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.

Garden notes: Ripening

I’m not quite sure what came over me last week – it must have been the shock of everything starting up again. Outside, the sun was shining. The wash was drying on the line. There were baskets of windfalls to be peeled and stewed each afternoon, the beans were coming thick and fast and the last few caterpillars were wreaking havoc with my brassicas. Inside, our woollens lay limp and abandoned in the heat. Lunch was a different salad every day. Yet despite all this evidence to the contrary, I looked at all my green tomatoes and decided that they were never going to ripen without a little bit of help.

There’s nothing like a spot of experimentation to get the children interested. We settled on three methods: hanging a whole plant upside down, layering them in a shoebox with newspaper and popping them in the airing cupboard, and putting a few in a brown paper bag with a banana to help them along.

Five days in they remain, without exception, resolutely green. In the meantime, I suspected the tomatoes in the greenhouse needed a drink, given this glorious September heat. And what did I find, on opening the door, but loads of wonderfully ripe tomatoes just begging to be picked. Well. I’m not complaining. Surely the others will catch up at some point, once they’ve got over my silliness. In the meantime, there are tomatoes to be fried with eggs for breakfast, and chopped into salads for lunch. What’s that you say? Tomatoes for supper? Oh, go on then. Twist my arm.

Garden notes: Picking

We’ve been away an awful lot this summer, one way and another. Between outings and overnights, camping trips and tramps around the country, home has been a place to get the washing done and have a bath before heading off again. Things have been different in the garden, too – periods of neglect (in which the tomatoes were saved only by the kindness of a neighbour with a key) followed by a two or three day stint of hours and hours out there. Once back from our final jaunt earlier this week, I was ready for a change of pace. To get back to taking my time, pottering about and making the most of the autumn sun. To seeing all the jobs that must be done and choosing one – just one – to make a start on. And, in this precious time before the clocks go back, using the time between tea and supper to wander around with a basket on my arm, seeing what is ready to be picked.

I love this part of the day. The part when the children flop about on the sofa or the rug, full of bread and jam, ready for a bit of quiet after school and before some game begins. More often than not I am alone in the garden. I check the tomatoes first, then the cucumbers and courgettes. Lettuce next, then it all gets taken in and the leaves plunged into cold water. Then outside once more to the inevitable beans. The low-hung sun shines in my eyes, and looking down I see a spider wobbling about on elongated limbs. The round leaves of nasturtiums steal a march across the paving slabs, heralded by their own radiant blooms, so I pick a basketful of those, too, to make a spicy paste. There are squat green insects here and there, scuttling about on crooked legs, and new webs appear daily between one green creeper and another. The cabbages are safe, now that the caterpillars have moved on to pastures new, but the aphids have arrived in their camouflaged hundreds and tomorrow, really, I should deal with them. For now, though, I have time to sit on my bench and watch the bees make their way from bloom to bloom, drunk and heavy with nectar.

Inside, I watch the hens in happy frenzy on the fresh-dug soil as I rinse the dirt from another panful of potatoes. Boiled, I think, with beans and fish and parsley sauce. Tomorrow there will be cabbage. I must send a child out to pick a Cox for each of them for school. There will be scallions in the morning, and green swiss chard, and flowers for my salad. I could eat like this forever, grazing on the bounty of the earth. Recipe books lie abandoned at this time of year. I keep an ear out for complaints: about green beans again, or more courgettes, or not another cabbage. They haven’t started yet. Perhaps it’s because with green beans come windfalls from the sky, stewed with cinnamon for breakfast. With courgettes come berries in the hedgerows to slow your journey home from school. Or perhaps they simply appreciate this fresh green food as I do, knowing that it cannot last forever. Whatever the reason, they’re eating. And if they keep eating I’ll keep picking, and those plants will keep producing, and everyone will be happy.

A proper picnic

Come August the moors turn purple. The sun lights up the landscape in patches, falling through windows in the cloud. The rowans are laden with red, the bracken is at its full height, and the gorse is, as ever, in flower. But it is the purple heather I like best: great swathes of it splashed across the tops, broken only by a prow of Yorkshire gritstone here and there.

There are lots of places more classically beautiful – I know that, I’ve seen many – but nothing quite compares to the moors in August. It is still bleak, still hard country to scrape a living from. For great stretches there is nothing, and then a long, low farmhouse comes into sight, and then there is nothing again. Small villages huddle in shallow dales, trees twisted by the wind. Sheep wander freely: Swaledales with their curled horns and black faces. Sheep and pheasants, fattened for the kill, and the hovering birds of prey who have spotted something small and living we could never see. This is an old landscape, constant over centuries, changeable by the hour.

It was here that we took a picnic – a proper picnic, in celebration of John’s fortieth. A family picnic seemed just the thing, and the last time he’d had such a thing for his birthday was thirty four years ago, when he was six. Oh, to have an August birthday. The outings and excursions, holidays and lazy days in the garden that such lucky people have, each year. He always lets us share it with him. This year it was properly hot – almost too hot to sit still on the blanket in the midday sun. Nobody really wanted to, anyway, given that the bilberries were ripe. Lips, fingers and chins were stained purple long before the hamper had even been opened, and it took little persuasion to get the children to collect a few more for jam while John and I spread the rug. We had a late luncheon in the heather – pork pies with piccalilli, sandwiches with bully beef and relish, tomatoes from the garden and cool green cucumber cut into sticks for nibbling. A pause was most certainly necessary, and so out came the books and the playing cards, the whittling knives and the knitting. Nearby boulders were examined and attempted, low paths in the flora wriggled through on bellies, siblings jumped out on before they could get ‘home’.

Yet ‘home’ they all came when they saw me sandwiching blackcurrant fool between the layers of a Victoria sponge. It being a birthday cake, we poked candles into its top, and sang before we cut it. Such simple celebrations are very often the best. A slab of cake – or maybe two – on a proper cloth napkin, with tea in a proper china cup and proper grog for the little ones? Proper French bubbles in proper champagne saucers, followed by a most improper nap in the middle of the moor? Now, that’s what I call a proper picnic.

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: Deep sleep

No spinning wheels just yet, but plenty of gooseberry thorns to leave their tales upon my arms and legs. You have to fight your way past them to reach the hidden treasure. The beanstalks have raced to the top of their poles; the jerusalem artichokes tower above the height of the pergola and Ilse lost herself out there, like a little Thomasina Thumb, yesterday afternoon.

It is no wonder that so many fairy tales are about the garden and the wild woods beyond. After the long dreary winter of pottage and salt meat, who wouldn’t trade their child for a basket of sweet salad? We clear the woods to make a space for our tender plants to grow and then grow they do, becoming a jungle of their own. There could well be giants lurking in the nettles, tall and fierce as they are. Crack open one of my hens’ eggs and pure gold resides inside. Gardens are the very stuff of life itself: magical, exciting, hard work and yet ultimately out of our control. I love this time of year, when the plants are bigger than the weeds and it is all a glorious, fruitful mess. A cornucopia of marrows and cabbage, juicy spring onions and rocket which runs to seed faster than we can eat it. Even those tiny lettuces now tower over the beets, their thick stalks running white with bitter sap. The hens devour them, and I plant more out in their place.

Ben’s talents in the garden come to the fore just now: vanquishing the biting brambles with a blade and a younger sibling to be his knave. This is the kind of weeding he likes: thorny and fast with blatantly wicked prey. Seb is the best at turning over the plate-like leaves of the nasturtiums and squashing the yellow clusters of caterpillar eggs beneath. Fliss likes to harvest with me, filling baskets with blackcurrants and raspberries before the greedy birds take more than their share, and Ilse will do anything to speed me along so that we can play a game together, or read a story on the lawn.

We’ve been reading lots of fairy tales lately – Rapunzel, Jack and the Beanstalk, Tom Thumb. Then we look around the garden and see why there is a myth of a bean which grows in a single night, or a girl whose mother craved greens. As we do so, I sneak in another little task: tying up the sweet peas, or weeding between the onions. She helped me cut the lavender on Saturday, and lent me her finger to hold the knots which tied it into bunches. They’re hanging from the airier on the landing, and as you walk upstairs the air fills with its sweet, clean, heavy scent. Once it’s dry we’ll shake it into little cotton sachets and make Christmas presents from them, to scent drawers and linen presses.

Just now, though, it is fulfilling an entirely different purpose. The end of term comes with its own particular tiredness: fretful and sleep-inducing all at once. Yet the lavender is working its magic: I’m not alone in dropping off the moment my head hits the pillow. We are sleeping deeply and well, thanks to those bunches of herbs hanging in the space between the bedrooms. I can’t account for the dreams of the others, but mine are punctuated by images of the garden: of brambles to be slain, tall meadows to be shorn, and bounty to be brought in and devoured.

The other side of rain

Wet washing hung over the banisters. Macintosh-clad children cycling through the puddles, splashing their bare legs with gritty water. Knitting indoors and not out. Trays of second sowings languishing on windowsills. Toes which are too cold and then, once slippered, too hot. Rainy days in June, when we had hoped for sun.

And yet. Rainy days in summer have their own peculiar charms. The other side of rain is pea and lettuce soup for supper, fragranced with fresh mint. More shades of green than I can name, just outside the window. Bejewelled peonies that only I am traipsing out to see. A cool day to turn gooseberries and elderflowers into jam – and another excuse for buttered scones. Guilt-free time with a book while the weeds dance under the falling droplets. Fewer qualms about children stuck indoors, revising. No need to use the watering can for a week or so. The knowledge that tomorrow might well be a scorcher.

All told, I’ll settle for today. After all, I waited all winter for June. Rainy days or not, it is slipping by so quickly. Soon the holidays will be upon us, soon the children will be another school year older. Soon there will be a week when we spill onto the lawn and picnic thrice a day. But today the rain is falling and, all things considered, there are worse things that could happen.

Garden notes: Soak

The house seems to double in size at this time every year. Time for a cup of tea? Let’s have it in the garden. A bit of homework to finish off? Do it under the apple tree. Where’s Ilse’s teddy? She probably left it on the lawn. I can’t actually remember the last time we sat in the living room, given that we choose the green carpeted one for preference every time. Even chilly evenings and rainy days find us in the kitchen, looking out over the garden. Our lives have shifted towards the back of the house, where the sun shines longest.

Now that the trees are all in leaf, the little plants in my veg plot wait eagerly for the sun to swing round and touch their outstretched arms. They don’t have long to wait: there is only a short window of time in which I can give them a good soaking with the hose. A tiny northern tribe of bluetits finds me at it and swoops beneath the arc of droplets, gathering the worms which have been tricked into thinking it is raining. They flutter and hop about with surprising daring, daubed as they are with charcoal and woad, and I have to take care not to swipe them with the water. Once the swampy celery is sated, its roots damp once again, I can head off to do other things in the sun. This is the time of year when the house is sadly neglected, and I look for jobs outside at every opportunity. A spot of weeding? Yes please. Mowing the lawn again? If you insist. Picking the salad for supper, collecting the eggs, finding a patch of nettles to cut down… I’ll take any outdoor job that’s going.

The garden is at its very best, with a full complement of little plants in ordered rows. They aren’t at the stage of sprawling yet, or hiding trouble under luxuriant leaves, but they are safely out of the seedling stage. The slugs, though still a nuisance, hold less horror for me now. The pigeons can’t wipe out the peas in a single feeding. Everything is coming along nicely, and some are even feeding us with delightful regularity. I would be tired of lettuce, if it wasn’t so deliciously thick and juicy. The rocket disappears by the handful each time I bring a basket of it to the kitchen table. Little radishes are rinsed off under the garden tap and eaten then and there. And spinach and eggs are a match made in heaven: a point proven almost daily in this house.

The tomatoes are in flower, the peas not far behind. The potatoes are so tall I won’t have earth enough to bury them, but I’ll do the best I can. New spring cabbages, to cut and come again all summer, are very nearly ready. And then there are the slow growers: the savoys and brussels, the swedes and parsnips. The carrots, appearing once more from nowhere (there’s magic afoot in that patch, I tell you) have quite a way to go. But there’s plenty to keep us going, and the flavours keep on changing the whole season long. We’ve been pulling rhubarb for a while, and now the little gooseberries are almost at their peak. Seb is keeping a beady eye on the strawberries, and on the thieves that steal them. And to keep it all changing, to keep it even fresher than it already is, are the herbs. I pick them by the handful: thyme and oregano on roast chicken, chives in our spinach omelettes. Rosemary with tender spring lamb. Mint-boiled new potatoes.

What it is about the sun which makes it so compelling? It pulls us out of doors, as if by sitting and soaking it up we could grow big and strong just like our plants. As if, by being in its presence, we’ll be made well again. As if we could bottle up the warmth and take it winterward with us. We can’t, of course. Only the plants can do that for us: in the trees which become logs, the fruits and stems and leaves which become our food.  I know all this, but it won’t stop me trying. A bit of mending? I’ll do that on the garden bench.

When evening comes and the sun departs it is as if it was never really there. In fact, I need a jumper of some sort to keep me warm. Where did I leave my cardigan? Oh look – it’s on the garden bench, soft and brown and wonderfully warm from soaking up the sun.