Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Mellow Fruitfulness

Ah, Keats.   Of all the poems I learnt at school, Ode to Autumn is the only one strangers quote t me. There is something about going for a walk and coming across someone picking elderberries or sloes in the hedgerows that seems to compel ramblers of a certain age to say "season of mists and mellow fruitfulness." Every time. Seriously, it happens every single time.

It's a corker of a line, of course. In fact, I like the whole first stanza -

SEASON of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,         5
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease;  10
For Summer has o'erbrimm'd their clammy cells.

The apple and pear trees have been wonderful this autumn. I've had crisp, sweet Discovery apples from the cheap little tree from Costco we planted 18 months ago.  There were two freakishly large Red Delicious apples, each as big as a baby's head, from a cordon tree SJ gave us. I can't bring myself to eat them, they're just too ridiculous. Miss B's apple tree has had a less successful year but after last year's bumper crop probably needed the break.

For the first time our little pear tree has been properly productive. Up until this year it's lost most of its fruit before they'd ripened. I've been plucking ripe pears from the branches for a nearly a month - I must have had at least 15, which is good going for such a small tree. They are so much nicer than any pears I've had before, but I suspect that's sentimentalism on my part.

This week my lovely pal Suzanne took me to visit our friends Jo, Ang and Lucy for a visit of walking, sloe picking and a big shared lunch. Lucy is a keen walker and cyclist. When she said there were blackthorn bushes 'near' her house, I hadn't realised she meant a 4.5 mile round trip rather than a gentle stroll along the lane. However, it was a beautiful sunny day, the company was good and the sloes plentiful. It was a lovely day, the kind I will look back on to keep me going during the dark winter days.

People say things like "wait until the after the first frost" to pick sloes, but that's rubbish. Most years, by the time we have a frost the sloes have been eaten by the birds, picked by foragers quicker off the mark, or have wizened on the bush. The frost breaks down the cell structure, which is helpful for making sloe gin. I guess that was pretty useful in times past.

However, we don't live in the 18th century.  We have freezers.  Bobbing your freshly picked sloes in the freezer for a couple of days does a fine job of rupturing the cell structures, with the added bonus of killing off any unwanted passengers.

After picking over the frozen sloes for stalks, leaves or deceased insects,  I poured 1kg of them into a 2 litre Kilner jar. In went just over a litre of gin and 200g of sugar.  Traditional recipes call for a lot more sugar, but I don't like it too syrupy, and I'd rather add more sugar later than end up with something tooth-dissolving.

I've left the jar on the counter this week so I remember to shake it every day. in about a fortnight I'll banish it to the cupboard under the stairs until near Christmas.  Then I'll test the sweetness, adjust as needed, and leave a while longer.

The other autumnal thing I did this weekend was roasting 2 large butternut squashes for soup. I just hack them into big slices or wedges, skin on, and rub a little olive oil across them. Then I bang them in the oven for about an hour.

I pull them out when they are all soft and look like this -

Cooled, rinds removed and whizzed up with stock and pepper, they become pretty much my favourite fall lunch.  That's why I make such a lot at once - I will eat it for days given a chance!

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