globes.

quince tree

We have a quince tree near the pond that is particularly prolific this year, which may be because it’s a good year for quince or possibly because Bill no longer has a bonfire next to the tree, which means that this year the branches haven’t been scorched by the flames.

In many cultures the quince is a symbol of fertility and love though it’s not a fruit that you would offer to your true love without cooking it first. The  flesh of a raw quince is dry and unpalatable, its skin inedible and the fruit is so hard that if you tried to bite into it, you’d probably break a tooth. But a cooked quince is another matter.

The best time to pick the quince are when the first ones drop to the ground. Although those still on the tree may not quite be ripe, I find it better to pick them and bring them inside to ripen rather than leave them to grow brown and speckled on the tree or rot on the ground.

This week we’ve been eating quince and apple gently cooked to a lumpy puree (is there such a thing? You know what I mean – a puree with texture) with a dollop of yoghurt for breakfast;  pots of Quince Chutney sit on the pantry shelf and when I buy some more vinegar I shall make Spiced Quince, using the same recipe (give or take a few ingredients) that I use for Spiced Crab Apples.

poached quince

Mostly though I’ve been poaching quince. I make a large enough batch that we eat half and the rest is frozen, ready to bring out in the depths of winter. Should you have a quince or two to hand and fancy eating a dish of warm poached quinces, arm yourself with a sharp knife and a stout chopping surface and get to work.

In a large pan, dissolve 200 g of sugar in 1 litre of water and take off the heat. Wipe off the downy fluff from four large or six or so smaller quince and then peel and halve each quince, dropping the fruit into a bowl of water and the peel into your pan of syrup. You can core them but it’s hard work and once they’re cooked, it’s easy to eat around the core. Lay the halved quince on top of the peel, so that they’re covered with syrup and tuck in three bay leaves, a stick of cinnamon and four cloves or you could use star anise or vanilla pod … Bring this to a simmer, put on a close fitting lid and put in the oven at 150C for 1 ½ – 2 hours , prodding them with a knife to see if they’re done. Some days I leave them in the slow oven of the aga for three hours or more so that they turn a deep russet colour.

When they’re cooked to your liking, scoop the quince into a dish and discard the peel.Boil the remaining syrup to reduce and thicken it a little and pour over the quince.

We eat them warm or at room temperature. They’re good with a little cream and a finger of shortbread but they’d go just as well with ice-cream or slice them and eat as an accompaniment to roast pork instead of apple sauce.