Stir up Monday

Our conker expedition was rained off. The picnic, prepared the day before, sat forlornly on the kitchen table. Everything felt damp, and the sky stayed resolutely grey.

On days like this, the kitchen is the place to be. I turned on the electric light and, not trusting to its yellow glow alone, shook more coal from the scuttle into the stove. Then Ilse, Seb, Fliss and I gathered our supplies, not for an outdoor expedition but for a rainy day adventure.

For the children: coloured pencils, wooden rulers, ink pots and boxes of nibs, and thick sheets of laid paper. Special paper, for a special project.

For me: cinnamon and mixed spice, flour and eggs, golden syrup and dark brown sugar.

The children began by sketching compasses, Fliss reminding Ilse of in which direction each of the points lay. They discussed their landscapes, suggesting features geographically possible and impossible. Oxbox lakes in surprising little Os along the river. Islands with hostile camps upon them. High strung bridges and fireplaces with cauldrons slung over them. Then the map-making began in earnest, tongues out, brows furrowed. Seb drew curving contour lines. Fliss sketched a magical glade.

While they drew, I zested oranges and lemons. I creamed sugar and butter with oozing syrup. I sieved flour with spices and stirred them, alternating with beaten eggs, into the mix. Finally, I poured in two pounds of brandy-soaked fruit and carried the bowl to the table.

Ilse went first, pulling the spoon easily through the layer of dried fruit and wishing, eyes tight shut. Then Seb, whose lips moved unconsciously, nearly spilling his secrets. Fliss’ wishing took a long time, and I wondered whether there was a long list of wishes or just one, elaborate, desire. And I went last of all, wishing for the same thing that mothers always wish for, and actually stirring the fruit into the cake mixture.

The Christmas cake went into the oven. Soon there was a warm, spicy December fug, cacooning us from the lingering gloom. Coloured pencils were taken up, and I turned to the pudding.

Eggs and brandy, nutmeg and zest – almost the same ingredients but to a different end. We washed a silver sixpence and buried it in the uncooked basinful, before pleating the greaseproof paper lid and tying it on with string. Once lowered into the steaming pan it began its rattling dance, rising and falling with the bubbles. The room grew warm and softly steamy. Exotic flora and fauna were sketched around the edges of the maps.

I spread the picnic on the tablecloth for a late luncheon. Bully beef sandwiches, apples and cocoa make a feast whether eaten in a Christmas-cosy kitchen or on a trans-Siberian trek. Over their meal three excited children told me of the developments to their conker-collecting plans. It appears that we will be criss-crossing the globe. Their eyes shone, their voices rang, and their imaginations were clearly stirred up. As was my pudding, on a Monday, and a few weeks early. Sometimes, though, you have to obey the weather.

[whohit]stirupmonday[/whohit]

Late-harvest chutney

There is a period, each August, when the tomatoes ripen thick and fast. Every day I leave a bowlful on the kitchen table. We eat them in sandwiches, with or without cheese; fried for breakfast with a panful of eggs; or just as they are.

Bit by bit, our enthusiasm for them fades. As their numbers dwindle in September I fall out of the habit of picking them every day and by the end of the month I am content to close the greenhouse door on them.

It was my garden task, yesterday, to dismantle that little jungle. I sliced through twine and stems with my curved knife, arranged the canes neatly in a corner of the potting shed, and carted load after load of compost to the heap at the far end of the garden. Then I cleaned the greenhouse, sweeping it clear of desiccated leaves and previously encouraged spiderwebs. I washed the glass inside and out. I scrubbed slippery algae from the paving slabs. I wiped the woodwork, and made a note of where it needs another coat of paint. When all that was done, I had almost nine pounds of tomatoes to bring indoors.

There has been enough of a lull for the red ones to be greeted with renewed enthusiasm. Most of them are green, though, and need to be cooked. Hence the late-harvest chutney.

I’ve been following the same recipe ever since we’ve had a garden large enough to produce a surplus. Occasionally I make tangy yellow piccalilli, or spicy red relish, but not this year: those are the sorts of recipes which come and go. They depend on the weather, the harvest, and my holiday plans. But I make late-harvest chutney every October because it uses what I have in abundance: windfall Bramleys, marrows, onions and green tomatoes.

Sitting down to read through the recipe, I realised with a start that I have seemingly never done this before. The ingredients were familiar, the method as simple as I remembered – yet apparently I am supposed to peel the tomatoes. Peeling tomatoes is one of those tasks which I do not do. It falls into the same bracket as ironing tea towels, or buying little china ornaments to dust. Succumb to these tasks and there would be no time left for the important things in life like talking – really talking – to John, playing with the children, or watching the fast-changing autumn skies. In truth, if I had to peel the tomatoes I simply wouldn’t make the chutney.

So I made it anyway, skins and all. I took the time to arrange all the fruit in order of colour and size, and paused to admire that little segment of rainbow. Once the meditative chopping was done, I stopped again, to wonder at the all shades which fall between white and green. I even admired the sheen on those taut tomato skins.

All told, it is quite a mountain of vegetables, and takes a while to collapse beneath the rim of the pan. I let it get on with this while I prepared the spice bag: peppercorns, cloves, coriander seeds and fragrant ginger. I put in a couple of extra cloves, and, once I had smashed the ginger root with my rolling pin, held back a slice for myself. It only wanted boiling water and a spoonful of honey. Cup in hand, I spent an important fifteen minutes watching clouds scud across the brightening sky.

[whohit]lateharvestchutney[/whohit]

Hedgehog season

Beyond the lawn and the veg patch, in the unclaimed land between my garden and the start of the children’s territory, stands the pergola. It leans to one side, and I’ve grown to love its weary dilapidation. A wisteria, once trained up it for support, now holds the structure together, and each spring dangles slender bunches of lilac blooms into its interior.

To its left is the fruit bed and to its right, a shaded, forgettable bed which, until this year, has ended each season deep in weeds. Last spring I hit upon the idea of growing jerusalem artichokes there and they have flourished, forming an impassibly lush and vaguely prickly wall. The beans took up the bed to the front of the pergola, and the wisteria linked arms with them as soon as they were tall enough, forming a seamless transition from ceiling to floor.

We sling the hammock in this green room, and I’m sure I was not the only one to imagine myself on an Amazon expedition as I swung there in muggy July.

But now it is October, and time for its walls to come down. I spent an hour this morning pulling up the spent beans, having first collected the mottled pods full of next year’s seed. The robin moved in as I left, hopping over the dark bare soil, hoping for a worm. The hideaway is no longer.

Yet I am careful to leave a boundary: an untouched edge of hedge and fallen leaves which is disturbed as little as possible. The toads live here, and the hedgehogs and, once, we even saw a lizard zig-zagging his way to the safety of a crevice. We leave the nettles standing all summer for the butterflies to feast on, and piles of old logs for beetles and solitary bees to set up house.

At tea time there was a knock on the door and six or seven of the village children were crowded there, asking whether mine might come out to collect wood for Bonfire Night. Seb bolted his milk and in a few minutes he and Ilse were scarved and hatted. Ben took his electric torch to ward off the gathering darkness. I started to remind him not to let the children build the bonfire until the fifth, but he nodded impatiently. He knows what hedgehogs like to do.

Once the door was shut behind them, their simmering excitement pouring down the lane to the farmer’s house, Fliss and I looked at each other, the same idea in each of our minds. The dough was rising for supper, next to the stove where vegetable soup spluttered lazily.

She divided the dough in two while I cleared the tea things. Then we shaped dough noses, snipped prickles and pressed fat raisin eyes into place. We set the little creatures down for a rest, under a clean tea towel, before finishing them in the oven.

At the supper table Ilse and Seb were full of their triumphs: the strong pine tree trunk Mr Stevens had been saving for them all year, the woodwormy wardrobe Mrs Cornwall was only too pleased to be rid of, and the promise, from next door, of a moth eaten suit for the guy. Ben had taken them all hunting for conkers, too, shining his light into the orange leaves which lay, thick and unbroken, on the green. Too soon, though, a definite rustling in the leaves persuaded them to abandon their endeavours.

There had been many eager pockets and too few conkers to go around. Seb asked whether we might run a half term expedition to a row of horse chestnuts we know, near the knavesmire. I agreed at once, on the proviso that Ilse would be cartographer and Seb navigator. I would provision the company.

Fliss had decorated the hedgehog loaves with fallen leaves, conkers, and acorns. They prompted happy bouncing from Ilse, a bloodthirsty ‘can I eat the eyes?’ from Seb, and a kiss from John as I sat down. It was the end of one happy day, full of plans for another.

[whohit]hedgehogseason[/whohit]

Gathering

Sunday morning, before mass, found me in the garden, gathering the last of the anemones. I arranged them into a rough bouquet as I picked them, knowing that to separate them would cause the trembling petals to scatter. There were just enough to fill two vases: one for the kitchen and the other for the dining table, ready to greet our guests. It was ‘only’ Mother and Father, but the occasion was heightened by the fact that we hadn’t seen them for a month. They have been on the south coast, catching the remains of the summer sunshine.

I laid on the sort of luncheon October does best: roast loin of pork with apple sauce, cauliflower, potatoes and parsnips which, although not yet sweetened by the first frosts, were golden and sticky from their roasting.

Ben was home from camping with the scouts just in time to bathe and join us. The others were rested from their week-end at home, scattered about the place, engrossed in their own endeavours. Ilse has been learning to knit, flitting down from her bedroom every few minutes with another tangle for me to unravel. Seb has been practising archery, having carefully restrung the bow Ben made so patiently with him last spring. Fliss has been wandering in some imaginary world, under an old blanket in the tree house, a stack of best-beloved volumes beside her. Industrious John chopped and stacked all day on Saturday, filling the woodshed and shaking off the feel of his desk.

So it was with great joy that I had them all around one table. We each had our own adventures to tell of, so that we sat talking for a long while after the last spoonful of damson crumble was gone.

A lengthy game of scrabble ensued, and knitting for some, and the customary doze on the settee for Father. Best of all, we lit the sitting room fire for the first time this season, and its magic held us all there, together, in one space. We didn’t even move for tea but drank it where we rested, with thin slices of apple and cheese, and slabs of Mother’s apple and marmalade cake to follow. It was the very best sort of Sunday: involving food, fire and a family gathering.

That evening, before turning in, I weighed out sugar and dried fruit, and poured over it the dregs of the day’s tea. An egg, some flour and a quick stir was all that was required before I popped it into the stove to bake the following morning. It made two tea loaves, fragrant with cinnamon: one for home and one for John to take to the office. In the coming afternoons, I believe that they will be the cause of smaller, but no less important, gatherings.

 

[whohit]Gathering[/whohit]

Jam for grown-ups

Last Wednesday, after tea, we headed down the green lane once again. The blackberries are nearly over, and the few that remain are either small and dry or overblown and pecked at. Although we picked a few, they were not our primary concern: we were after sloes.

Seb and Ilse were with me, as were my sister and her husband. Being newly married, they have no children, but make a great fuss of mine. My four are very fond of their new uncle who, as an historian at Edinburgh, has no shortage of tales of derring-do, and whose study at home boasts no fewer than three swords. He also has three of the prettiest spaniels this side of London; it was with heavy hearts that Fliss and Ben stayed at home to finish their prep.

Despite the dogs under our feet we gathered twenty pounds of sloes in no time. I am so often overawed, at this time of year, by the sheer abundance of nature. We left hundreds upon hundreds of fruits for the birds, all in a ten yard stretch. Multiply that by the thousands of miles of hedgerows in Britain, and the hundreds of thousands of families like ours. Then there are the millions of creatures who depend on them for their shelter and food over the course of a year. The mind boggles.

I kept eight pounds of the sloes for ourselves, which Mrs P clearly thought was far too much, judging by the shape of her left eyebrow. I assured her that much of it was destined for the village show, and charity auctions, but the truth is that that still leaves plenty for us. John and I are both rather fond of a small glass of sloe gin while toasting our feet in front of a February fire.

When Seb discovered that he wouldn’t be eating any of the sloes, he asked why on earth he’d been gathering them. Ilse stepped in. ‘It’s to make a special drink’, she explained. ‘It’s like jam, but for grown-ups.’ Which is precisely what it is: a sweet, fruity reminder of a happy afternoon over a year ago. A sun-drenched autumn afternoon, stored up for winter.

By the time we were home the cottage pie I’d left in the oven was ready, Fliss had cooked the beans and John was in from work. We had a very merry supper, the eight of us, ending with a bowl of blackberries and cream. Seb and Fliss gave an impromptu piano concert, and we laid plans for gathering sloes again this time next year. It was a perfect midweek supper: homemade, simple and sweet. Jam for the souls of grown-ups and children alike.

 

[whohit]Jam For Grown-Ups[/whohit]