Before we get to floral fireworks, take a moment to admire this menu from The Hazelmere Bakehouse in Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria. Revel in the mention of a beesting, sigh over a Yorkshire curd tart and then exhale to the glories of a Cumberland rum nicky. I live in a city that is awash with (American-influenced) cronuts and brownies, triple-chocolate snicker doodles and salted caramel cheesecake – and whilst of course there is a place for all that, let’s not forget the glory that is traditional British baking.
The only thing that could improve this menu for me, lover of baked goods as I am, is an acknowledgment that the 18th century imports of cheap sugar and spice that popularised English fruited cakes and tarts was made possible not just because of trade with the West Indies (which they mention) but also because of enslaved labour; it’s an unsavoury truth of our culinary history that shouldn’t be ignored. The threads of the past feed into the present.
The trip to Grange was part of a few days in the Lakes as a replacement summer holiday; there was a steam train, a boat, lots of cakes, and of course a fair bit of drizzle.
I’ve mentally moved away from summer now. That may seem an odd statement, in the final week of October, but the seasons are so wobbly and in any case I always seem to be a few months behind everyone else. Our roses are deep into their second bloom and the raspberries are still cropping, their fruits the deepest, darkest crimson imaginable. This weekend I pulled a few carrots and parsnips, along with three plump pumpkins grown from seed gifted to me from my school friend Hannah McNeil, the variety a mystery.
Calling time on summer, in allotment terms, means starting the great clear up. Out have come the spent sunflowers and cornflowers; gone are the rotting courgette and pumpkin leaves. I’ve been ruthless, actually, and ripped out the cosmos even though they had a few weeks of flowers left; the wind had blown them horizontal over the path, which is both a practical hindrance but also a very visible reminder of my failure to do things (i.e. stake) properly. The rampant nasturtiums have suffered a similar fate but really, they are bullies with their tendency to spread and romp. Left to their own devices, I would have a plot made fully of self-seeded nasturtiums, grass and buttercups. After an hour or two of clearing, what remains is the morning after the night before: bare soil, tons of uncovered weeds, and occasional squares of flowers and brassicas given the reprieve.
I enjoy a good clear out; to remove the remnants of summer is to let go of the past and, as I manure and cover the ground over the next few weeks, make the soil good again for next year. The writer Laura Cummings talks about ‘the redemption of Monday morning’ – the idea that every working week has a fresh start, the chance to put the excesses of the weekend behind you. Yes, I think, yes. October on the allotment is a little like Monday morning. Let go of the disappointments and reset again for next year.
Except there are some things that I’m not ready to let go of just yet, as they are just coming into their own. I’m talking of course of chrysanthemums, once the mumsy also-rans of the cut flower scene, and now (at least, I think) super chic. The smell of chrysanthemums instantly takes me to the churchyard in Hanley Swan, where as a child I used to help my Mum tend to my Nan and Grandad’s grave. That might sound a little morbid but it shouldn’t; to me chrysanthemums are smell of security and the countryside. I also love that Matt’s Granny and Grampy were semi-professional chrysanthemum growers; he has stories of how they used to protect their blooms from the rain with paper bags. There’s some serious legacy there to live up to.
My firework chrysanthemums are just coming into bloom now, which is absurd given that they were labelled ‘early’ on the catalogue. I have the Woolmans Starburst collection, for which I paid £12 for 5 seedlings in those innocent pre-pandemic days of January 2020. After a feeble start in my garden last summer, Mum kindly took cuttings and I now have an excellent, if excessively tall, patch for cutting. As ever I staked them badly and they are all wonky but I don’t care: I love them.
Next year I need to get more of the more traditional, fuller blooms to sit alongside the firework-style. Something like the Jewel Collection from Sarah Raven. Incidentally she recommends moving your chysanths into the greenhouse, root-ball and all, to extend the season, which I would love to do if only I had one. But as long a the weather stays kind, I’ll be cropping these for several weeks yet.
Also this week:
Harvesting: Chrysanthemums, dahlias, last French beans, first carrots, first parsnips, last raspberries, two tiny strawflowers (crop failure).
Planting: Planted tulips and alliums on the allotment. Won’t be able to plant tulips at home for weeks yet as the garden is still too abundant, such warm weather.
Eating and cooking: Cumberland sausage, chips and beer in the pub; Vanilla slice in Grange over Sands; Westmoreland tea bread; Autumn cooking at home now: proper deep filled apple pie; cauliflower cheese; beef ribs with red wine, cinnamon and star anise.