Nov 12 2020

Autumn

And here we are again thrust into another national lock-down, empty days stretching out ahead once more.  This time not even long warm summer evenings to enjoy. The clocks have gone back and dusk descends earlier each day creeping like a great grey blanket, spreading prematurely across a rain-soaked sky. As the light fades, we struggle up through mud to the yard.

Donkeys and dear old Larry-the Lamb come in for tea. Chickens scuttle back to their perches, snuggling up for the long night ahead and sheep head for the shelter of the hedgerow. Autumn is gently drifting into winter.

How fortunate are we to have space around us, fields to walk in, jobs to do outside, animals to care for. They know nothing of these difficult times. Millie and I walk up to the top fields each day, rain or shine, to check the sheep grazing quietly on the hills.

We gaze across our neighbour’s land at the river below and Dartmoor in the distance. We amble down to feed chickens, re-straw nest boxes, search for eggs, muck out the stables, or to be more accurate, I muck out while Mil races round bouncing on hay bales hoping for rats!

Autumn colours always lift my spirits. The valley is turning to gold. Trees surround us shimmering yellow, orange, red, lighting up majestically in rare moments of low autumn sunlight. Leaves swirl around me as I walk. They crunch under foot reminding me of long-ago childhood walks in Kensington Gardens to see Peter Pan’s statue.

And the last little roses sprinkle colour where they can.

Apples abound carpeting the ground. No piggies now to feast on them nor local cider press. I hate to see them go to waste and ponder what to do with them. They do at least provide a winter feast for the birds. Maybe the beautiful Redwings will return and gorge on them as they did last year.

Tomato vines wither still laden with unripe fruits and cucumber plants collapse under the weight of a big green harvest. I even have three aubergines! So, of course, jellies, pickles and chutneys are in the pipe line!

I find it even more comforting than usual in these strange times to fill the larder with winter treats, such good therapy!

A bucket of windfall apples turned into clear sparkly jelly with the help of a kitchen stool, a piece of boiled muslin and a large bowl.

 I put the sliced apples into a preserving pan. Just covered them with water I simmered them until soft. I tipped the softened mass into the muslin and let the juice drain over night. This time I had cored the apples which left me with wonderful apple puree which, once sieved, went into the deepfreeze.

Next morning, I measured the juice and put it in a clean pan allowing a pound of warmed preserving sugar to a pint of juice. Slowly I brought it to the boil skimming off the white scum from the top with a slotted spoon. I let it boil hard for fifteen to twenty minutes before doing a setting test: a tiny spoonful on a saucer into the freezer for a few minutes. If the skin wrinkles it’s ready for potting up. I find I usually have to test it too or even three times!! Maybe I’m too impatient!

When I’m satisfied setting point is indeed reached, I carefully pour small jugful’s of the hot liquid into sterilised jam jars being very careful not to burn myself. I cover each jar with a wax disc and a jam cover and look forward to winter treats.

Chutney is another soothing way to use up the end of autumn harvest on long lock-down days! Apples go in, of course, with the green tomatoes, a courgette or two maybe, a handful of little shallots, perhaps a red pepper. Garlic cloves and lemon rind follow with a piece of finely chopped fresh ginger, maybe a dried chilli or two, some mustard seed and spoonful of turmeric. It all depends what I have in garden and store cupboard. This year I added a good spoonful of Ras el Hanout, a gift from a friend, delicious!  All these are stirred together with plenty of brown sugar and white wine vinegar. Three dozen apples will need about 1 1/2 kilos of sugar and a litre of vinegar.  It’s always worthwhile warming the sugar just as for jams and jellies.

I let it all cook gently for an hour or two, stirring occasionally to stop it sticking to the pan. Gradually all things soften and begin to join together to become a wonderfully aromatic savoury jam, best potted up and kept for a few weeks before eating!

Piccalilli is another of my favourites; I enjoy making it as much as eating it! The traditional ingredients are, of course, cauliflower, courgette, green tomatoes, green beans and shallot but other vegetables can be added. Once chopped, I put them all in a big bowl and cover with salt and leave them for twenty-four hours to drain. It is then so important to rinse everything really well to get rid of the salt. When I’m satisfied the vegetables are drained, I pack them into sterilised jam jars.

Next, I mix together mustard powder, finely sliced ginger, crushed garlic cloves, peppercorns, turmeric, cumin, coriander and mustard seeds, some honey. Then in goes a little flour and enough white wine vinegar to turn it all into a smooth paste. As it warms, I gradually stir in more vinegar and cook it gently for about five minutes until I have a silky sauce.  I pour this over the vegetables, seal the jars while it is still hot and store for at least four or five weeks before eating…..if I can wait that long!!

The quantities vary depending on the amount of vegetables I have and, of course, individual taste.

So, my store cupboard and deep freeze are ready for winter and whatever we are faced with in the coming months. As I say to all my friends, we must stay safe, stay calm and wait and see what the months ahead and springtime will bring. I wait as always for that first snowdrop on Boxing Day, a sure omen of better things ahead!!

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