I imagine that for many September can be a bit of gloomy month, heralding as it does the onset of the bleaker months to come. One minute it is summer then all of a sudden, almost overnight, it is autumn, and with it comes the feeling of gloom that we will not be experiencing the glowing warmth of the summer sun again for a long time. Over the course of what is often only a couple of days the seasons seem to shift while every day the light seems to slip a little bit further away, the swallows that are still darting around in the early part of the month suddenly disappear, off on their journey to warmer climes, and this above all is probably the biggest signal that summer is over. Yet despite the feeling that the year is on the wane there are still plenty of vegetables and fruits out there to be picked and harvested. In fact it is a month of surplus for many things. There is just so much to write about this month that I will never fit it all in!
September is another of those months when we find lots of free food around in the countryside again, wild mushrooms abound at this time of year with the likes of girolles, chantrelles, cepés, pied de mouton or hedgehog fungus as they are also known popping up in woods and coppices everywhere. If you didn’t overly pick the elder bushes of their flowers back in June then this month will see the berries ripening. Blackberries are to be found in hedgerows countrywide with cars pulled up in gateways on country lanes, their owners wandering along the roadsides with whatever receptacle they can find, their fingers purple and often with their arms well scratched. While out picking blackberries try looking up once in a while as you are likely to come across a crab apple tree, we all know that these make wonderful jelly but have you ever tried to poached them whole in syrup and the addition of some spices then serving them with your roast pork?
We start to see the last of vegetables such as summer lettuces and courgettes while we have a glut of tomatoes, basil, marrows and sweetcorn. Runner beans too will stop this month but before they do they will still continue to crop heavily. So September becomes the month to concentrate on making chutneys, jams and even soups and pies for popping into the freezer. Every day tomatoes are reddening in the green house trying to beat the failing sun with the green ones that never made it normally being turned into chutney. Have you tried making red tomato chutney though? It goes great with cold meats or even bread and cheese; try it with your fish and chips instead of the ubiquitous tomato ketchup.
Red Tomato Chutney
Yields about 900g/2lb
25g/1oz yellow mustard seeds
1.3kg/3lb ripe tomatoes
15g/ ½oz peeled fresh ginger
pinch cayenne pepper
225ml/8floz cider or white wine vinegar
175g/6oz brown sugar
Soak the mustard seeds in cold water for at least 2 hours prior to using. Blanch the tomatoes than roughly chop them either with or without the seeds whatever your preference. Peel and finely chop the onions and finely grate the ginger. Place the onions, the mustard seeds and the ginger in a saucepan along with the tomatoes, bring them to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes. Add the salt and the spices and half of the vinegar, cook gently for about 40 minutes or until quite thick. Add the sugar and the remaining vinegar, stir until the sugar has dissolved continue simmering for a further 10 minutes stirring occasionally. Allow to cool slightly, and then fill into sterilised jars, which have first been warmed then seal.
As our eating habits have changed and our palettes and experiences of food have broadened then do not only concentrate on turning the surplus produce into the age-old chutneys etcetera, what about turning those extra herbs that will soon die back, especially that basil, into pesto! It does not have to be basil either, any herb or even mixture of herbs will do. Then once made, if there is a lot, as pesto will keep very well in the refrigerator for some time, it can always be frozen although it is probably best not to add the parmesan to it till it is defrosted. The shops are full of the stuff these days yet it is so easy, and satisfying, to make your own.
2 large bunches of basil or other herbs picked of their stalks
115g/4oz grated Parmesan
85g/3oz pine kernels
2 large cloves of garlic, peeled
300ml/½ pt olive oil (depending how thick you want it)
salt and pepper
Place all of the ingredients in a food processor and blend to the desired consistency.
If freezing add less oil and thin it out with extra oil if needed after defrosting.
The pine kernels can first be toasted if wished.
September is also the month for sweetcorn, as with asparagus it is always best when picked and eaten within minutes as any delay inevitably detracts from the experience but even so it is still a great vegetable, they should be plunged into boiling slightly salted water and cooked as quickly as possible, eaten with melted butter (or even smeared with homemade pesto possibly) they are quite fantastic. Or what about popping them on the end of season barbie? They also make a great soup, strip the cobs of their kernels and brown them off in a frying pan and a little olive oil before making into the soup, the roasted flavour compliments them really well.
This month sees the start of the home-grown leeks again, throughout the summer we have either been surviving on those with thick wooden centres that are worse than useless, or we have been getting them in from Holland but now we will start to get the first of the young English crop, if you grow leeks at home then grow more! They are fantastic when picked young but of course you need more of them. Once impossible to find baby leeks seem to be in the supermarkets almost year round these days, they are great grilled from raw and treated as thought they were asparagus, and every bit as good they are too.
Plums and Damsons abound this month, and very British they are too don’t you think? Did you know that there are apparently over 300 varieties of plum to be found in Britain and over 1000 varieties throughout Europe? Damson juice was once used as a dye in the textile industry and if you have ever had some on your hands or cloths then you know just how effective it can be. Although they can be eaten raw it is more normal to cook damsons making them into jams, jellies, pies and chutneys, they are also great for making into damson gin! Then there is damson ‘cheese’, not something one sees very often these days, an eighteenth century recipe that will fit perfectly into modern life. Not a cheese at all of course, more like a thick jelly really, it goes well with lamb and goose and is great with venison or indeed any game.
Late raspberries are still around in September and figs are at their best about now while this month also sees the start of the early pears and even many apples ripen this month too with the majority not being picked till October.
September 29th the date of the feast of St. Michaelmas and All Angels is also the traditional time for eating goose. Once celebrated countrywide Michaelmas is now a feast in decline as is the goose, a really fine bird but it can be a bit on the expensive side and is renowned of course for being fatty. Yet if cooked correctly and with care then it can be truly exceptional. Try scoring the skin of the breast and the legs before cooking; this will help any excess fat to run off while leaving the skin nice and crisp. The 1st of September also sees the start of the game season, although it started back in August on the glorious 12th that was only for grouse, September sees the start of the season proper. Partridge and duck both come into season on this date but neither are shot in any great numbers until much later in the month.
Pigeons, not a word one normally starts a sentence with but at this time of year a very apt one, consider if you will how much one pays for a corn-fed chicken these days, now think about all those fields out there that were all harvested of their barley and their wheat not too long ago. Mr. Pigeon comes along and has a great time gorging himself on all that spilt grain. Then as the month progresses the farmer comes along and ploughs his field then sows fresh seed, giving the pigeon even more food. The effect all this wonderful grain has on the meat is to leave it much lighter in flavour, texture and colour. Giving it a creamier, softer flavour than normal, it also leaves the birds much plumper too so you will get more meat for your money!
September also sees the return of the months with an ‘r’ in them, this of course means that oysters and mussels are back on the menu, although a bit of an old wives tale it is still worth taking note as they will be better during the colder months. Always ensure that the shells are tightly closed and unbroken otherwise discard them. The quality of mussels seems to get better each year, I for one am very grateful to the man that decided mussels would sell better if they were prewashed and had their barnacles removed. Although mussels can be picked from most beaches it is best to be careful, unless you are confident that the water they are in is clean then it is best not to bother with them.
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