Although I don’t wish to be the harbinger of bad news I am bound to say that not only is October one of my favourite months but it is well and truly deep autumn and does unfortunately herald the onset of winter. We start to see heavy morning dews and occasional light ground frosts as the month wears on but hopefully, early on in the month, we will still experience the warmth of the sun in the middle of the day carrying with it the last vestiges of summer.
Unfortunately summer (what there was of it) is no more than a fond memory now and with the leaves changing colour on a daily basis, the fire staying lit all day instead of just in the evenings and the nights drawing in at an ever increasing rate, winter gets ever closer.
It is during these heavy dews that we see many varieties of wild mushrooms, and if you have a lawn like mine then you could well be lucky and find it covered in a multitude of edible fungi. Last year I was fortunate enough to have a small patch of cepés appear, so I am keeping my fingers crossed for the same happening this year too. These are one of my favourite and most sought after mushrooms, they are adored all over continental Europe often being sold dried and even in this state afford the most superb of flavourings for a myriad of dishes. Other mushrooms to stay on the look out for at this time would be Giant Puffballs, fantastic eating while still white and firm, the only one of these I came across a few years ago now was unfortunately not for picking. It was at about 100mph from the window of the 10.00am from Norwich to London, somewhere in the region of Stowmarket. Then there is the hedgehog fungus, this pale yellow mushroom with its soft array of spines on the underside of the cap makes a great addition to any stew, pasta or risotto and are also great for bottling for use later in the year. They abound in woods at this time of year and are best if you first remove the spines before cooking. Understandably my people fall shy of picking wild mushrooms in case they pick any that may be poisonous, if you feel this way but are still interested in them then you need Roger Phillips book Mushrooms and other fungi (Macmillan), its descriptions and life like photography should easily solve your problems of what is what.
While on the subject of free food, one that I seem to return to month after month in these pages, October is a month of great abundance in the hedgerows and fields, not only do we have wild mushrooms galore but what about hazelnuts and cob nuts, blackberries and elderberries will still be around in the early part of the month and of course sloes. Can there be any better drink on a cold day when coming in from walking the dog, digging the garden over, or standing in a line of guns waiting for the birds to come over, or any number of outdoor activities on a cold crisp winters day, than sloe gin? The fruit of the blackthorn, a tree that is to be found growing in hedgerows and woodland throughout the country with the exception of the very north of Scotland, has small deep purple fruits, and while these can be used as for making a jelly, to me they are at their best when turned into sloe gin. Forget the stuff you can buy, it is never going to be a patch on what you can make yourself, and it is so easy! When setting out to pick your sloes though make sure you are well equipped as their thorns seem to be able to penetrate almost anything. Take a stout stick, a good bag and clothing to protect your arms and always wait until after the first good frost before picking. It does not have to be gin either, you could use vodka instead if you preferred.
3-4oz/85-115g sugar depending on how sweet you like it
1btl (70cl) gin
Few drops almond essence or 6 whole blanched almonds (optional)
Although most recipes call for the sloes to be first pricked with a needle (or traditionally with the thorns of the bush) I find this most laborious and prefer to put them in the freezer (having washed them first), then once frozen allow them to defrost, this will burst the skins sufficiently to do the job. Place the sloes in a suitable bottle or jar (I use kilner jars), sprinkle in the sugar then pour the gin over to cover the fruit, if you are using almonds or essence add this too. Seal and allow to macerate for a minimum of six months shaking the bottle occasionally for the first three months. Strain and bottle, the finished gin will now last for years. Hic ~ just to ensure that what I am telling you is no porky, I have just had a glass of ~ Hic, some that I made in 1995, Hic ~ it is now really rich and syrupy just like a great port, it still has a good colour too ~ Hic ~ bottoms up!
Squashes, no I do not mean a fruit cordial drink or trying to get on an underground train at 8.30am, nor do I mean that game played with a soft black ball. What I am on about are winter squashes, we have already had throughout the year marrows and courgettes, which are summer squashes, but these winter varieties are among the oldest fruits to come from the new world and are every bit as important and useful as potatoes, it is just that we do not seem to use them much. They are also much easier to grow from seed than to buy as a vegetable from a shop, they are often so large that they would take up too much room in the shopping trolley! And what a strange name they have too ~ squash ~ I read somewhere recently of them being described as sounding rather ‘mushy and happy-clappy’, a description I must say I rather liked. There is the highly sophisticated butter-nut squash, the spaghetti squash, acorn and gem, Turk’s turban, baby bear and of course the pumpkin. The squash plant with its almost triffid like proportions and attributes is a great addition to any vegetable garden and their fruits can be used for baking, steaming or roasting. They can be added to stews, and are perfect for soups, curries and purees, they are great in risottos and of course in pies. Come Halloween at the end of the month and we see huge bright orange pumpkins being hollowed out for lanterns or the shells being used as a soup tureen in which to serve the soup you made from the scooped-out flesh.
Thai Style Mixed Pumpkin and Banana Curry
2tbsp olive oil
1 onion finely chopped
1 clove garlic, crushed
40g/1½oz fresh peeled ginger finely chopped or grated
½tsp fenugreek seeds
1 stick lemon grass, finely chopped
3tbsp Thai red curry paste
650g/1lb 7oz mixed squashes e.g. butternut, pumpkin, acorn or gem, peeled, seeded and cut into a large dice
6-8 small red chillies
300ml/10floz vegetable stock
300ml/10floz coconut milk
2 bananas, peeled and diced
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Heat the oil in a large saucepan and add the onion, garlic, ginger and fenugreek seeds, cover with a lid and over a low heat cook these out stirring occasionally until the onion softens. Add the lemon grass and curry paste and stir in well. Add the pumpkin and mix it through to coat with the spices. Cover the pan again and allow to cook for about 3 minutes stirring occasionally. Then pour in the vegetable stock and coconut milk, add the whole red chillies and stir well, leave to barely simmer for 15-20 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Add the bananas; remove from the heat and season to taste.
October is without doubt the month for apples and pears alike, commercial orchards can be seen with their fruits hanging from the trees like Christmas baubles.
And what glorious fruits they are too, so typically English. It is nice to see that supermarkets are now beginning to stock a much wider range of varieties than they ever did before. No longer are we subjected merely to golden delicious, Granny Smiths or red delicious (personally I try to steer clear of shinny red apples, they always seem to have such thick skin while eating a bit like cotton wool). These days the array of apples extends to many more varieties, and with over 2,500 named varieties available so it should. Some apples are of course English through and through, ones like the Egremont Russet with its creamy nutty and dense flesh and its coarse russet skin, or Cox’s Orange Pippin with its complex blend of flavours, aromatic, rich and juicy and of course the famous Bramley, which apparently started life in a cottage garden in Southwell, Nottingham, and was first marketed in the 1860s. The Brogdale trust in Faversham, Kent holds an apple celebration during late October every year and if you are in that part of the country, it is well worth a visit.
October also sees quinces around for their short season, a member of the pear family this rock hard, yellow skinned fruit cannot be eaten raw but should be poached and added to apple pies or try making quince jelly. This wonderful rose pink jelly is fantastic with any game, duck or goose, with cold pies and pates too.
This old fashioned cake is great with a cup of tea in front of a blazing fire, even goes well with a dollop of vanilla ice cream or clotted cream.
250g/9oz self raising flour
Pinch of salt
55g/2oz ground almonds
125g/4½oz castor sugar
200g/7oz unsalted butter at room temperature
450g/1lb dessert apples
2 medium eggs
1-2 tbsp calvados
40g/1½oz light brown sugar
½tsp ground cinnamon
55g/2oz flaked almonds
Peel, core and roughly chop half of the apples. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C/350°F/gas 4. Grease and line the base of a deep 21-23cm/8½-9in square cake tin. Sift the flour and salt into a bowl and stir in the ground almonds and 115g/4oz of the castor sugar. Add 175g/6oz of the butter and rub in with your fingers until the mixture is like that of breadcrumbs. Add the beaten eggs but do not over mix. Add the calvados (cider or milk could be used instead) to make a spoonable mixture and add the apples. Then spoon the mixture into the tin. Peel, core and slice the remaining apples, scatter over the top of the cake mix and sprinkle with the remaining sugar. Bake for 50-60 minutes. Heat the remaining butter, light brown sugar and cinnamon in a pan till the sugar is dissolved. Stir in the flaked almonds. Remove the cake from the oven and spread the butter mixture over the top. Return to the oven and bake for a further 10-15 minutes.
October brings with it the start of the game season proper with grouse in season since August and partridge from 1st September we now add to the quarry list pheasant, wild duck, snipe and woodcock and it all continues (with the exception of grouse) through to the end of January. Although partridge and probably wild duck are quite abundant throughout October it is not really until the end of the month and into the beginning of November that the pheasant season gets under way seriously so it is next month that I will start to concentrate on game. Autumn not only sees game coming into season but meat in general, this may sound a strange thing to say when it is available year round but if you think about it all meat would at one time have been seasonal. Traditionally geese came into season in late September (Michaelmas), pigs would have been fattened throughout the year and then slaughtered during late autumn ready for storing and using through the winter months, as too would cattle. In fact, autumn and winter always makes me think of rich casseroles, stews, roasts and the like and really does bring out the carnivore in me.
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