Monday, 27 September 2010

Poetry and plums

It’s difficult to know why I was surprised, a year ago or so, to learn that Britain is the cloudiest part of Europe. It really shouldn’t come as a revelation.

Saturday proved blustery and gloriously bright (apart from a spell in the middle of the day, when it became overcast). Walking alongside the Regent’s Canal to Broadway Market, the overgrown bushes that push beyond the rusting railings on the non-towpath side are getting heavy with berries. The trees have yet to start turning, but the briskness in the air makes you anticipate the unfurling season.

In my schooldays, I was never a great fan of poetry – and that was made worse at the time by having Keats for more than one course.

But there was one Keats poem, which captures some of the colour and fecundity of the season, that was my exception proving the rule.

Ode to Autumn

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 mossed cottage-trees,
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,
For Summer has o’erbrimmed their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers;
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too, –
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing, and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

On the market itself, there was a plethora of apples, pears, dusky plums and voluptuous pumpkins.

It was certainly soup weather, but not quite time for a really thick soup, so for lunch, I used a recipe from Clare Ferguson’s Flavours of Provence (which I found in the Gard du Nord Eurostar bookshop in Paris, rather than in the south) for a vegetable broth with pistou – and this week, I used basil instead of last week’s parsley.

It added a real zing to the soup, which included onion, butternut squash, carrot, courgette, cannellini beans and a few fine beans.

While that was cooking, I halved a load of plums and popped them into the same weight of jam sugar in a glass bowl, then covered that with a tea towel and left it overnight.

It was a day when I scarcely seemed to be out of the kitchen for very long – although that was miles from unpleasant.

For dinner, I roasted a bulb of garlic and then mixed it with lightly crushed, par-boiled potatoes, melted butter, olive oil and seasoning and popped the whole lot back in the oven to brown up.

That’s a dish from Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook – although she does it with new potatoes. I do too – but it works all year round and not just in the spring and summer.

Referring once more to Ferguson’s book, I halved a couple of large tomatoes that had been in for a week, and de-seeded them. Mixing a teaspoon of caster sugar, a teaspoon of salt, some ground black pepper and some nutmeg, you sprinkle the inside of the tomatoes with this, and then fill them with finely chopped shallot.

Get some olive oil really hot in a shallow pan and then pop in the tomatoes, skin side down. At this point, the recipe calls for garlic and herbs to be added to the pan, but I ducked out of that – I’d added some dried oregano and dried sage to the salt-sugar mix earlier.

Add a tablespoon or so of white wine (or stock or water) and then put a lid on and turn down to the minimum heat. Leave for 10 minutes.

After that, use a spoon and palette knife (a really good hint, this) to turn them so that the filling is face down, put the lid back on and leave for a further 10 minutes.

Very tasty.

With all that, we had salmon fillet, which I baked in a little white wine, covered with greaseproof paper and given 15 minutes on the lowest shelf while the potatoes were browning up.

And as if there wasn’t already enough garlic in everything, I made up some aioli – and taking another hint from Ferguson’s book, added a teaspoon of boiling water right at the end, which helps to stabilise the emulsion.

With a glass of plonk to wash it down – the Domaine Combes 2009 Saint-Chinian mentioned yesterday – that was, I think, very good fodder indeed.

Which brought us to yesterday itself – and jam making.

Now I’ve done some preserving before; or rather, I’ve attempted a jelly to go with meat or fish. It hasn’t been a disaster, but I don’t have the sense of it being an unmitigated success either.

With that in mind, I’d picked the easiest possible plum jam recipe from internet research in an aim for total foolproofness.

Yesterday morning, as I put a wash on and set the coffee going, I tipped the entire bowl of fruit and sugar into a large pan on minimum heat.

It took remarkably little time for the sugar to dissolve, and then it was simply a question of boiling vigorously for 10-12 minutes.

Then, however, it dawned on me that, although the recipe had said that the stones would float free, the skins was still attached and, at present, that would complicate consumption for me.

I should have found a way of separating skin and stones from the fruit before adding the sugar. Doh!

With the mixture beginning to set, I quickly sieved it into a jug and then poured it into sterilised jars (just two – 700g of fruit and the same of sugar doesn’t make a lot).

Now I’d thought it would be sensible to use jam sugar, but that might have been the wrong decision. It has set very firmly indeed – but apparently plums have a very high level of pectin, so perhaps that sugar, which also included additional pectin, was a bit much.

But stiff or not, the taste is wonderful, so it’s certainly not a wasted effort. I do feel, however, that I need to look for a book that is about the basic principles of preserving rather than simply a collection of recipes.

It’s a deeply satisfying thing to do – and there are so many flavour combinations, savoury and sweet, that I can imagine trying.

Later, I popped boulangerie potatoes into the oven for half an hour, which I then topped with a boned shoulder of lamb and gave almost an hour.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t cooked as thoroughly as it should be – even though the timings were considerably beyond that of the recipe (which was in French, from a magazine, so that was something of a triumph).

It raises the perennial problem of every oven being different – and of such dishes really (and traditionally) needing very long, slow cooking, often at temperatures below that to which modern ovens will go (the first time I can see an argument for ranges).

Not that it’s wasted: it’s all gone back in a pot and will be given a couple of hours – on the lowest heat possible – this evening.

But it was a timely reminder that things can go awry even when you think you’ve done everything right.


  1. When I read your posts, I feel like I'm standing next to you in the kitchen as you cook. Now I want to browse Sarah Raven’s Garden Cookbook!

  2. Thank you for that, Revised! What a lovely thing to say.