Under my feet

I made it into the garden this morning. It’s time for a spot of weeding, for reconnecting with my other, outside room, and taking in a little of  the newfound springtime sun. Under my feet, the lawn is soft and soggy. The brick paths of the veg bed are alternately springy with moss and slick with errant mud. I keep expecting to clear the beds for sowing but there’s so much out there, waiting to be eaten. Three dozen leeks. Ten swedes. The first tender sprouts of brocolli. A bed of winter salad, barely touched, which will soon come into its own. Tiny green cabbages which, having held on all winter, are taking off in this gentle, tentative sun. Even the greenhouse is full of out-of-season fennel, tucked in there in the autumn.

The moment I set foot outdoors the hens are at my side, tripping me up in their excitement. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to have them trail, Pied Piper style, in my wake. They follow me up and down the lawn as I admire Ilse’s winter garden, a smudge of purple from afar, up close. And when the trowel comes out they vye for top position, as close as they can get to the worms each little spadeful brings. We find a knot of them in the base of a rotting swede, enough for everyone to share. An unexpected feast. There are plenty to go around. In fact, I think there are more this year than ever before, and certainly more than when we first dug out our veg patch. I like to think of them all, burrowing through the good earth, helping the garden grow.

Soon we must erect a hen-proof fence, and sow the first seeds in the warming soil. For now, new life sprouts in the airing cupboard before being moved to a bright windowsill, safe from that little gang of hooligans with their scratching claws, keen beaks and destructive bathing habits. But we can’t hold on forever. Spring is on its way. I can see it in the blooms on nude branches, the nodding daffodils, the crocuses which open their hearts to the sun. In the softening outdoor air. And in the moist dark soil which whispers promises to me from just under my feet.

Pottering with a purpose

The younger children have exactly three trips planned this half term: one morning in town with pocket money and book tokens to spend; one afternoon out with Mother – a trip to the Castle Museum followed by afternoon tea; and one day out in the motor, all together, for a walk or a wander in an as yet unselected location.

All are suitably vague for a holiday which is, in this house at least, all about rest and recuperation. We’ve adopted a let’s see how we feel on the day approach to everything beyond the garden gate. As long as they get out at regular intervals to stretch their legs and have a change of scene, I’m happy. So far there has been dressing up, board game playing, the making of pouches for survival kits, the start of a new manuscript, and much reading. They are expert potterers, able to entertain themselves for days on end with self-dreamed projects and pastimes.

All of which is extremely fortunate, as my own pottering has rather more of a timetable attached to it. Why do I always end up with so much I want to do, each half term? It isn’t as though any if it is terribly important, even, this time around. Honestly, one of my aims was to replicate the coffee cake my mother-in-law baked last week. Frivolous, yes – but I never make the time to ice my cakes in term time, so it seemed the perfect treat for Friday afternoon when the children came home with mounds of muddy sportswear and that start-of-the-holidays glee. Truth be told, it only happened because I wrote it down. Friday morning: clean house with Mrs P. Friday lunchtime: bake coffee and walnut cake. Friday afternoon: pop to haberdashers for thread, bias binding and elastic. Ice cake. Come half past four all was well with the world.

The list goes on, and more is ticked off each day. Sewing, knitting, seeing the odd friend. Preparing for spring in the garden. It’s all pottering, only I know what I want to achieve each day. With only a week off school, I like to have my time mapped out in a vaguely purposeful way. We still get up a little later, and take a lacksidaisical approach to daytime meals (a favourite part of holidaying, to me). But I can immerse myself in each and every moment knowing that, by the end of the week, I’ll have done all that I hoped to.

Needless to say, plans change all the time, but there’s plenty of room for improvements. Ilse has a new task, for which she’ll need a spot of supervision: bunny-sitting a certain rabbit named Sparkles who lives a few doors down. Popping along the street on certain days to check his water and have a few cuddles while we’re at it? I’m sure we can squeeze that in. In fact, that seems to be the epitome of pottering with a purpose.

Veg

Perhaps it’s a symptom of age, but I love veg. I love crisp green leaves and sticky roasted parsnips, beans that squeak and savoys with their little pockets full of gravy. Best of all, I love veg from my own patch, dug out of the mud on a damp January morning, crisp and vital against all the odds.

Yesterday I dug two swedes for the pot, and four leeks. I pulled a couple of our own red onions from the basket – not many left now – and added a few carrots and a bit of celery from the greengrocer’s. By the time I’d put all that veg in the pot there was no room left for the beef, so I popped it in the oven to cook down in a bit of stock, with a few dried herbs for flavour, and added the meat an hour or so later. I could smell it all afternoon – the beef, yes, but also the earthy sweetness of the winter veg and the mild tang of the onion and leek. We had it for supper, with mustard seed dumplings for those with hollow legs, and I felt better and better with each bite.

It’s all I really want to eat, just now, which is a good thing as there is quite a lot still standing in the beds, and the earliest new harvest is just beginning to emerge. I spied the first purple bud of brocolli today. Those winter salad leaves I planted under cover are cropping well now that the light is back, and the beetroot and Florence fennel I planted late and neglected to thin out are having a little winter growth spurt in their unusual cold frame home. An unorthodox method, perhaps, but it seems to be working and if it does I’ll be bottling fennel in March.

Just now, though, I’m pleasantly surprised by how much the winter fields and garden have to offer. I made a celeriac soup for our club this week, with celery and celery seeds to triple its sombre savouriness. There are leftover sprouts to add the the pan with butter and eggs in the morning (it’s delicious, I assure you), and overwintering salad onions to add a zing to anything you like. There are creamily delicate cauliflowers to smother with cheese, and mounds of mashed swede and carrots. Simple foods, homemade and more often than not homegrown, but never boring. There’s almost always something new, something that’s not been tasted since it was last in season. While I was out with my fork yesterday I glanced across at the stumps of the Jerusalem artichokes, cut down on our day in the garden at Christmas. We’ve not had so much as a bite of them yet. Time for them to take their place in the winter menu. Lovely.

Feast

The new year started with a feast, which is by far the best way to start a year, to my mind. I can take or leave the seeing out of the old year – I was reading in bed when 1931 slipped away – but I like to see the new year in with a special meal and plans for the months ahead.

Mother cooked this year: one of her spectacular meals where the whole afternoon slowly unfolds into course after course, with brief rests in between. There was salmon and salad to start, followed by a ham and vegetables, then two puddings and finally, before heading home, apple pie and crackers and cheese. We certainly needed our walk up the hill afterwards, and I was glad I’d skipped breakfast.

Instead, I’d used the morning free from cooking or eating to look to the months ahead. I don’t make resolutions, but I do make lists and sketches and plans. The garden has been mapped out for the coming spring, and the order form in the back of the seed catalogue carefully filled in and dropped in a postbox on our way to my parents’ house. Onions and leeks, swedes and parsnips, broccoli and broad beans and a whole new bed for salads: 1932 will hopefully be slow revelation of the seasons through the tastes and textures of the veg patch. After an icy day out there last week, the garden is ready and waiting for the days to grow long again, and I can hardly wait.

It’ll be a while though, which is why I’ve made other plans for the meantime. A list of sewing and knitting I’d like to work through in the dark evenings between now and then. Pot holders and bookmarks and birthday cards, two blouses and new school dresses for the girls. My annual summer frock. The pair of socks I’ve just begun, and a cardigan for Mrs Eve’s baby, and another jumper for Ben and something pretty and lacy for myself. Will I get it all done? I doubt it. But I’d rather have too much in my plate than too little, especially when the days lend themselves to gloom and and chill and inertia.

That wasn’t something I had a problem with on the First. There was plenty on all of our plates, and stories of our Christmases to share, and the next few weeks to talk about. I hope you too have plenty to look forward to, this coming year. Happy new year. Welcome to 1932.

Something nice

We had a little tidy up in the larder on Sunday, Ilse and I. I love tidying with Ilse; she makes me laugh the way she gets into role. Hands on hips, she puts a thoughtful finger to her lips and, in her most grown up voice, says things like: Now then, and Let me see. She stopped to do this numerous times while we emptied the shelves, wiped them and put the contents back in a much less higgledy-piggledy way than they were thrust on at half term. I left her to it while I popped into the sitting room for a minute, and when I came back she and Seb were rhapsodising over a jar of bilberry jam.

All it took was a mention of that summer’s day and we all remembered how hot it was – too hot to sit in the sunshine – and that it had been John’s birthday, and that there were bilberries everywhere. How long ago that feels now that we’re in dark December. We could all do with a picnic in the sunshine, and next summer is a very long way away. I quietly  put the jar to one side, and we finished the job.

I was sorely tempted to save it for a dank February morning – the sort when Christmas seems a long time ago and spring impossible. When it keeps raining and nobody wants to go out in the weather to get to school or work. No doubt it would cheer everybody up. But in the meantime, this impossibly busy term keeps throwing obstacles our way, and the two weeks until the holidays feel interminable. It’s getting harder and harder to get out of bed each morning – not just for me but for everyone in the house – and really, a change is as good as a rest. Well, almost. A jar of jam isn’t going to change the world, but it helps.

As does a drop of apple and pear liqueur, or a small glass of sloe gin. The children’s chocolate-filled advent calendars are hanging in the hall, and John and I have decided that now is the time to decant some of the tipple we tucked away over a year ago, as a sort of adult equivalent. It’s up on the kitchen dresser, along with the new-strung fairy lights and the tea and the pepper and salt. Oh, and that jar of jam. Little things that make a big difference. Something nice to keep us all going.

A Winter of Walks

Almost everyone who stepped into the tea shop said the same thing: Well, that certainly blows away the cobwebs. Through the windows, the surf rolled onto the sands. Children and dogs laid claim to sticks, one little boy proudly brandishing a branch much longer than he was tall. Wet animals ran in and out of the chilly water. And when it was time to leave, we pulled on hats and buttoned our coats tightly against the sea breeze.

What fun it is, to have a motor of our own, and be able to enjoy somewhere other than our own little city. We’ve made a promise, John and I, to head out every single Sunday of the winter for a walk. To have a change of scene, and make the day feel longer, and generally, well, blow away those pesky cobwebs which come of too much time indoors.

This week we sought the clear blue-grey light of the coast in winter. It only took an hour to reach Sandsend and, having stopped for a cup of tea, we walked along the beach to Whitby for a bag of chips for lunch, vinegary and hot. The tide lapped at our heels as we approached the safety of the slipway, and by the time we were walking back along the seafront the spray was sending the children shrieking and laughing in and out of its reach. What with the promise of chips in one direction, and the fun of not quite dodging the spray in the other, nobody complained about the five or six mile jaunt, and it was lovely to stretch my legs and plough up the steep path to the cliff tops.

Not all our walks will be as long, or as far afield. A fortnight ago we only ran out to Beningbrough to wander round the ordered calm of their walled garden. Sometime soon we’ll go over to the Dales, and set off early to make the most of the short sunlight. It’s the getting out that matters, and fresh air and green spaces.

Every other day of the week I wish it would stay light for longer, that the day didn’t end at four o’clock. But on Sundays the early sunset means that we all get to enjoy it, whether towards the end of our walk or afterwards, in the motor car. This week it was gentle and glowing, a soft apricot suffusion breaking through the clouds and rendering the moors more glorious than ever. After the sunset, once it’s dark, we may as well go home and pop a chicken in the oven. There was just enough time for a rice pudding, as long as the little ones bathed before tea and went to bed straight after, and for a glass of wine in front of the fire. Thank goodness there’s no rushing in at seven o’clock in the winter, racing to put tea on the table, because that would undo all of the good of the day.

Everyone seems to like it, so we’re sticking with this plan. The Sunday roasts we’ve always had, and a hot pudding for afters, now with a walk beforehand. A whole winter of walks, in fact.

Sunday

For all the moments when having such a spread of children’s ages is a challenge, there are days like Sunday which make up for it, tenfold. On Saturday, Ben and Fliss went off to bonfires with their friends, leaving the rest of us to our own devices. And although I didn’t much feel like celebrating, the little ones bounced us through the traditions and it was fun seeing how happy a sparkler could make them.

After the fireworks, Sunday dawned grey, wet and windy. There didn’t seem to be enough light in the air to make it through the windows. Days like that make me tired to my very bones, and apt to doze the hours away in an armchair. But there are better things to do. We wrapped the little ones in their coats and wellingtons and, despite their protests, headed to Fountains Abbey. All around us the trees shone, copper and bronze, and the light switched from gloomy to ambient. A silly, impromptu game of tig carried them through the ruined cloisters and, before they knew it, they were halfway to the tea shop at the far end of the grounds. There we sheltered from the rain and fed them up with scones and jam and clotted cream, until their cheeks were pink. And on the way back they stalked pheasants through the wooded hillside, pretending to be poachers, and named trees from their fallen leaves, and found their own route back.

What with the wind and the spattering rain and a pot of tea at the cafe, I thought the walk had woken me up, until we were motoring through the dark on the way home. We arrived unexpectedly soon. The living room window glowed yellow through closed curtains, and when we opened the front door the smell of supper made my stomach growl. How lovely it is to have children big enough to stay at home and feed the fire on a cold November day. To  keep an eye on the meat, slow roasting in the oven, and set the table ready for the meal. To have them all there, the little ones telling the big ones about their walk and the pheasants they supposedly nearly caught. The big ones eating two, then three helpings of belly pork and potatoes, before breaking through the nutmeggy skin of a baked rice pudding. Slow food, watched over by those who have stayed at home to write an essay and solve a page of equations. This is what Sunday afternoons are made for: spreading out and then coming back together, to eat. A little feast day to celebrate the passing of each and every week. Whatever the weather, whatever our plans, this is what makes it Sunday.

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: Reluctant

Parts of the garden, at least, seem as reluctant to accept the autumn as I am. The tomatoes keep on coming, as do the valiant courgettes which I’d expected to succumb to their layer of powdery mildew weeks ago. Nasturtiums flower cheerfully in oranges, reds and yellows, and the herbs keep growing fragrant and bright green. If I only look in certain places, I can convince myself that it’s still summer.

It’s harder in the kitchen, though. True, last night’s supper was a simple combination of cheese omelettes, soda bread and greenhouse-fresh tomatoes, but I slipped the fruits into the frying pan to warm through in melted butter. Beside them cooked this evening’s supper –  a simmering pot of sunny carrot soup. It seems the salad days are coming to an end.

True, there are trays of baby little gems and other winter leaves waiting on the kitchen windowsill. It almost looks like springtime. But these will be planted in the greenhouse, and will grow too slowly to feed us all each day. These winter salads won’t be filling any bowls. What they will do, though, is brighten up a ham and chutney sandwich. They’ll bring a dash of greenery to a plate of smoked mackerel and toast. They’ll persevere, when all is wet and windy.

Mrs P is bothering about the house these days, washing the last of the curtains, turning out the rooms. It was she who urged me to book the sweep and order a delivery of coal. Yesterday, she rapsodised for a full half hour about the joys of wearing woollens, and cold, fresh morning air. Oh, I know what she means, but I’m just not ready yet. Don’t tell her I haven’t ordered anyone’s new woollen combinations, or even thought about putting the summer frocks away. No-one’s told me that they’re cold – yet.

Reluctant as I am, though, some progress has been made. The first of Ilse’s dresses is very nearly done, and went together smoothly. A bolt of woollen suiting came today. This Sunday finds us at the yarn fair again. And in the kitchen drawer lie all those wintry flavours needed to bottle this year’s pears: cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. I’ve had a sniff or two, to get me in the mood, and am feeling almost ready. I’ll do it on a rainy day, and be glad of the warm and spicy fug. That, and some new wool to knit with, and a bit of successful sewing, and I might feel a little less reluctant about the tilting of the world.