by Jenny White
The season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’ promises to fill larders and bellies with everything from fruit to game. Time to get cooking!
Indigo, star-studded skies, the snap of winter in the air, trees heavy with fruit and nuts, dank forest floors dotted with mushrooms – autumn is a magical time, and one when cooks have a dizzying array of fresh ingredients to choose from.
Many root vegetables are in season right now, and their earthy comforts shine through when they’re roasted. For a taste of autumn, try tossing an assortment of carrots, parsnips and potatoes into a roasting tin of hot olive oil with a little rosemary and plenty of sea salt and pepper and roasting for about an hour until crisp and caramelised. This makes an ideal accompaniment for the game that’s in season now – maybe roast venison or a hearty rabbit pie. Another wonderful autumnal root vegetable is beetroot, which can be roasted with onions then blended with vegetable stock to make a sumptuous cold-weather soup. Also ready now are fruits including apples, plums and figs; apple and crumble is a good way to go, while figs work beautifully as a starter in a salad with with Parma ham and goat’s cheese.
One of the greatest delights at this time of year is foraging – there is so much to choose from. Blackberries are one of the easiest free foods to find and harvest; try using them to make bramble jelly or adding them to blackcurrants, raspberries, pears and plums as a filling for an autumnal version of summer pudding. Also readily available are rosehips, which contain 20 times the amount of vitamin C found in oranges. Look to Richard Mabey’s classic book on foraging, Food for Free, for detailed instructions for making rosehip syrup, which was promoted by the Ministry of Health in 1941 as a valuable food supplement.
One of autumn’s greatest gifts is wild fungi, which can be gathered by the basketful at the moment. If you doubt this, visit a nearby forest and really start looking – you’ll be amazed at what you find. The challenge, of course, is safely identifying them. If in doubt, go for easily identified varieties like shaggy ink caps.
An easier option is to forage for nuts. Hazelnuts are plentiful at this time of year – look for them in woodland and hedges. When you get them home, keep them in their shells in a warm, dry place until you are ready to use them. Roughly blitzed in a food processor, they make an excellent base for a nut roast. Also delicious are chestnuts (not to be confused with the inedible conkers of the horse chestnut). Gather them when they start to fall from the tree in October and stamp on their spiky husks to get at the nuts inside (you’ll probably need to protect your hands with gloves). Chestnuts can be eaten raw but they’re so much better when roasted on a real fire. Just remember to cut a little nick in each shell so that they don’t explode when they’re cooked.
For lighter autumnal fare, look to the coast: mussels are in season now, so this is a perfect time to cook them up with a little white wine and garlic. Another timely choice is crab – try tossing crabmeat with chilli, garlic, coriander, lemon juice and linguine and enjoying with a glass of white wine.
As Halloween and bonfire night approach, this is the perfect time of year for bonfires, so don’t miss the opportunity to toast marshmallows or bake potatoes in the embers. You could also use your fire to bake bananas and chocolate wrapped in foil, or biscuit sandwiches made by cramming marshmallows and chocolate between two digestive biscuits, wrapping them in foil and placing them on the embers. Warm your hands, eat your fill and look forward to the warming meals and long evenings that lie ahead.