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.

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.

Garden notes: Almost heaven

This is turning out to be one of the nicest holidays I can remember. Or do I always think that? Either way, this summer plan of not having much of a plan at all, of writing in a few trips here and there and spending the rest of the time pottering around at home has come up trumps. Or rather, the weather has. This is the hottest, driest summer we’ve had in ages – at least, the past few days have been blissfully sunny and warm. We didn’t settle on any particular destinations this year, apart from the Devon family camp, and decided instead to chase the good weather wherever it may go: north or south, east or west. But as it’s been everywhere this week, so have we, with John and the children off on a little jaunt of their own while I stayed behind at home.

I love being on my own, knowing that soon the house will be full again. A day or two or three is just fine by me. My thoughts find their rhythm, and so do I, eating whatever and whenever I choose, going to bed whenever I like, getting up when I want to in the morning. So it must be a sign of approaching middle age that I have eaten balanced meals at reasonably sensible intervals, gone to bed at a decent hour and been up to make the most of every day.

Originally, the plan was to make a large pot of tea, switch the wireless on and make some serious progress on Fliss’ quilt. I haven’t even finished cutting out all the pieces, never mind sat sewing them together under the apple tree. I had wanted this quilt to be a hand-stitched one – one where I could look at each block and remember where and when I made it. I was hoping to stitch little bits of our summer and autumn adventures into it – days out here, camping trips there, a happy afternoon on the lawn. But the sun will insist on shining, and I’ve lived in Yorkshire long enough to know that when the sun shines, you go outside. So outside I have been, giving the garden a much needed bout of attention after all our days away, and bringing in bits of harvest in return. The vegetable beds are weeded, the fruit patch seen to, and the gravelly bits free of stray green. I’ve sorted out the neglected hanging baskets and rehung them at the door, and cut down at some astonishingly long brambles. Marigolds, from the bottom of the garden, have been rehomed in pots and beds much closer to the house, and there are sweet peas to cut each day to fill a little glass vase. The celery is benefiting from some much-needed watering, and the French beans are getting started in earnest. Fresh tomatoes turn red overnight, and when I sat on the bench by the hibiscus yesterday the bees buzzed in and out of the blooms around my ears. Honestly, it was very nearly heaven.

I say nearly because it seems I’m not the only creature to find our garden appealing. Those pretty white butterflies that float around the veg patch have been wreaking havoc with my brassicas. I’ve had caterpillars before, but never an invasion quite like this. To use a term I wish I’d coined but didn’t, it was very nearly a brassica massacre. Instead, it was the caterpillars that bought it. Thankfully we discovered the extent of the damage before the children went away, and so I had a team to help me squash them and carry the most infested leaves directly to the chicken run. It was a little bit heartbreaking in all sorts of different ways, and our suppertime vegetable plans were swiftly changed from cabbage to French beans. If only caterpillars weren’t such sweet, fuzzy little things – and didn’t like cabbage quite so much.

I think – I hope – we got there just in time. I had spring cabbage for supper last night, and each leaf was tender and pale green and whole. Tonight, though, I am feeding six once more – some of whom are in need of home-cooked food with all its vegetably goodness. There’s a bubbling pot of ratatouille in the oven which was growing in the garden only an hour before. John will be pleased – of that I’m sure. I suspect the children could have coped quite happily with a few more days of pemmican and grog and other camping rations. Still, they’re glad to be home for a breather before the next adventure. A big bowl of vegetables might not be sausages cooked over a camp fire, but to be home and bathed with a hot meal in front of you must surely be almost heaven.

Garden notes: Into the kitchen

It is in August that things begin to fall. An overripe plum from a tree. Excess apples, shaken off in the wind. The tops of onions, still green, collapse into the spaces between their bulbs which are still swelling in the sun. And it is at this point, every year, that things begin to come into the kitchen in earnest. New potatoes, boiled to floury perfection with a sprig of mint, before being crushed with chopped scallions and butter. A couple of leaves from each of the summer cabbages. The first french beans, tender and slim. The umpteenth courgette. Tomatoes, by the cornucopian handful. Beetroot tops, swede tops, radish tops. The first of the salads from the second sowing. Things to be eaten as soon as possible, keeping the time between picking and plating as short as we possibly can. I haven’t visited the greengrocer’s for ages, and have no intention of doing so for a good while yet.

At just the same time, the preserving has begun. Traditionally, this is the time when the children pile the windfalls so high in the larder that I throw my hands up in despair at ever getting through them before the brown spreads from their bruises. Traditionally I have a mountain of overgrown courgettes to fight my way to the bottom of, having ignored them for a day too long. Traditionally I look at all the luscious green herbs and leaves and wonder how on earth I am going to capture them. In all likelihood, this will happen again in a week or so. You’ll find me behind a wall of freshly washed jars, presiding over three or four bubbling pots of chutney and jam, hot and bothered and wishing I was outside.

But not yet. So far, I am winning. My approach this year is to go on the offensive against the rising tide of the home gardener’s glut. Each day, while watering and weeding, I identify a little something or other to put up for the winter. I pick it after tea: a few stems of rhubarb, or perhaps a trugful of nasturtium leaves. Then into the kitchen I go, for a post supper potter with some vinegar, or a little oil. Sometimes there is sugar involved. Often there are spices. And less than an hour later I emerge with my prize: a couple of jars of pickled beetroot. A few pots of jam. Greens and herbs, pounded into a chlorophyll paste to brighten the darkest winter meal. One little victory each evening, set on the larder shelves.

Of course, we don’t grow anything like enough food to keep ourselves going the whole year long. I have tremendous admiration for those who do, and perhaps one day I might achieve that. My aim is different, although very much in the same spirit: to waste as little as possible, and make as much of what we have as I can. There is so much pleasure in opening a jar of bottled fruit in February and knowing that you grew it. I pace our progress through the larder, making the preserves last the whole year long until the next harvest is coming in. Just as the marrows are ready, we are opening the very last jar of chutney. So far, this season, I am feeling remarkably on top of it all.

You know that it won’t last, though, don’t you? Because the beans are about to start coming out of our ears, and the apples will fall by the panful. Already I’m closing my eyes just a fraction as I walk past the still full bed of summer cabbages, and thinking about all the sauerkraut jars I’m going to need. The rosehips are well on their way and that orangey floral syrup is too much of an autumn treat to be missed. And then there’s the sheer quantity of berries that six people can pick in an afternoon, even given free reign to eat as many as they like. The tide is coming, I tell you. Soon I’ll be on the defensive again, wooden spoon at the ready. It’s on its way, the results of a year in the garden, flowing straight into the kitchen.

Garden notes: Eggs

The new hens seem to have settled in remarkably well. I keep expecting to find the nest boxes empty, but no – every day I’m greeted with a full complement of eggs. After the first flush already in their systems, they were meant to pause for a while, but I shan’t complain. We love eggs.

There’s been a fair bit of gloom around these past couple of days: low clouds and glowering skies. I’ve been weeding surreptitiously, hoping the weather gods won’t spot me in amongst the onions before I finish the task. Keeping my fingers crossed for warmth, and a couple of dry hours, I’ve been rewarded by some pretty solid stretches of rain. But. But – the beans have popped up along their rows of canes, and there’ll be no stopping them now. The sweet peas have poked their little noses out above the soil. I keep finding Fliss nibbling radishes as she wanders around the garden, nose in a book. And there’s been enough dry weather to get out and bring in the early harvest: great bowlfuls of sweet new lettuce leaves, cut-and-come again chard tops, peppery-hot rocket. And eggs. Lots and lots of eggs.

They are suggestible things, those unassuming little ovoids. They sit there, meek and fragile in their dun shells, but it only takes a sharp crack to reveal their vibrant yolks. I know I should be setting some aside, saving some of this late spring flush by slipping them into the barrel of isinglass. But they whisper to me from across the kitchen. There is all sorts of eggy goodness happening here, now. Breakfasts are eggs: poached, boiled and fried. My solitary lunch: a greedy bowl of new salad dipped in a rich and wobbly mayonnaise. And supper? Well, I’ll blame it on the steady rain which began at twelve and carried on past bedtime. The mercury dropped, a chill wind blew in from the east, and the menu changed. I felt it was one of the last good custard days of the season.

Which led to a pudding, simply to carry the custard. In the end we went for an Exmoor In and Out: last autumn’s softly wrinkled bramleys under a layer of dense almond sponge. It was quite happy cooking in the Aga with the fish pie while I made the custard. This is the kind of cooking I do best: abandoning something to the gentle heat of the oven while I stir the silken pan of custard and think of other things. Simple and extravagant, elegant and childish, it is one of my favourite things to eat. Comfort, in a bowl.

There was another soul in need of a little comfort, yesterday. Seb had just returned, tired and filthy, from an outward bound adventure with his pals. And although he didn’t show it, although he was talking nineteen to the dozen, I suspected there was a little pang of sorrow lurking somewhere near his tummy. So what’s a mum to do, but make a favourite tea and draw a hot and bubbly bath? To find ways of reminding him that, all in all, there are some good things about being home again. Seeing his spot filled at the dinner table by a pink-cheeked, pyjama-clad boy made me realise how I’d missed him. So between one thing and another, it was a very happy suppertime indeed.

And faced with eight more eggs this morning? I’ve lots of ideas up my sleeve. The cooler custard nights might be dwindling, but quiche season is just beginning, and the time for cold boiled eggs in picnic baskets is surely just around the corner. Lay on, ladies. I’m not complaining.

Tipple

When we moved into this house, we found a number of things left about the place by the previous owners. Some of them were useful: lots of bamboo canes, for instance. Some were less so: the twisted goal posts and rusted wheelbarrows, unearthed when we cleared the bramble jungle. One of the better finds was a stash of demijohns, neat and dusty on a set of shelves, the remains of someone or other’s home-brew ambitions. We took this as an invitation to have a go.

Some things have gone mouldy, and been chucked out. Others have been enjoyed. More have been dreamt up than have been made. Eighteen months ago, though, faced with a bumper elderberry harvest, I decided the time was right to try a classic country wine. I boiled it and stirred it and mixed in the sugar and yeast. I poured it into the demijohns and was amused to find a row of children watching the bubbles rise, rise, then break through the airlocks. Then I put them in the shed, and never racked them off.

There’s been a flurry of spring cleaning, around here. The shed has been emptied and swept out, spider webs dealt with, garden tools sharpened and oiled. I dusted off three demijohns of wine,  wondered briefly what to do with them, and put them back. And there they sat until John, inspired by the last of the forced rhubarb, pulled them out. We tasted it (with some trepidation) and pronounced it really quite nice. A sort of fruity dry sherry, clear and rosy against the light. Perhaps, just perhaps, we were more inclined to like it than most. I don’t think I’ll inflict it on any guests, unless they truly want to try it. But we like it, and I’ll be making it again, this autumn.

In the meantime, John has filled a couple more containers with the type of tipple he is best at. So now there is rhubarb liqueur slowly infusing beside last year’s sloes. Day by day, the colour leaches from the fruit into the liquid, so that the drink turns pink while the rhubarb slowly fades to white. A few more days, a few more turns, and it can be put away for a while.

There are gardeners who raise whole allotments of parsnips or gooseberries each year with the sole purpose of making wine. I’m interested, but not that keen. When it comes to home made drinks, I’m definitely a dabbler. A little here, a little there, a bit of experimentation. I’d like to try an ale, soon. And an elderflower champagne.

In the meantime, there are drinks to be made which are best drunk straight away. Ilse brought me a doll’s teacup of cold mint water the other day, and very refreshing it was, too. I’ll make mint syrup as soon as there’s enough of it. In the meantime, I like to add a sprig or two to a cup of black tea. Warm and sweet and freshly herby, it’s the perfect brew for this time of year.

[whohit]tipple[/whohit]

Hungry

There has been much late night activity in the kitchen, after the pots and pans have been washed and dried and put away. Once the sink has been wiped clean, and the table cleared for action the following morning. When the light should have been switched off, and the door pulled to.

Something was keeping me in there, away from the sitting room with its fire and cheerful company. It might have been the wireless, with the latest adaptation of Jane Eyre. But I think it was something deeper than that. Something tired of winter, mild though it has been. Something needing a change, and not a rest.

As a result, we are getting through flour at an alarming rate. Bags which have been lingering for some weeks now are being used up, finished off, tipped upside down over the mixing bowl. On Thursday it was a speedy seed cake, slid into the still hot range straight after supper. Its fragrant, damp heaviness, studded with caraway seeds, is the perfect partner to a well earned cup of tea.

On Friday the children were all playing at cards, just one last game of snap before bed, when I turned tail halfway down the hall and headed back to the kitchen. It was plain flour that found its way into the bowl, this time, along with a pint of milk and a couple of eggs. A quick whisk, and a space on the cold shelf in the larder. Breakfast done, but for the frying. Yet that wasn’t quite enough, so I kneaded strong flour into the leftover mashed potatoes, with a splash of milk and a pinch of yeast, and left that too, in the cold, to rise slowly overnight. It baked on Saturday, while the pancakes fried on the griddle, and baked beans heated in the bottom oven. Lunch, made at breakfast, dreamed up the night before. Chewy, dense potato bread, toasted in waxy yielding slices. Food thought of long in advance. Hungry food.

The seasons must be shifting if I am thinking of baking again. In the winter it is parsnips we eat, roasted, or a celeriac mash. Swede and carrot, on the side or sliced into a stew. Or potatoes, lots of potatoes, delivered by the sackful. Peeled and boiled and roasted. Left over, and chopped straight into the frying pan in the morning, alongside the eggs and some cold savoy cabbage. Mashed and eaten with an eruption of gravy, the remains patted into little cakes and fried in butter until crisp around the edges. They fill my suppertime kitchen with a gentle fug, these rooty vegetables, dug up in the autumn, stored in the mud they came with.

But when spring comes I won’t want to be standing over a steamy stove each night. I’ll want to be outside, doing something else. It’s bread I turn to then, rather than spuds, rather than swedes or parsnips or even porridge. Bread, straight from the crock, baked once a week in a session which makes me wonder what else I can fit in while the oven’s hot. A quick soda farl, perhaps, for supper that evening. A cake or two, while the oven is cooling down. Then no more baking for another week.

Bread is what I want to eat when the weather is hot and there are better things to do. I like a slice, buttered and folded in on itself, as the afterthought to having nibbled my way around the veg patch by way of a solitary luncheon. I might slide a sliced tomato in there, with a grind of pepper, if I can be bothered. And for supper I might go to all the effort of boiling some eggs to go with the salad and the loaf and the sliced ham. Or not. It depends on the weather.

In the greenhouse, baby lettuces are finding their feet. The first seeds are thinking about germinating, encouraged by a daily dose of water and kind words. The early potatoes are chitting on a cool windowsill, just waiting for Good Friday and the start of a new adventure, underground. The broccoli is beginning to sprout, and we have had our first taste of sour pink rhubarb.

The roots will keep coming for a while longer. Sunday morning saw a whole basket of Jerusalem artichokes, topped with a few more parsnips to go with the roast. They’ve kept us going all winter, those parsnips, with enough to give a few away. But now it’s time to eat them up, and make room for the new harvest. Which we do with pleasure: they are sweeter than ever, after the recent frosts.

Even so, I am greedily awaiting all the things I haven’t tasted in a while. Which is perhaps why I keep finding myself in the kitchen, after the day is done. Mixing and kneading. Getting my arm in again. Hungry for the season ahead.

[whohit]hungry[/whohit]

Mothers and sons

Traditionally, Mothering Sunday was the day when people would be allowed to attend their ‘mother’ church – a religious occasion which meant that those in service would be allowed home for the day. Of course, the Great War changed all that – there are so few people working in the big houses nowadays – but I like to think of all those near-grown lads and lasses picking flowers from the hedgerows to greet their mothers with.

We went to our church last Sunday, and the little ones were invited to take flowers from the altar and bring them back to us. Seb picked out a hothouse rose, Ilse a seasonal tulip. Once home, Ilse tucked her pink one into the orange bunch John had bought me on Saturday. But Seb’s rose lay lonely on the kitchen table, with no natural mate. The house is full of flowers: daffodils, tulips and great leggy branches of forsythia, cut from the garden. Yet our own roses stand bare and twiggy in the beds. He looked a little forlorn, until I took down a cut glass vase, just big enough for a single bloom, and trimmed its stem to length. Now it stands beside my bed, the last thing I see at night. Something beautiful, from my boy.

It was Ben’s birthday, too, last weekend: his seventeenth. He still climbed into bed with us, long limbs and all, to open his presents in the morning. It is getting to be a squeeze, this bed of ours, on birthday mornings. Soon, too soon, he will be elsewhere, making his own traditions. But not yet. We showered him with all of ours: gifts before breakfast, a special supper of his choosing, and an outing with a friend or three. A raucous chorus of Happy Birthday. A cake, aflame. Nothing extraordinary, but everything sweet and full of comfortable, familiar ordinariness. We have had seventeen years of practice, to find out what he likes.

He likes to see his grandparents, too. We invited them all to share our Sunday roast: a chicken as a treat, and a home grown fruit crumble for afters. I took the opportunity to give my mother some flowers, and a card I’d stitched on my machine. My own cards, adorned with cups of tea and colourful (if improbable) garden scenes, were lined up on the dresser. I love those homemade cards: crayon on folded paper from some, watercolours on the special laid stuff from others. I cherish the way they appear from under mattresses and stacks of vests. I take care not to tidy too well at such times of year. And I love how there are always more than four, always six or eight or ten, as they are struck by inspiration over and over again. Those funny little cards are the best gift I could have.

Yesterday I dusted the mantelpiece, moving each of Ben’s cards carefully out of the way, daydreaming idly about our upcoming holiday in the Lakes. Meg and I have begun to plan it, sending lists of food and equipment north and south of the Scottish border. She: pickles and cold meats. Fresh perch, fried in butter. Fishing rods. I: beef stew and new sleeping bags. And cake. More than anything, I want to arrive armed with heavy tins of it. I want to send the children into the woods with greaseproof-wrapped slabs in their pockets. I make a list, thinking most of all of what Ben might like. Tiffin, stored with a cut Cox to keep it moist: gingery, Yorkshire. A simnel cake, made by a mother for her children rather than the other, traditional, way around, a fat disc of marzipan melted into its fruity middle. Hot cross buns, full of chopped peel and spice. Easter food. Picnic food. The sort of food that can be served in chunks. The sort of food that boys – and girls, and mothers and fathers and aunties and uncles – crave on long walks with uncertain weather. A last burst of winter food, eaten in front of a bank of crocuses, under a shower of blossom. Food for the start of spring.

As a result, I’ve spent a lot of time poring over my cookbooks this past week, choosing what to bake. I’ll try a few things out, between now and then, recipes I’ve not followed for a while. From over my shoulder, certain voices have made themselves heard. I nod, and assure them that I know what they would choose. I am their mother, after all.

[whohit]mothersandsons[/whohit]

Crisp

All it takes is for the sun to shine, and every little detail is thrown into relief. Where did that rhubarb come from, unfurled so soon from soil-bound tender buds? I didn’t see it yesterday, trudging through the gloom to empty the bucket of peelings, yet here it is, crisp and pink against the bluest sky. My mouth waters: already in my mind it is full-grown and pulled, chopped into inch-long sticks and dipped in a saucer of sugar. Already it is boiled in a copper pan, with thin slivers of ginger, and tucked into the larder: an edible memory of just this sort of day. Clear and cold and crisp.

Everything is heightened, today. The garden is loud with birds, the magpies and blackbirds and territorial robins competing with the steady hens in their worship of the welcome yellow sun. They trill and cluck. It has been a very long and very grey winter, this year. There has been a lot of rain, and no snow to lift the landscape. But now the sun is out even the mud sparkles, and the ridges left by my boots yesterday are semi-solid with frost. I took a little longer over my outdoor chores. Hanging out the washing is a task which can be stretched as long as the line I peg it to. The air was cold on my fingertips, the sun warm on my back. Later, the sheets smelt wild, half-dried in the clean fresh air.

This is a day for fine black tea, not dulled by milk. This is a day for toast and marmalade, the bread allowed to cool so that the butter lies upon it in thick cream slabs, protecting it from damp. Lately the shops have been full of seville oranges, and today they have come into their own. I count my  jars greedily, and plan to make some more.

This is a day for sewing, for pressing new seams clean and straight, sprinkled under a hot iron. The settee has fresh cushions, birds and flowers against a clean white background. This is a day for gardening, for turning the green lawn over into something darker. This is a day for making music, for high notes cutting through the still house. A day for opening windows, and letting the dry air sweep swiftly over everything. A day for reading a book on a window seat, blanket and hot water bottle to hand. This is the sort of day on which I want to do everything, and can’t, and have to choose just one favoured task over all the others. The kind of day I would like all days to be. The kind of day winter was made for.

Late in the afternoon I set a match to the newsprint and watch it curl and blacken, delicate flames growing bold. They lick at the kindling and make it crackle. The sun disappears, over the edge of the earth. I hope it will come back. Now that it is gone, everything changes. The time for marmalade has passed. Instead I set to making a huge fish pie, smoky and smooth. I serve it with wilted greens: the blueish tops of sprouts that grow like algae in the winter beds. The cream of the pie is salty and soothing. It will send us all early to our beds. Yet there is an undercurrent to it, wild and clean. A day in Whitby, visiting the smokehouses after a chilly morning paddle. The smell of kippers coming home with us as we journey over the free and windy moor. Before I settle down to sleep, I make a note to book rooms in a boarding house in May, beside the sea. Then I say a prayer for another crisp day tomorrow, and sleep deeply and well.

[whohit]crisp[/whohit]

Remember, remember

Bonfire night is the highlight of the autumn calendar. All four children have been anticipating it with glee, whispering about their plots, and gathering fuel for the fire. The guy waited ready in our shed, complete apart from his turnip head, which Ben carved on Wednesday evening.

Even Mrs P seemed to have an air of excitement about her as she came in on Thursday morning. Having stopped at the grocer’s on the way, her basket was full of caster sugar and golden syrup. I had laid the apples ready on the table, sixty of them, washed, with a lollipop stick pushed into each core. We melted the sugar and syrup and dipped the apples into the pot, before leaving them to cool and harden on trays. The toffee ran into little flat discs around their bases. Surreptitiously, while Mrs P was clearing away in the scullery, I ran my finger around the inside of the empty pan. The touch of toffee on my tongue brought back a world of childhood bonfires.

We borrowed trestle tables from the village hall and, as the day was clear and bright, set them on the village green. The infants were let out of school an hour early and bade carry chairs. The older ones must have cycled like the beefeaters were on their tails to reach us as early as they did, and then the fun began in earnest. By five o’clock, as the light finally fell, the bonfire was built and burning: a hodgepodge of old furniture, prunings and scrap wood. In the centre, bound to the farmer’s long pine trunk, was the guy.

By then, the last of the mothers had turned out, each bearing a tin of cake, platter of sandwiches or great jugs of milk. Someone filled the tea urn and kept it topped up with boiling water. By the time the men arrived the flames were licking the guy’s darned and darned-over socks, and potatoes had been pushed into the grey embers around the edges of the fire. John helped Ben and some of the other boys sharpen one end of a pile of sticks, and we pushed a sausage onto each for the children to roast. They stood in a circle, faces burning and backs cold, oblivious to everything but the fate of their guy, their dripping sausage and the promise of sweets.

Mr Hewitt made his annual gift of a box of fireworks, and set them off as the last of the potatoes was being pulled open, exposing its fluffy insides. We stood around the fire, oohing and ahhing in unison, well rehearsed over the years. Toddlers began to whinge and a dog, not locked up, set up a howling that started the babies off. Prams were wheeled away with reluctant infants in tow. The older children stayed to tease the fire. John lifted a sleepy Ilse onto one arm and she laid her head on his woollen shoulder. His other arm he put around me, and we watched the end of the evening, remembering other such nights in years past, back to when it was a tired Ben in his arms, and before even then, when there was only he and I.

[whohit]rememberremember[/whohit]