Sep 25 2008

Dark Days of Autumn

Golden autumn sunshine briefly floods the rain soaked valley. Geese are arriving for the winter; they screech and circle overhead as they prepare to land clumsily on the creek beyond our gate. Sheep glisten on the hillside high above my window, their fleece still wet from the relentless summer rain. The dry interlude has brought a frenzy of activity across the county as farmers race to save the remains of their sodden crops. Tractors, combines, ploughs, harvesters growl their way over the fields cutting brown over-ripe corn, ploughing through mud, lifting overdue potatoes, saving whatever they can as fast as they can. More rain is on its way. Suddenly the dark sky is back, and there is a sharp chill in the wind. An air of gloom hangs over us all as we realise winter approaches following the summer that never arrived.

August was the worst month since records began in 1929. Acres of crops have been lost across the whole country. Flooding has been wide spread and hundreds of lambs have been lost in floods, 800 in Northumberland alone. For some farmers this is the second time they have been flooded in two years. It bodes badly for the winter months ahead. Wheat is sprouting in the fields as rain prevents harvest and crops must be written off as drying costs soar with the world hike in oil prices. Potatoes rot in water logged soil, other root crops simply fail to mature in the cold wet weather. Salad crops are not germinating and the cold spring and late frost devastated most of the fruit crop. Cider makers, though, say they have a bumper crop of apples.
I worry about feeding sheep and donkeys as the winter months draw near. Hay and straw is going to be expensive and scarce and, although we have plenty of grass at the moment, it is poor quality and lacks sugar. We’ll have to supplement everyone’s winter feed, particularly the ewes, if we are to have sturdy lambs next year. This year’s lambs have suffered everywhere from the lack of sun of their backs and are finishing more slowly than ever.

And then of course there is the world stage to bring us even more despair as financial markets crash around our ears. Our own political climate is no better with media feeding us a steady daily flow of doom and gloom; little to lift our hearts in these grey September days. Indeed a creeping feeling of helplessness is threatening to take hold and must be resisted at all costs.
So I turn once more to my garden for solace. I harvest what crops I can and enjoy the fading blooms of autumn. Gentians glow bright blue by the back door. Blousy pink cosmos, scarlet dahlias and pale anemones clash wildly by the pond.
Huge water lily leaves glisten in the evening light and the clerodendron tree fills the air with sweet scent. The last roses and geraniums flower bravely on despite rain and wind. Autumn leaves change colour and glow briefly in fleeting sunlight. The little Katsura tree, golden now, smells, of burnt toffee as I pass by on my way to the yard to feed chickens and donkeys and check sheep. Late broods of new chicks crowd the farmyard, miraculously surviving storms and predators.
Vegetables of all sorts go into the deep freeze, with more urgency than ever as food prices rise across the board. I managed to pick a good crop of beans before disease ruined the plants.
Courgette exploded into marrows in the wet weather if I turned my back for a moment. Still, they will feed all those chickens in the barren winter months. Chard stalks glow pink, yellow and scarlet beneath their glossy green leaves. Turnips, carrots, swedes swelled in the wet ground and have been rescued before they rot. Potato blight devastated the tops of the plants but, by cutting them down quickly, I still have a reasonable crop. Tomato plants turned brown and crisp, suffering, I suppose, from the same blight as the spuds but the fruit is still ripening on its dying host. In the poly tunnel I have had a few small feeble aubergine and three fine pumpkins, huge shiny and dark orange, but yet another blight has withered and whitened the leaves.

Meanwhile a marauding army of cabbage-white caterpillars marches relentlessly through the salad crop stripping bare every leaf.

It has indeed been a very strange year in the vegetable garden but I have a great new arrival in my kitchen…..Every cloud, even one as big as this years summer, has a silver lining! The terrifying rise in oil prices forced me to sit down and look long and hard at my oil bill and my poor inefficient old cooker. It had to go. It dried the clothes and heated the water but the minute I lifted its lid or put something in the oven to cook, it threw up its metaphorical hands and the temperature plummeted. We twiddled our fingers wondering when we would be allowed to eat. And all the while it gobbled more and more oil.

So now we have a shiny new electric range with a separate heat source to the two hot plates, two ovens and, oh wonder, grill! This means they all independently hold their heat. If I use the simmering plate, the hot oven remains hot; if I bake bread in the top oven the simmering plate still holds its temperature! Obvious really, but I didn’t realise how used I had become to limping along with my grumpy old fellow. Best of all the new girl has an “eco” button which turns the temperature of the whole cooker down all night, bringing it up again in time for breakfast.
Cooking has become a real pleasure and relaxation once more. I no longer think “Oh I can’t cook that; poor old fellow won’t manage it”. Potatoes roast, vegetables too. Pastry crisps, soufflés rise, gratins brown, bread bakes crisp and golden, meat roasts succulently and briskly. Stews and ragouts mellow gently in the cooler oven. Herbs and tomatoes dry in the third little plate warming oven and I am making wonderful real yogurt once more. Cooking is fun again!

Now I am able to cook our own lamb chops, pink and succulent, under my fierce new grill. I blanch some of the last runner beans, before cooking them in olive oil with my own chopped tomatoes and a clove of garlic until the tomatoes melt. Add some Pink Fir Apple potatoes that have escaped the blight and we have a small delicious feast all harvested from our little piece of Devon.

The last of the broad beans are blanched and added to a béchamel sauce that is enriched with cream and ham and accompanied by a baked potato.

Chard leaves are blanched quickly too, before they are added to their colourful chopped stems, which have been softened in a little butter and oil with garlic and chopped shallots. Mixed with a couple of fresh eggs from the farmyard and a dollop of cream I turn the mixture into a pastry case, sprinkle the top with grated cheese and bake in the top oven until the pastry is crisp and the filling quiveringly set.

Root vegetables are sliced and sprinkled with salt, then roasted in the hottest part of the oven in olive oil to make a light supper with couscous or rice.

Any of the garden vegetables are dragooned into use for a quick lunchtime soup; sweated in oil till just soft they are added to a tub of frozen chicken stock, simmered gently, seasoned and served with crusty home made bread.

I daresay I will even make a cake one day and maybe even cook exploding, crunchy, golden Yorkshire puds!


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Sep 05 2008

Making Stock

A friend of mine who has recently had to take on all the cooking for the first time looked at me in a puzzled way the other day and said “When you’re making soup where does the liquid come from?” If you’ve never cooked before it’s a very good question! I laughed and explained about making stock, ‘take the meat off the cooked chicken, put the carcass in a pot. Fill the pot with water, add a bay leaf, some herbs, a carrot, an onion and put the whole thing in the bottom of your kitchen range and go to bed’! “Goodness” he said and looked delighted. Just then someone else spoke to me and our conversation on soup finished. But I overheard him trying to find out more from a photographer friend. “Where do you get the liquid from?” he asked again ” A stock cube, of course!”. I laughed to myself. It was like me taking my happy snaps to Boots to have them processed when I know my friend works for hours printing to perfection in her dark room. So horses for courses, make your stock or use a cube!  The basis of soup is the same. Sweat vegetables slowly in a covered pan over a gentle heat in a little butter and oil until they are soft. If you want a thick soup add a potato or some rice and stir in a little flour. Omit these if you want a clear soup with bits! When the vegetables are just tender stir in the stock, simmer season and serve.
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