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.

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: 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]