A grouse bobbed among the stubble. Small birds of prey hovered over fields. A pheasant stalked alongside a hedge. Cotton wool clouds scudded across the blue and a canal wended its way though the countryside like a silver ribbon.
It was a snapshot of the English countryside in September, as my train rushed south from a day’s work in Manchester.
There, on a glorious day, the trees had been showing off their new autumn colours – some way ahead of their southern counterparts.
It was the sort of weather and scenery that sends the mind – and the appetite – on a seasonal journey.
And harvest festivals are not the only festivals around, celebrating the season’s abundance: the 10th British Food Fortnight, which was initially intended to coincide with harvest and revive the celebration of it, is now under way.
And if you fancy something a tad more exotic, then the Sud de France festival is up and running again too, with many events in London promoting the food – and particularly the excellent wine – of the Languedoc-Roussillon.
A football free weekend meant time in the kitchen – indeed, Sunday was the most intensive kitchen day for some months, with a flour-free squidgy chocolate cake, à la Jane Asher, on the agenda as a Monday tonic for hard-working colleagues.
It’s a dark, rich – but texturally surprisingly light – treat, from a lovely, easy recipe that can be found here.
Saturday evening saw a chicken chasseur: for just two of us, four chicken thighs browned in butter, followed by onion and mushroom.
Plain flour is added and cooked through for a minute, before the pan is deglazed with a couple of teaspoons of brandy and then some white wine. It’s at times like this that the smell of cooking is intoxicating.
Add tomato purée, chicken stock and chopped tarragon. Season to taste. Pop the chicken back in, bring to the boil and then cover and reduce the heat.
Cook for around 40-40 minutes – or when the meat is cooked. Serve with freshly chopped parsley and either rice or big croutons.
It’s a great dish and can also be done with game. Indeed, since the ‘chasseur’ refers to hunting, that would be even more traditional.
On Sunday, it was time for a French onion soup for lunch – and then a proper roast dinner in the evening, after baking.
In this case, a rib of beef (more than enough for two), which not only had the bone in, but also plenty of fat.
I don’t think it had ever struck me before, as it did on Saturday, just how much beef is sold for roasting with next to no fat in it. Most seems to be boned and rolled, with a layer of fat wrapped around it.
Since fat carries the flavour – and lubricates the meat – this seems absurd. But then again, British farmers, given the market, have also been rearing pigs with decreasing amounts of fat, as the terror of fat has overtaken the desire for flavour.
The piece I found might not have looked as neat or been as easy to cut as those rolled ones, but it had plenty of fat, cooked very nicely and had no shortage of flavour.
Roast dinners are simple on one level – but require a degree in quantum mechanics on the other.
You need reams of paper to note down the times and temperatures for the joint, for the roast potatoes and for the Yorkshire pudding, together with reminders for when your veg need to go on.
I used beef dripping for both the potatoes and pudding this time – for the latter I might have used too much, although the single pudding, made in a small gratin dish, worked fairly well (I’d have liked it crisper) – but for the former, it was perfect, helping to produce a fabulously crisp but thin outside.
And using the Le Creuset roasting tray that I’d been fortunate enough to win earlier this year meant that, once the meat was resting, I could whack it on the hob, add some sliced onions I’d been cooking, then some flour, a little red wine to deglaze and then water as needed, to produce a decent enough gravy to honour the pud and meat.
Sliced carrots on the side, simply boiled in minimum water, was as complex as I wanted to be after that.
With the nights drawing in and an increasing chill in the air, it was the ideal way to comfort against the impending winter.