Nov 02 2005

Autumn Melancholy 2005


Relentless wind and rain have battered October. Even today’s crisp sunlight illuminating a transparent clear blue sky does little to lift my perennial autumn melancholy. It evokes memories of childhood solitariness and isolation, of boarding school at seven, of a strangely emptying world. I hate dark mornings too, shopping by streetlight, grey foggy days. And the knowledge that it will only get colder! Most people struggle with ice cold January and February but for me November is the low spot of the year. Those first snow drops on Boxing day, dear mild Devon, lift my spirits once more and carry me on towards spring.  


And this week it is not helped by sick animals. How strange it is that days, weeks, months go by and everyone is in rude health, then suddenly a wave of misfortune. A recent visit from Richard, my vet, saw an orderly queue forming in the yard. First little Friday whose whole body is working overtime to reject the massive sarcoid on his throat. How fortunate I was that the Donkey Sanctuary agreed to take him together with his mother into the veterinary hospital for two months in the summer. He received the best possible state of the art treatment whilst providing them with a useful research model. He was even lucky enough to be examined by the guru of the equine veterinary world on a visit to the Sanctuary to lecture to overseas vets. Lucky little Friday. Now we wait to see the outcome of all that care and research.

Next old Sweep had her teeth rasped, an undignified procedure for one of such advanced years but it will help her manage her winter forage in lean months ahead. Ten years ago Richard shook his head and advised me to get a companion for Dandy as Sweep was clearly reaching the end of her days. Now he just laughs in amazement as the old donkey wobbles off happily into the field to join the others.


And finally it was dogs turn; we discussed Wellie’s fear of loud noises which is suddenly making her so anxious she’s trying to chew her way out of everything. What is going on in the doggy brain? Then a second look at dear old Truffle, my twelve year old Labrador, who had a stroke on Monday. So maybe it’s not all autumn sadness after all. 


The garden cheers me up. If I’m not careful it begins to look like one huge fruit salad at this time of year. Apples carpet the grass faster than I can gather them into sacks.


Originally there were two orchards here. Many of the old trees in the east facing cider orchard, planted so long ago, need replacing. That orchard was such an important part of the farm economy years ago. It provided farm workers with cider as part of their meagre wage. Opposite, facing south west is the remains of the culinary orchard, now rough woodland with only a few remaining trees, one or two dessert varieties and a cooker or two. It’s so wild and overgrown it is impossible to reach them now.


A few years ago, with the help of South Hams Council, we planted a small new orchard with some of the old varieties. This year we have apples for the first time, so exciting. Apple orchards are disappearing at a staggering rate everywhere. Ninety percent of Devon orchards have vanished since 1945. Kent has lost 85% in the last fifty years. In 1883 Herefordshire had 27,000 acres of orchard, now the whole of England has a mere 44,000 altogether.

And thanks to the new Single Payment Scheme even more are being grubbed up even as I write. Although the Scheme purports to be “designed to give extra protection to the environment, soil, wildlife habitats and landscape……”it goes on to say “land used for permanent crops including orchards cannot be used to support claims”

It may just be possible to get round this one if sheep graze beneath the trees but that’s of little consolation to commercial growers. As land is not eligible for a subsidy its value plummets and it is difficult to sell. Out come the orchards.

Nothing changes.  I am reminded of the words of Bernard Palissy 1510-1589, “a natural philosopher and man of a wonderfully quick and acute mind”:

“There is no art in the world to which a grand philosophy is more necessary than to agriculture, and to approach agriculture without philosophy is to degrade the land and its’ produce, and indeed I marvel that the land and its natural products do not cry out for vengeance against those ignorant and ungrateful folk who do nothing but spoil and squander trees and plants without consideration…… the acts of ignorance I see daily in agriculture frequently torment my mind……….”

These sentiments were bluntly reiterated by Swift in the 18th century “whoever could make two ears of corn or two blades of grass grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before, would deserve better of mankind….than the whole race of politicians put together.” Only this morning I heard the Prince of Wales talking in a similar vein, lamenting the loss of family farms and century old traditions, skill and husbandry thrown out for profit and mass production. Toujours le meme chose


How few old English apples are available in the shops now too. It seems to be cheaper for supermarkets to import apples from all over the world all year round than source UK crops in September and October. Where have all the old varieties gone? And what has happened to ones we know and love. Where are the Coxes Orange Pippins of 1825, the Worcester Permain of my childhood? The modern versions seem to have lost their character completely and become a bland parody of their former selves. In fact most apples seem to taste exactly the same as each other now, sort of apply-flavoured water. Unless, of course, I pick some of the weird and wonderful old varieties that are still growing in our orchard. Beware the cider apples though. They look ruby red or goldenly enticing, but one big greedy bite is followed by a very dry the mouth! Oh how bitter and sour, maybe Eve bit into a cider apple all those millennia ago in that Garden.

I think maybe, it’s the apples that are making me sad too! Time to take a trip to Thornhayes Nursery to find some wonderful old Devon varieties; time to restock the old orchard. Devonshire Quarrendon maybe, a tiny red Tudor apple, or Pigs Nose or Paignton Marigold , Sour Bay, Spotted Dick or Sops in Wine. The very names cheer me up.


 Normandy Pheasant

This, without doubt, is one of my favourite pheasant recipes and is ideal for oven ready birds which have been commercially prepared. Pheasant like beef is better if it has been properly hung. If it is not it is inclined to be dry and dull when roasted. Apples and Calvados prevent the meat becoming dry and compliment the flavour wonderfully.

Brown a brace of pheasants in melted butter in a heavy frying pan then set aside on a plate. Melt more butter in the pan and fry a kilo of peeled and chopped apples till golden. A sweet apple is best such as Cox or reinette.. Choose a casserole that will snugly take the two birds. Put them breast-side-down on a thick layer of  the apple. Pack the remaining apples all round the pheasants. Pour on 125ml of crème fraiche. Cook gently for about an hour at gas 4 or 180c checking after forty minutes or so. After an hour take them from the oven, raise the heat to 8 or 230c and pour over more crème fraiche with 4 tablespoons of Calvados. Return to the oven for five minutes. Leave to rest before serving. As with all meat resting for a while will make it easier to carve.

Apple, Cabbage and Ginger Soup

Fresh, spicy and delicious this is a great way to use up a few windfalls and a bit of cabbage. But, a big but, it’s essential to have some good chicken stock to back up the flavour.

Shred half a large white cabbage and chop three onions and four green apples. Turn them over in melted butter, then put a lid on the pan and sweat for about ten minutes until soft but not, absolutely not, brown. Add a clove of garlic crushed with salt, a small piece of finely chopped fresh ginger and a litre of chicken stock (…made from that carcass you were going to throw away……) Simmer a few more minutes until the cabbage is tender. Then blend, reheat, taste, season and serve. Very quick, very nice! 


One response so far

One Response to “Autumn Melancholy 2005”

  1. a+ron 02 Nov 2005 at 10:41 pm

    Nice to see truffle, wellie and min in the picture, but no Meg ?? Was she a little camera shy ????
    Yet again a good read on a wet evening, Thanks.
    Ali + Rog

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