Simon © 2011
The unalloyed joys of autumn are here in abundance. Leaving aside that heavenly air-filled scent of smoky bonfires, there is an unmistakeable nip in the air as shining conkers, crackling log fires, toasted marshmallows and warming foods all beam back on to the radar. There are cobnuts; wet walnuts; round and ripe blackberries, sharp damsons and sour sloes; an assortment of fungi – under one’s feet quite literally - all there for the gathering; plus crab apples, medlars, elderberries and hips – wild foods have never made richer pickings than at this time of the year. Add to this bounty, the last of the plums plus homegrown runner beans and tomatoes – the latter now finishing their ripening process in sunny window-sills, plus a whole host of squashes and pumpkins; the promise of a delicate flavoured partridge (English for preference – identifiable by its grey legs) and the world is your oyster, so to speak. No wonder the Harvest Festival is such a celebrated feast. Read on for ideas on how to savour these and other October treats.
Fresh walnuts possess a mild, creamy flavour and a crisp, damp texture which makes them a heavenly pairing with ripe pears, blue cheese, chicory leaves and a wholegrain mustardy dressing. For the sweet-toothed brigade, nothing beats a proper walnut tart adorned with a sugary white icing.
For the home cook, damsons spell preserves, damson vodka or gin; damson fool or puree which inevitably gets plunged into the depths of the deepfreeze and forgotten. Tut, try and use them before they plummet such depths by first stoning them and then cooking them up with fresh ginger, garlic, sugar, salt, a splash of red wine vinegar and some sherry until they are reduce to a jammy consistency. Serve alongside fatty pork chops, roasted belly of pork or duck breasts.
Deep purpley black figs, cut twice through from the stem end so that the quarters remain joined at the bottom and the four segments opened like a flower, go wonderfully well with goats’ cheese crumbled over them , a drizzle of runny honey and some torn Parma ham, finished off with a twist of freshly ground pepper.
Hedgerow jelly composing of elder and blackberries, medlars and crab apples is wonderful to serve throughout the winter months with game including venison.
Apples, joined by the last of the blackberries, make peerless crumbles, pies, sponges and cakes. Alternatively, cook them up on their own with just a splash of water, a few sprigs of rosemary, some sugar (to taste) and the zest of a grated lemon and pile them into the deepfreeze to pair with the Sunday joint of roast pork. Another suggestion is to turn them into fritters teamed with elderberries.
There’s a ‘r’ in the month which means mussels, oysters plus clams, cockles, winkles and whelks are at their zenith. At the upper end of the fish market, don’t forget crab, lobster and langoustine.
Game. It’s a bit early for pheasant but grouse is now at is zenith – and it’s been an excellent season for these birds so it shouldn’t be too difficult to find a brace. Roast them in the traditional way, ensuring you have barded them well (i.e. covered them with fatty bacon or something similar) and sit each bird on a piece of bread so that this absorbs the juices as they cook. Bring them to the table – having already opened a bottle of fine ‘Burgundy - alongside toasted breadcrumbs, lashings of creamy, buttery bread sauce, crunchy game chips, a little jus made from reduced game stock, red wine (or port) into which you have melted a tablespoon of redcurrant jelly and a sprig or two of watercress. No further embellishment is needed.
And finally, for the sportsmen amongst you – something good for that ‘elevenses’ flask when the colder weather takes hold. Make a rich, jellied stock using marrow bones (your butcher will give you these). Place in a saucepan together with 1 – 2 tablespoons of redcurrant jelly and stir until this has melted. Next, ad; a glass of Port (at least) and perhaps the same of Sherry plus a few shakes of each of Worcester sauce and Balsamic vinegar and bring to the boil. Adjust seasoning as necessary and transfer into a large pre-heated thermos.