Commonplace Vol. 2 Issue 9
In which the writer thinks about autumn food, and preservation
Hello! The summer was busy, and the autumn so far has been mild. We haven’t had a frost here yet, and it’s the 18th of November as I start writing this. But autumn and winter are cooking seasons, much more so in my mind than spring and summer.
I’ve been thinking about autumn food as a concept lately. Everyone has different concepts of it, I think, but a lot of it revolves around the same kind of ideas as comfort food, which of course has the same individual variability. Someone on one of my Discord servers, though, pointed out that there’s an overwhelming tendency in the direction of beige through brown, and that’s… pretty valid, really.
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I am having some good porridge experiences this year. A bunch of us went glamping at Martinstown House at the end of their season, in October, and one of the great benefits there is getting breakfast brought to the marquee tent every morning, rather than having to sort it out yourself. Several mornings, it included porridge which was so very good that people went back for seconds and thirds and then sat around complaining that they couldn’t fit any more. I’m honestly not sure what the secret was; there were varied toppings, but the porridge itself was also superb.
Certainly, it was made with milk. Water-based porridge is an unpleasant stodge in comparison, although I do think that was the one my grandfather made. Mind you, he made it a day or two in advance, and fried it in slices in butter before he ate it, so that’s a different thing. Possibly it was made with cream, and I’ve yet to try that. Not all cream, mind; maybe one part cream to eight or ten parts milk. And then it’s a matter of what you put on it. Elizabeth brought me back a large bottle of maple syrup from her last visit to Canada, and it’s been carefully rationed out for such uses. I still have about two-fifths of the bottle left. It’s markedly better than the stuff you get on the shelves here, too.
I’ve been experimenting with putting stuff in the porridge, too: butter-fried apple bits, in one case, and dropping in some frozen raspberries in another. I’m not wholly convinced by either yet. I could, of course, look up some recipes - I’m sure that the recent bloom of cottagecore material all across the internet would provide a million suggestions - but I’m also enjoying poking at it myself. The times when I’m making porridge are not those where my brain is running at its best, so there’s an element of challenge in there too.
Another element of autumn food this year is baked-meat-and-vegetable dishes. I don’t really know a name for these, as a generic. Broadly, you take some meat (chicken thighs are good here), you chop it into bite-sized pieces, and you bake it in an oven, first in just some olive oil and spices, and then with a pile of equally bite-size bits of peppers, courgette, butternut squash, sweet potato, or the like. I also add beans to some of these, and serve the vast majority of them with basmati rice.
There’s a lot of variety to be had from the vegetables and spicing, and you get a varying degree of “sauce” depending on what vegetables go in. Thus far my favourite is a Mexican-inspired-ish one; chicken, tomatoes, onion, peppers, and black-eyed beans, with garlic, oregano, smoked paprika and chili flakes. The tomatoes provide a plentitude of liquid, so it’s not as dry as I had first expected - indeed, not at all. I’ve tried a vague Mediterranean one a couple of times as well, with courgette and Herbes de Provence, but that needs some more refining yet.
Autumn is also the season for preservation. Nina and I went to a pick-your-own fruit farm in the summer, and got 4kg of raspberries, which I duly turned into about 7.5kg of jam. It was the best jam I’ve ever made, and I spent a lot of my late teen years making jam for sale. I suspect that the quality of the raspberries had a lot to do with it, and using just plain sugar rather than the jam sugar with added pectin didn’t hurt. I know that in theory, the pectin helps the jam set, and doesn’t change the taste; in practice I think it might make some difference to that.
I made a few jars of blackberry jam too, but I was increasingly busy during the season with work stuff, so didn’t get as much of that done as I’d have liked. I also picked hazelnuts from the trees where I walk the dog, and ripened them at home in the hot press, which is not a thing I knew you could do before. I cracked a few experimentally and they’re good sweet nuts; the rest are awaiting my acquisition of a proper nutcracker. We did have a nutcracker, the plier-shaped kind, but I literally broke it in pieces while trying to crack a walnut a few years back, and it hasn’t been replaced. You can crack hazelnuts with a garlic press, it turns out, but the finesse needed to make sure you crack the shell and don’t reduce the whole thing to dust is difficult to manage. The hazelnuts will keep until I get one; that’s one of the things that made them such a valuable crop for early Europeans.
Indeed, there’s a theory out there that hazels following the retreat of the glaciers made it possible for humans to move into Europe as the Ice Ages ended. This is called, charmingly, “The Nut Age”. It also holds that the decline of hazels in some areas was a factor in the movement from Mesolithic nomadism into Neolithic farming, but as someone from a part of the world where hazels remain prevalent, I’m sceptical on that.
The backyard apple tree, a Cox’s Orange Pippin, produced a good crop this year:
Excuse the very shiny look; they were picked in pouring rain because it suddenly seemed like a good idea. They’re bigger than last year, though not as numerous - a late storm in May thinned out the blossoms pretty thoroughly, and the result was useful. I’ll thin them myself next year if another storm doesn’t oblige, as the bigger apples are rather better in taste as well as heft.
The sloes and bullaces seem to be having a good year; the fact that it’s so mild and that there hasn’t been frost yet has given them better growing conditions than usual. I’m going to venture out soon and pick a pile of them, and make the same bullace ‘cheese’ as I did last year. It keeps extraordinarily well in a fridge, and I reckon it’d keep moderately well through at least the winter in an unheated larder or the like.
I’ve been thinking a lot about food preservation this year, somewhat more in the abstract, and from a historical point of view. It’s not important, really, to me whether the apple tree crops well, or I make jam. I don’t mean that in the emotional sense, but in the practical - how well we eat this winter doesn’t depend on either. But in many previous eras - not just the medieval periods I study most - this was absolutely essential. Either you got a good stash of food in during the autumn, and you preserved it in various ways, or you went hungry to some degree until the following spring. I think, as with easy access to light, we overlook this kind of motivation a lot in the Western 21st century; our fears as a culture are about having enough money to get through the next month or so. And when we get money, we then almost magically have food. In a bad year in history, money wasn’t necessarily much use when all your neighbours and anyone you could have bought from was also short.
One of the things that thinking about this brings to light a bit more is the concept of a harvest festival. When I was growing up - specifically, in the Church of Ireland primary school I attended - the annual harvest festival was a moderately big deal. There were classes focused on harvests, both actual and historical; there were decorations made in the classroom; the church (just out the back door of the school) was decorated fairly extensively with agricultural produce of various kinds; and there was a church service conducted with plenty of hymns about harvest and agriculture. These usually fell in late September, or early October. I think they were sometimes sorted out so that neighbouring parishes had the church services on different weekends. I don’t know if this was a local thing in North Wexford/South Wicklow, but it certainly wasn’t observed in the Catholic secondary school I attended afterwards, and it pretty completely fell out of my mind for a few decades thereafter. It’s still being done in at least some Church of Ireland parishes, though.
There was a thing on tumblr recently (due to the nature of the medium, finding it to link to it isn’t happening) which said, approximately “I spent a lot more time as a kid thinking about harvest festivals than it turned out was necessary for adult life”, which implies that it was something observed elsewhere too. I reckon that, while the ecclesiastical and elite records we have from most of European history make much of the feasts at Christmas and Easter, the harvest festival was probably the one most associated with relief and joy among the peasantry.
On a similar theme - and also, interestingly, arising from tumblr - I recently rediscovered a series of children’s illustrated books by Jill Barklem, the Brambly Hedge books. These hit bits of my memory like small lightning strikes; I had literally not thought about them in about 40 years, but the illustrations were still hanging around in memory. They tell stories of a village of anthropomorphised mice living in one particular hedgerow, and the pictures are notable for all, pretty much, having food in them - stored, if not being eaten or prepared.
These are images of plenty; the mice don’t go hungry. And they’re from the early 1980s, not any more distant era. Barklem was born in 1951. It’s striking to me that these images aren’t just nostalgic - they’re now approaching alien for a lot of people. In the illustration above, there are a number of elements that are now completely anachronistic and the books’ focus on food gathering and storage are just outside of most people’s experiences now.
I bought a copy of Barklem’s collected works; the images are glorious, and it does good things for my brain to see some things it hasn’t seen in decades. And I’m thinking, as you can see here, a lot about food preservation in history this year, though not yet with any particular conclusions or end points.
This issue has been brought to you by the season of autumn, Flying Tiger’s candles, good raspberry beer, and the sure and certain hope of proper frosts soon. Eat well, and I shall write again soon.