Nov 21 2004

Autumn into Winter 2004


Autumn is suddenly fading into winter. The wind blows, leaves fall like huge crispy golden snow flakes and colour vanishes from the valley. The smell of the wet, fallen leaves takes me back, in a split second, to my London childhood, to Kensington Gardens, the Round Pond, The Broad Walk, Christopher Robin, Peter Pan. There I am walking home with Nanny in my little tweed coat and gaiters kicking leaves into the air. Fifty years on I watch my own little grandchildren playing in the leaves on the farm just as I did along the pavements and under the Plane trees. They help me to muck out the donkeys’ stables too, which is a slow and hilarious affair. Flo-jo is too small just yet and may only look on, but Bee and Harry get right down to it. Bee, two and a half, shrieks that the chickens are pecking her bottom. She has to duck and weave to avoid being sprinkled with donkey poo as Harry man-handles a huge shovel into the wheelbarrow, all the while regaling us with a running commentary about his future life as a farmer or maybe a “plane flyer“. He‘s four.

It’s been such a wet autumn in Devon, just as it has in Brittany. Maybe Nature was in a bad mood here as well! We too lost so much of our wild harvest. Blackberries that looked so promising in the late summer sun, turned to water in the constant autumn rain. They rotted on the brambles before I had a chance to pick them. Rose hips went the same way but sloes glistened in the hedgerows and the quince tree has produced it’s heaviest crop ever, the medlar too. Quince ratafia and medlar jelly are in the pipeline. Apples are in abundance and, together with green tomatoes and the tomatillos, they promise good chutney.



The kitchen is filled with baskets of sweet smelling produce awaiting attention. But the garden is calling out to me. I have great plans, as yet mostly in my head, for major reorganisation. With the expert help and draconian measures of Ali and Roger it is slowly taking shape. We make a good team but I’m not allowed to replant a thing without Ali’s say so. She’s the best bindweed detector I’ve ever met! With her high standards the garden will be whipped into shape by the spring. I can’t believe the difference it makes having someone knowledgeable and enthusiastic with whom to share the workload.


The neighbours are ploughing their fields ready for winter sewing now and the Devon soil glistens like freshly turned chocolate in the watery sunshine. Great drifts of seagulls follow the tractors up and down the furrows swooping on every newly revealed morsel.


Our new bullocks have arrived, two big Sussex boys, snugly housed in the big barn for the winter munching their way through a great bale of sweet smelling hayledge. Rams are in with the ewes now, tupping almost completed. The ewes, round and fit after the summer grass, are in the peak of health to start the lambing cycle once again.. We hope Junior will bring new blood to our flock and produce big strong Whiteface lambs next spring. The Jacob- cross ewes and their handsome fellow will give us really good roast lamb next year too! We have three hoggets, year old weathers, ready to go now. Their meat will be wonderful, more flavour than young lamb but without the fat of mutton.


Evelyne, your account of the killing of Marcel’s lambs reminds me just how times have changed this side of the Channel. Soon after we had arrived here, some twenty two years ago, I was invited to a similar event, a very rare thing now. The doomed animal on that occasion was a pig.

It was a cold foggy morning. I crept along the lanes in my car trying to make out a gap in the hedgerows marking the farm entrance. The fog made me so late I was fortunate enough to miss the actual slaughter. Pig was already despatched by the time I arrived. I remember standing in deep mud in a desolate farmyard surrounded by beautiful, dilapidated old buildings. Everything seemed disembodied in the mist. There was no crowd of villagers and no bottles of Rose to celebrate, just the farmers brother, deaf and mute, looking on bewildered, ducking out of the way as the dead beast was hoisted on a shoulder and taken to a shed to hang.

Some days later, I cannot remember how long, I was invited to participate in the butchering of the pig. With a saw in one hand and book in the other, a friend and I embarked of the task. My respect for butchers skills doubled and trebled that morning and I vowed never to get involved with such a thing again! Now when my own animals go to the abattoir I send written instructions for the butchering of each carcass. Leave it to the professionals!

Next the farmers’ wife showed us how to make sausages. “My boys don’t like ‘erbs and seasoning” was her ominous introduction. We were ushered into the dark back kitchen where a huge aluminium pot bubbled on the range. Plunging in a great spoon she fished out ears and jaw bones complete with teeth, all steaming in a greasy, grey broth. We were instructed to pick out the meat, stir in pounds of oatmeal and force the grey goo into sausage skins. Yum!

Loading our portions of pig in the car and, declining offers of pounds of grey sausage, we determined to have a go ourselves. Back in Gay’s kitchen we embarked on a most ambitious programme of Pork Charcuterie ably assisted by Jane Grigsons’ wonderful “ Charcuterie and French Pork Cookery“. For days we minced and chopped, salted and cured. We filled sausage skins and fashioned salamis. We prepared our hams and persuaded the local smoke house to smoke them for us. We talked nothing but pig products and dreamt pig recipes.

To my delight I recently found Gay’s account of our efforts printed in Tom Jaine’s “Twelve Times a Year” news letter for the Carved Angel Restaurant, back in it’s heyday of Joyce Molineux.

I read that unbelievably we made “12lbs of dried sausage, half of which was smoked, 18 lbs of sausages in three different flavours (all with seasoning and herbs!), 4lbs of Cyprus sausage, Pig’s cheese, Hog’s pudding, 4 hams in two different brines and cured pork belly.” An amazing quantity! She goes on to say we were a little over ambitious, I think so too! We certainly produced some wonderful results but I have to admit our success was less than 100%! And we had tremendous fun! We still laugh about it now.

How thrilled I was to find her record of our endeavours. But it is Tom’s introduction that shows me how things have changed in the ensuing years. He wrote “ There is a divide in the world of cookery. On the one hand the restaurants think, or have thought, that home cooking is of little interest: on the other hand the domestic cook has been loath to embark on food of a professional style. That dichotomy is ebbing as chefs and their like realise that Jane Grigson and Elisabeth David have a lot to offer them: and as people in their own homes become more adventurous and sure that their produce is as good if not better than that of the most skilled restaurant”.

With ready prepared food available everywhere I believe that sadly Tom’s words are no longer true. In fact I think, rather than people becoming more adventurous, these culinary skills are disappearing fast. No doubt Gay and I were a little extreme with our mountain of pork but many people now are no longer obliged to even cook a daily meal themselves, let alone pot and preserve for the future. Cooking has become a TV entertainment and the chefs are back in control!

I wonder if Nicolas Appert new what he had started, when in 1803, the Courrier de l’Europe wrote of him “ he has found a way to fix the seasons at his establishment; spring, summer and autumn live in little bottles, like those delicate plants protected by the gardener under glass domes against the intemperate seasons” Tinning and bottling on a commercial scale had begun. Even as late as the1980’s we still did not suspect what would follow

Supermarkets have taken away both our need to cook and any notion of the fear of hunger. In the developed world there are no food shortages, winter or summer. We can simply buy what we like when we like from any where in the world we like. It’s all ready prepared. All we have to do is eat it to stay alive while at the same time a huge part of the population is starving. What a strange world we live in.


One response so far

One Response to “Autumn into Winter 2004”

  1. A+Ron 01 Feb 2005 at 6:42 pm

    Hi, Thank’s for your kind note and lets hope all that hard work was worth it. ???

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