Sugar and spice

We almost had a frost last night. I woke, snug under the covers, to the sound of the tea tray at the bedroom door and the news that I’d slept until nine. Nine? Surely not. But when I drew back the curtains and saw the fog I knew why the sun hadn’t woken me.

It was in the fog that we finally picked the pears: Ilse, Seb and I. It’s only a gnarled little tree but it yielded several pounds and Seb spent the morning helping me peel and stud the halves with cloves before pickling some and bottling the rest in sweet spiced cider. By lunchtime they were just about done, as was the soup that we’d set bubbling on the warm plate of the aga, and the kitchen was full of the smells of our preserving as well as the garlicky lentils and bacon of our lunch. For afters the children took an apple each, picked from Father’s allotment only the day before when we’d helped him bring the end of his harvest in.

That’s what this week’s holiday has been all about. The Bramleys have finally been picked and wrapped and laid neatly in wooden market-traders’ trays. The remnants of the summer cabbages have been jarred. Those almost-forgotten red tomatoes have made splendid lunchtime treats, and the green used up in chutneys. The fennel, still too small to harvest, is safe under a cold frame. Only the leeks stand in the beds, and the swedes and purple sprouting brocolli, savoys and Jerusalem artichokes. Parsnips grow steadily on, waiting for that first frost to bring their sugars out. It can come now, and blacken the lingering nasturtiums and courgettes.

In the kitchen there’s a bowl of dried fruit soaking in brandy. Tomorrow we make the Christmas cake and pudding, and heady apple mincemeat. The season is shifting from early to late autumn, looking ahead to the winter. Until today we put up what was in the garden: tomorrow we bake with more exotic ingredients. Lemons and oranges all the way from Africa nestle in the fruit bowl with apples from only down the road. There’s an extra bag of sugar on the shelf to turn their empty rinds into a marmaladish jelly. I popped a glacé cherry into each of the children’s mouths and watched their faces as they recognised the sweetness. The larder shelves are very nearly full with the work of another year, indoors and out. This is the sort of cooking that looks as far ahead as our gardening plans do: into the weeks and months before us. I know how much we’ll enjoy these bright jewelled jars of spicy goodness and the flavours they’ll bring to the winter table.

For now, though, at the end of another long day in the kitchen, the sitting room fire beckons. That, and a glass of rhubarb gin, bottled in the long-ago spring. You see, we knew then that we’d be glad of it now, and so we are. Who wouldn’t be? Because sugar, spice and all things nice are what the things in the larder are made of. Mmm.

Big softie

Ben’s jumper is finished, and I’m sure it’s the softest thing I’ve ever knitted. What with all the alpaca spun into the wool, and the thick lofty yarn, and the depth of the cables and ribbing down the front, it is the kind of squishy, silky, snuggly pullover everyone ought to have. I think I need to add five more to my list of things to make.

Beyond his admiration for the cleverness of cabling, Ben has never shown much  interest in knitting. I taught him to make a wobbly and very holy scarf for his favourite teddy when he was little, just as I have all the others, but that was his first and last attempt. Like me, he loves to make things; unlike me he does not like to make them out of wool. But it’s astonishing how the fact that a jumper is for you makes the process so much more interesting. I can’t think how many items I must have blocked over his lifetime, and yet when he came in from Mother’s on Saturday and saw his jumper drying on an old towel he really wanted to know about the process, and what it does to the stitches, and why it matters so.

Everybody else, on entering the dining room, made the same announcement: it’s huge! Well, so is he – in height at least. It fits. But he’s a very gentle giant. He gives good gangly hugs, bending from the knee to make up for the fact that he’s at least eight inches taller than me. He’ll happily spend a day helping his granny pick and wrap her apples, or carry chairs from the top of their house down four flights to the kitchen. A day spent helping Father file or type is a day well spent, in his eyes. I find it hard, sometimes, to equate this tall young man with the solemn chubby baby in the photos, until I remember that even as a toddler he was generous with his chocolate.

It’s been such a pleasure, knitting for my biggest child. He hasn’t wanted anything more than hats for several years but now, at eighteen, he has come to his senses once more. What could be nicer than a mum-made jumper to keep you warm while you study? Pardon, Ben? Spending the night with your granny and grandad? Walks in the woods with your father and Ada? Teaching the little ones to build the best dens? Sitting round a campfire with your pals? Oh, alright then. But you can wear your new jumper while you do all of those things.

At the shops

I’m getting used to being called Madam around the house, these days. Sadly I don’t have a butler, or even a new hair dresser. It’s just that shops is the game of the moment, and we are all customers whether we like it or not.

It goes something like this: I reach for the tin of custard or bottle of HP sauce only to grope around where I’m certain I last saw it. There’s a trundling in the hall, and Ilse appears with perambulator, baby and bags. Ilse, I begin, have you got the…?

She beams. Good morning, Madam. I’ll just open up the shop. I’m sorry I’m late; my baby took forever to eat her porridge this morning. She abandons said infant in the street while she serves me with food from my own larder. Good day, Madam. I hope we’ll see you again soon.

No doubt she will, and I must admit it is a lot more fun than simply reaching things down off the shelves. We all play along – even Ben, when he realises he needs to buy back his Oxford geometry set, and Fliss, when she finds her hair slides missing. Even John, who is accosted as soon as he walks in the door from work, succumbs to the shopkeeper’s charms. And sometimes, to Ilse’s intense delight, there is a second shopkeeper to help around the place and take turns in playing each role.

What is it that appeals so universally about playing at games like shops? I don’t remember enjoying trailing round behind my mother as she ticked things off her list. I’ve certainly never wanted to open a shop of my own – a cafe, perhaps, but not a shop. And yet I loved playing shops so much and for so long that our Irish grandmother used to keep all her empty packets for Meg and I to play with when we visited. She’d take us over to the little barn we were allowed to play in and roll back the big black metal door and there they would all be: empty packets Coleman’s Mustard and Bisto. Bottles which once held lemonade or something mysterious called milk of magnesia, the dregs of which smelled nothing like milk and came in pretty blue glass. There’d be old furniture and crates to move around, and a couple of wicker baskets coming apart at the top, and bits of newspaper to wrap things in.

In this house it’s the kitchen scales which go missing first, followed by the baskets and items from the larder. On sale today are an assortment of conkers and pine cones, and windfall apples from the garden. There’s the book I know Fliss is reading and John’s spectacles and most of the packet goods from the larder. The shopkeeper weighs the HP sauce, in its bottle, before placing it in my basket. That’ll be three and six, please, she says. Everything costs three and six. I count imaginary coins from an imaginary purse, which she deposits in her imaginary till. I pocket John’s spectacles for safekeeping and spot several of the items I’ll be needing to make supper. It looks as though I’ll be coming back to the shops quite soon. Ah well, it’s a good thing that it’s just as much fun as ever.

Offshore

Everything ends. Some things feel as though they never will, although you wish they would. They drag their feet like children carrying a bad report towards home and reprimand. Others end all too soon: good books, an evening at the pictures, time with the people we love. It doesn’t seem to matter how long a good thing lasts – whether the summer holiday is two weeks or six – end it must, and it doesn’t hurt any the less for being longer.

I love the way we’ve ended our last two summers: in Northumberland, in a couple of tents, spending all of every day together. This year we visited Cragside, the wonderfully eccentric home of hydroelectricity, where frightfully English arts and crafts meet outrageous Italian marble and steamy Turkish baths lurk in the foundations. It drizzled the whole time we were there, but we didn’t mind. We took our time around the house and found a tremendous pine to picnic under in the arboretum. We had afternoon tea and cakes in the snug gatehouse teashop, and motored right around the estate on our way back to the campsite. It was on this final drive that we saw a deer, just for a moment, on the road in front of us, before she turned to face us and was gone. That was a day which ended all too soon.

Our campsite was feted for its wildlife: a river cut it off from the field across the way and the whole area was surrounded by trees. It is in these that the owls must live, and from these that they must hunt and hoot the whole night through. We kept our eyes peeled for foxes, which we see sometimes at home, but also badgers, which we don’t. Sadly they were either sheltering from the rain or else their black and white kept them safely hidden in the shadows streaked with moonlight. Even though we didn’t see them, I liked knowing they were there. There’s something comforting about animals nearby, where they should be, not chased away to the shrinking wildernesses of our little island.

It’s easy to forget that we Britons live on an island. In York the sea is almost equidistant in either direction, and feels so far away, but the truth is that we could drive from coast to coast in one day in the motor. Had I my way, and John’s job was not with Rowntrees, we would live by the sea, and I would have a boat of my own, and sail when the weather was fair. Sailing fast in a dinghy is just how I imagine flying to be: catching the wind, responding to it with a little adjustment here and there, moving just as the crow flies upon a fluid and unmarked highway. It’s been years since I’ve had that thrill.

I was quite ready to content myself with another boat trip, though: out to the Farnes, where the birds and seals are protected from day trippers and their casual interference. We mean well, but too many footfalls might damage a puffin’s burrow, or frighten away the terns. By the time we went, at the end of August, the birds had long since flown to sea, abandoning their summer breeding grounds to the ravages of winter. They’ll be elsewhere, riding the wind and the waves, unconcerned about offshore breezes on the rocks. We weren’t, though. August, and there we were in woolly hats and jackets with the collars pulled up high against the spray. I doubt the children noticed: they only had eyes for the seals on the rocks and in and out of the water, playful as pups, disappearing and emerging somewhere entirely unexpected. Two miles offshore and we could have been on a different planet, so far removed were we from the piers and paths and crab selling huts of Seahouses. Here and there a building braved the sea: Grace Darling’s lighthouse, a ruined church, and cottage or two for the wildlife wardens. I could almost fancy living there: spending March to December in a little white stone cottage on the edge of a rock in the cold grey sea.

Coming south to York, and being met by that glorious September, our time in Northumberland felt odd and other-worldly. It was autumn there so soon, and it was wild, and wonderfully free. Our little city feels so tame and familiar by comparison. But when last week the cold began to bite, and the sky shifted from blue to grey, it was of Northumberland I thought, and those grey seals on the rocks, and the end of our summer holidays. An end spent somewhere other, arrestingly wild and offshore.

Oh, October

Every time I look outside the garden is a little more bedraggled. There are weeds left over from when it was still warm enough for them to grow. The grass is overlong and permanently damp. Some trees have shed their leaves; others will cling on for another month or so. The pots of herbs are twiggily bare; already a brown dirt path is being worn to the compost heap.

I haven’t seen as much of this October as I would like. Between one thing and another – a nasty cold, last minute sewing, trips to visit friends – it is already half gone before I realised it was here. Suddenly the house is too cold if left unheated in the evenings. There is condensation on the bedroom window panes. Slippers have appeared, and hot water bottles, and hats and gloves and snoods. Oh, I think. October. And then the sun shines and midday is warm and the washing blows dry on the line and I catch sight of the hens bathing in the dust and the blowsy autumn roses clinging onto skeletal shrubs and – oh October!

It’s a funny, inbetweenish sort of month. The sort I never really notice: it bears neither the grief of September nor the dread of November nor even the headlong rush of December towards Christmas and year’s end. It’s just simple, quiet October, calm and unassuming. Slowly, the green is fading and the nights are drawing in. There is a gradual lessening of noise and outdoor life. Yet a walk to the shops can still be taken in a jumper. The beetroot and fennel grow on, quietly, in the beds. Caterpillar season is over and the Brussels sprouts are swelling on their stems. The sturdy leeks grow fatter.

The robin is back on the garden bench, cocking his head at me. Birds of prey circle over hedgerows. The geese have not yet all flown south. It’s only October still, mild and gentle, waiting for me just a little longer.

Two steps back

Never mind two steps forward, one step back – I seem to be moving in the opposite direction. My autumn plans seemed entirely reasonable at September’s start, but here I am, faced with a list which keeps growing rather than shrinking as the weeks flip by. Two weeks before half term and I’ve made half a jumper, one dress with bunny pockets and some wobbly wool on my wheel. That leaves two school dresses and a long-legged romper for Ilse, a new skirt for myself and another which needs relining, two eiderdowns which need covering again to keep the stuffing in and a blouse for myself which may or may not happen. What I want to sew is Ilse’s quilt, the pieces for which are all cut out, a Liberty fabric soft case for my flute, and tiny crumb quilt covers for Christmas present notebooks. But I’ve forbidden myself all of that until the other sewing is done, which is why I’m spending so much time knitting instead.

I took Ben’s jumper with me to the ballet studio on Saturday while I was waiting for Ilse to finish her lesson, and was pleased with the progress I’d made until I got home and spread it out and realised that I’d held a cable needle to the front and not the back five inches ago. Oh well, at least it’s chunky wool. And at least I know myself well enough to rip it out at once, lest it become a reproach, sulking in my basket. By lunchtime my funny feeling head had given way to a sore throat and nose full of sneezes, so I spent the afternoon strategically resting by the fire in the hopes of heading it off at the pass. No such luck: I woke up on Sunday to a full head cold and a list as long as I had left it.

Sometimes there is nothing for it but to grit one’s teeth and get stuck in. I retrieved the cut out pieces of Ilse’s grey school dresses from where I’d hidden them from myself and got to work, determined to complete the bodices at least. It only took me until the stay stitching to realise that I’d cut the back bodice wrongly: as a whole, instead of two half bits to button together. Thankfully there was just enough left over to cut it out again, and doctor the pieces I had. And thankfully Mrs P was here and chose that moment to appear with a pot of tea for two, emergency buttered scones and some well chosen words of advice. Thus bolstered I sewed on long beyond my goal of two neat bodices, making puffed sleeves with gathered cuffs, little button holes all down the back, understitched linings and pleated skirts until suddenly, nearly four hours later, I had two fully lined wool dresses, all finished bar the handsewn hems and buttons I have yet to buy in town. And when Ilse tried them on they even, miraculously, fitted.

Perhaps that counts as two steps forward – or one, at the very least? Yes, it rained off and on again all day yesterday so that the apples are still on the tree. Yes, there are still trays of winter seedlings waiting on the kitchen windowsill, hoping to be planted out. Yes, it’s getting colder and I don’t have a single decent skirt to wear. But those two dresses which were holding up my stitching are almost out of the way, and I feel a surge of productivity coming on as soon as I feel better. I finished the front of Ben’s jumper last night as I recovered in front of the fire and as I held it up to him this morning I noticed a tiny mistake in one of the ribs near the top. Time to start ripping again. What was that saying? Two steps forward and one step back? Oh well, at least that’s better than the other way around.

Culinary compensations

Friday afternoons find me on the sofa in the kitchen, a pile of cookbooks balanced on one velvet arm, the calendar in my lap. Were I to go about our meals summer-style it’d be cabbage every night, with endless apples after. So it’s back to planning again, and pencilling in each dish on the calendar in the hall. The children check it as they pass and squeal with delight at near-forgotten favourites: toad-in-the-hole, beef stew, cheese and onion pie with an orange pool of beans.

I have to do it when I’m hungry: after a meal I have no interest in thinking about the next. But pre-tea, when there’s a cake in the oven and my lunchtime soup feels a long, long time ago, I approach this task with gusto. It’s so easy in the autumn: so many good things are in season. It’s more a case of choosing what to leave off than what to put into the plan. How many types of pie can a family eat in a week? Which day shall we have kippers, or porridge, or toast? There’s leftover mash to be made into bread, but also pots of herbs to knead into a different sort of dough. Can we get through all those sweet and spicy autumn puddings before the fruit is off the trees?

Nothing can be wasted, but the kitchen fills with unexpected treats. Ben goes foraging with his pals and brings back baskets of good things: rose hips and elderberries and sloes. I make a floral-orange syrup and give it to the children, hot, for breakfast, as a drink or drizzled in their bowls. Sloes mean gin, and sugar; elderberries wine. The pears are falling quickly now, and will sit hard and sulky in the bowl until suddenly going off if I don’t cook them. We still haven’t picked the Bramleys.

In spring food is so exciting: green and fresh and new to our tired and jaded palates. In summer it is easy – salad and cold cuts and a bowl of minted, boiled new spuds. In autumn it’s such fun to think of all the dishes we’ve not had for all this time, and fit the increased cooking into the rhythm of my days. Sundays: roast. Mondays: leftover pie, and chicken soup to last the week. Different things on the next few days until on Friday I look in the larder and wonder which cake to bale. Last week there were courgettes but no butter or eggs: I waited for the feathered ladies to oblige before making a batter with oil and grated veg, with mixed spice to add depth and lemon juice to give a little lift. Luckily everybody loved the faintly greenish cake. You see, in summer I might pop out to the shops quite often, just as I do to the veg patch in the garden. But in autumn it’s a point of pride to make it through the week with just what I wrote on my list.

It’s a funny time of year, both cornucopial and lean. Yes, there are good things everywhere to eat. But this is it now, until that first bowl of bright green nettle soup next spring, so it must be made to last. I quite like the planning and the making of my lists. There are lots of things I dislike about autumn, not least that it heralds the winter months of cold and grey and dark. But on the plus side, there are so many good things to eat. Say what you like about October: it most certainly has its culinary compensations.

Goodness

 

It seems almost silly to be knitting with such a colour when October sunlight saturates the world. Outside are verdant lawns, wanton berries, roses which throb pinkly in the dawn and evening light. Inside, I am knitting with the colour of summer: the sea washed out by overhead sunlight, the faded greens of favourite cotton frocks. And oh, goodness, how I love it. The time for plums and teals and ruby reds is fast approaching, but not here yet. I’m happy knitting with the ocean, on sticks of driftwood beige.

While this jumper looks like summer, it feels like bed on a winter’s morning: plump and soft and comfortingly warm. I’m not sure I’ve ever knitted with anything quite this thick, or on needles wide as tree trunks. After months and months of 2 ply it felt a little wrong, but only until I looked down to realise that I’d knitted the whole of the back of Ben’s jumper in two short sessions. Then it felt just right: fast and compelling, keeping pace with this sudden onslaught of autumn. I’m cabling the front already, and watching the pattern emerge. He’ll have this jumper in a couple of weeks, all of a sudden, having waited all last year. Ah, well. Sometimes that’s the way it goes.

Once done, it’ll be on with Ilse’s, in seasonal royal plum blue, paving the way to Christmas. Then, after the feasting, I’ll rip out my old white aran and make it over in a way that’ll feel just right for January. Frugal. Austere. Necessary and good. I’ve decided to join Mrs Thistlebear’s winter project parties, this year, and take along a new project at the start of every month, which leaves room for Ilse’s quilt as well as those two raw fleeces, bits of which are already twisting their way onto my wheel.

Truth be told, I’m not all that happy about the arrival of autumn, but little bits of goodness are cheering me along. Sitting by the fire and knitting. Holding onto the colours of August for a short while longer. Dashing through a jumper to warm my patient boy. Simple things, but kind. Thank goodness for wool, and knitting, and boys who ask for jumpers in subtle summer hues.