We are returned from our summer holiday, ‘summer’ being perhaps an optimistic notion for October. It is at this time of the year that we travel, partly to avoid school holidays but mainly because work is usually busiest during the festival-season of June to September. Not this year of course. Nothing is the same this year – not that you’d know it in Cornwall. There, the pace of life remains reassuringly unhurried, the noise of lockdown diktats from London seem to merely echo rather than shout.
Alas, the weather threw everything at us. Gales, rain, drizzle, sun, rainbow, wind again…Watching it all unfold, I wrote a few words in my journal:
Sea merging into sky
steel blue, grey, white, concrete
Three days of leaden sky
Forceful wind, rajasic weather,
But then this morning, sun broke through
turning the cliffs golden
The hint of a rainbow dissolves onto the sea
and then returns with greater resolve.
A brief strengthening of sprit.
I am not normally driven to write poetry-style words. This is what the Cornish landscape does to a woman in middling-age.
I have always thought of our September/October break as the end of summer, a mental shift towards the autumn/winter months. On returning home my mind whirrs with lists to make the next six months more tolerable; much of it is kitchen and garden-room (I can wish) related: the final autumn harvests, the creation of dried flower vases around the house. Sloe-apple jelly and butternut squash soup become earmarked for creation. Traditionally we prepared for winter by filling our stores and retreating indoors, a way of thinking that remains in my blood.
Yesterday I gave in and harvested the outdoor tomatoes from the veg trug. These are lockdown plants, arriving shrivelled and near dead in the post after whiling away for days in the postal service, but they perked up and the four plants have given several kilo of fruit. Harry, only 3, insisted on using the secateurs and to his credit, did an effective job. The issue is ripeness, or rather the lack of it: 90% of them are green, our back garden too overlooked and the summer too cloudy to allow them to ripen. I’ve placed them on newspaper in the sun room in hope of a late ripening, and the rest – let’s face it – will probably end up in the compost.
Whilst sorting out tomatoes my eyes were drawn to the bunches of hanging strawflower and hops, now papery and dried, and I cut a few to make a small vase for the office – a classic procrastination before work. Over the next few weeks there will be more of these to brighten up the house, replacing the vases of dahlias and chrysanthemums that have been so abundant during late summer.
October weather – once one has truly been in it for days, as even in gale-force winds a pre-schooler insists on building sandcastles – demands a return to slow food. Feta cheese and salads won’t cut it now; my body yearns for homely, inexpensive, peasanty cooking. Yesterday, whilst stocking up on essential supplies I even found myself sneaking turnips into the trolly. Turnips! They found their way into a simple long-braised stew, rich with root vegetables and just a scrap of meat, served steaming in deep bowls with a few stodgy-yet-crunchy dumplings.
The trick to this is cutting your foundation vegetables – the onions, celery, leeks – quite small so that they melt into the stock, but the hero veg – the parsnips, carrots and the like – big. That way you get a smooth silky soupy base with interesting chunks to chew on.
This is what I call National Trust cookery. Autumn is here.
Autumn beef & vegetable stew
serves 4, generously
500g braising steak, diced
oil or dripping
2 small onions, peeled and finely sliced
2 large sticks of celery, trimmed and finely sliced
1 leek, cleaned, trimmed and finely sliced
2 large carrots, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
2 small turnips, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
2 parsnips, peeled and diced into large-ish chunks
5 mid-sized new potatoes, halved or quartered (if you have tiny ones leave them whole and just use a few more)
4 or so fat cloves of garlic, peeled and bashed but left whole
4-5 bay leaves
few springs of thyme
1 tablespoon flour
salt and pepper
2 beef stock cubes (I use Kallo organic low-salt)
For the dumplings:
250g self-raising flour
salt and pepper
Set the oven to 160c. Warm a heavy-weight frying pan and when hot, brown the meat on all sides until burnished – I do this in batches, without any extra oil as I dislike all the splatters. Remove the meat to a very large casserole pot.
Turn the heat on the frying pan down, add a little oil or dripping, then soften the onions, leeks and celery for about five minutes. Season generously with salt and pepper, then tip the lot into the casserole with the meat – the onions should pick up any crusty bits left from browning your beef. The frying pan can now go in the sink to be washed up.
Put your casserole pan onto the heat, add the remaining vegetables and turn them over with the onions and beef for five minutes or so, just to slightly soften. Add the herbs, flour and the stock cubes, and stir again for a few more minutes so that everything is well distributed. Tip in enough boiling water to cover the meat, bring it all to a slow simmer and give everything another good stir – we need the stock cubes to fully dissolve and for there to be no lumps of flour.
Pop the lid on and transfer to the oven, where it should putter away for two hours. Top the water up if it looks dry.
For the dumplings, stir the suet, flour, salt and pepper together using a table knife, then add enough cold water to bring it together to a rough dough – maybe 3 tablespoons. Shape into however many dumplings you require – this mixture makes 5 BIG ones or rather more smaller ones.
After two hours, turn the heat up to 180c. Remove the lid of the casserole, pop the dumplings on top of the stew and return to the oven, cooking uncovered for 30 minutes or so until the dumplings are puffy and crunchy on the top.
Enjoy in a deep bowl with a dollop of hot horseradish. No other accompaniment is required.
Also this week:
Cooking and eating: Braised rabbit with rose wine, rosemary and bacon (found an independent rural butcher selling wild rabbits for £3, which is an offer I can not refuse); pasties, scampi, chips, fudge etc etc; a tot of sloe gin from Chappers’ 2017 vintage. Buying up apples and pears, some for eating now, some to be sliced and frozen for future pies.
Reading: Two Kitchens by Rachel Roddy, wonderfully evocative writing; A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, which I’ve been putting off because it is literally the size of a brick, but when on holiday there is no excuse.