Monday, 13 September 2010

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness

I must confess that I never really enjoyed Keats when we studied him for A-level, but it's always good to trot out a trite cliche every now and again - and the opening of the ode 'To Autumn' certainly fits the bill on this occasion!

Summer has gone and it's been such a shocking season for weather that it's amazing we've had a harvest at all - o'er filled the clammy cells of English beehives this year it has not! (Although we did get one of the first jars of honey from my Aunt's new hive and very yummy it was too). From the freezing winter getting the growing season off to a sluggish start, through the late frosts in May, the roasting June and July and the soggy August, plants have struggled to thrive. Fruit has been particularly badly affected this year with apples, plums and raspberries all rotting where they grew. Our potato harvest was also disappointing and this time last year we'd eaten numerous scrummy tomatoes; this year they're only just beginning to ripen. We're now crossing our fingers for some more settled weather in September to bring in the crop, or we'll be making an awful lot of green tomato chutney!

Still, amidst all of the problems, we've had some very nice food from the garden, if not in the quantities we might have expected. Whilst we've eaten quite a lot of our crop straight from the garden, the last three or four weeks since we returned from our holiday (very ably recorded here by WH) have been an endless round of harvest, wash, chop, boil, freeze, pickle, etc., so I thought I'd give you the highlights!

Preparation for freezing

We aren't really set up yet for dry storing our root crops and we've got quite limited space in the dark, cool kitchen cupboards. Although we've stored most of the potatoes, shallots and garlic, we opted for freezing the majority of our beetroots and carrots. For carrots this is an easy task of simply peeling, chopping, blanching for four mins and then freezing. For beetroot, you need to boil the roots for anywhere between 15 mins and two hours depending on their size, allow them to cool, rub off the skins, chop and then freeze.

We've attempted two pickles this year. Some shallots (which will be winging their way to my father for his Christmas present) and some more of our beetroot. We used the same pickling vinegar recipe for both, although we used a different vinegar base: malt for the beetroot and half-and-half red wine and white wine for the shallots. As ever, River Cottage Preserves has acted as my guide, but I substituted out a few of the ingredients for others and I also made it to half quantities as below.

Beetroot mountain becomes...

... pickled beetroot (plus rather a lot in the freezer!).

Pickled shallots
500g shallots
25g fine salt
300ml vinegar (see above)
75g honey
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp allspice berries
1 mace blade
1 tsp mustard seeds
1/2 tsp black peppercorns
1/2 cinnamon stick

1. Peel the shallots, place in a shallow dish and sprinkle over the salt. Leave overnight.

Salted shallots

2. Meanwhile, put the vinegar, honey and spices in a pan, cover and bring to the boil then remove from the heat and leave overnight to infuse.
3. Strain the spiced vinegar. Rinse the shallots in cold water, drain and pack into a sterilised jar. At this stage you can add small slices of fresh root ginger too, if desired. Warm the vinegar and pour over, then seal with a vinegar-proof lid. Mature for six-eight weeks. Use within 12 months.

Ta da!

We've made two jams this summer - our first! Over the August bank holiday we turned 500g of our autumn-fruiting raspberries into two medium jars of jam. Unfortunately, what with it being our first time, we managed to over boil it so that it has a very firm set (and was a little burnt!). We'll do better next year. (Although we've a significant number of raspberries still to ripen and pick, most of these are destined for our now infamous raspberry gin recipe, so no more jam this year!).

Lovely colour - shame about the slightly-caramelised-boiled-raspberry-sweet taste

The weekend before last we tried again, this time with the first half of the plums. 1.5kg translated to seven small-ish jars, but the results were spot-on: it has a lovely set and a sharp-yet-sweet taste.

And finally, I'm just about to go and pot-up our 2010 batch of mincemeat. Another River Cottage Preserves stalwart, we made this last year and it was really delicious! It uses our own apples and the second half of our crop of plums. This year I was excited to be able to add some of the marmalade I made in February too! Again, this version substitutes out some of the spices and fruit options, but hopefully it will be a winner:

Plum and apple mincemeat
1kg plums
2-3 oranges, zested and juiced
500g apples, peeled, cored and chopped
500g mixed dried fruit
100g dried cranberries
125g demerara sugar
125g homemade marmalade
100g chopped walnuts
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1 tsp cinnamon
2 tsp ground ginger
50ml ginger wine
80ml brandy

1. Wash the plums, halve them and remove the stones, then put into a saucepan with the orange juice and cook until tender (c. 15 mins). Blend to a puree - you need 700ml of juice (I added 800ml)
2. In a large bowl, combine the puree and all the other ingredients apart from the brandy. Mix thoroughly and leave for at least 12hrs (ours steeped for 24hrs).
3. Preheat the oven to 130C/Gas 1/2. Put the mincemeat in a large baking dish and bake uncovered for 2-2/1/2 hours. Mix in the brandy. Spoon into warm, sterilised jars making sure to remove any air pockets. Store in a cool, dry, dark place until Christmas.

I'll let you know how the mince pies taste and I hope that this has inspired you to preserve a little bit of summer 2010 for yourself!

The finished product!

NB. As I went to get the mincemeat out of the oven, I realised I'd made a foolish mistake - I added the brandy before cooking! I've added another 50 ml to the baked mincemeat, as the alcohol from the first lot will have evaporated off in the oven. Hopefully this won't impair the end product too much!


  1. Ah mincemeat, my thoughts have turned to mincemeat over the past week or so - can't believe that we're nearly in October already! Your plum and apple recipe sounds delicious.

  2. Those shallots look tasty! Must make some myself.

    I've tagged you on this post on my blog
    Do hope that you'll join in!

  3. I've been interested in pickling for quite some time now but have never taken the plunge. Mainly onions as God knows I've bought countless jars of pickled onions through the years. Oh, and pickling eggs - for some reason.