I have made some blackberry jelly this week. As I look down at my hands scratched by thorns and my nails rimmed black from the berry juice, I think was it worth the effort? I think this every year and of course I think it was, as when the blackberry bushes are black twigs in the depths of winter, I will eat the rich, dark fruity jelly on hot buttered toast and it will remind me of warm sun on my back and the lazy days of summer. Although the need to make pickles, chutneys and jams and jellies no longer exists, the pleasure of making preserves for the store cupboard remains and satisfies one of the most primitive human instincts – to store food for future use.
Forty years ago, in the 1970’s when I was a young Home Economics teacher the first half of the Autumn Term curriculum focussed on preservation. The aim was to teach students how to preserve food stuffs at their most nutritional stage so that they could be used when fresh food is not available. We made plum jam, usually with Victoria Plums that were the most prolific and cheap and piccalilli with a mixture of cauliflower beans, green apples and tomatoes. The hot bubbling pans and pungency of the vinegar in the mustard sauce made our eyes sting and we would need to open all the windows. Inevitably this coincided with an invasion of wasps and students flicking tea towels to kill the wasps and of course swiping each other!! Teaching these methods of preservation seems very outdated now, but it taught the students about seasonality, avoiding food waste and a cook’s relationship with nature. At a time when our culinary seasons are blurred by supermarkets providing all things available all year round it is easy to lose sight of missing food when it is at its seasonal best.
When my daughters were children, we went strawberry picking each year to a local farm. I loved seeing it dawn on the children where strawberries came from and seeing the pleasure on their faces as they picked (and ate!) the perfectly ripe, sweet juicy strawberry. Red stained mouths and T shirts giving the game away when we went to pay! We always picked far too many and it became a tradition to make some strawberry ice cream each year.
Without any prompting from me, my daughter did the same thing with my two and four-year-old grandsons this year, reminding me how influential parents are in encouraging children to explore their senses and entice them to try new foods.
One of the best things I like about cooking is how our food habits and desires change throughout the year. What we feel like eating, the food that is in season, and simply eating the right food, in the right place at right time. Add to that the array of awareness days and festivals in every month, there’s always something different to focus on and food to celebrate each occasion. As long summer days ebb away and eating fish and chips at the seaside becomes a distant memory, there starts to be a freshness in the air as autumn approaches and days get shorter.
To cheer us up as summer ends, brilliant colourful produce marks the autumn.
Make the most of gorgeous fruits in crumble and pies, and turn a glut of courgettes, tomatoes and onions into tasty ratatouille. Squashes make delicious smooth soups with a harvest loaf to celebrate the season of plenty.
September is a time when corn cobs are at their best and it always gives me pleasure to tug back a leaf or two and see the golden silks peeping out from the green husk with the plump little kernels of corn beneath. Grilled, boiled or barbecued for about 10 minutes intensifies the flavour and provides a perfect seasonal treat. John Keats’ 1820 ode to the fall season is a heartfelt description of the beauty of autumn with all its fruitfulness and the hint of shorter days, different from spring but just as glorious.
So please enjoy the magic and appreciate the joy of eating seasonal food at this very special time of year.
Maggie Sims MBE had a 40-year career in teaching, public health and was the Head of Let’s Get Cooking at the Children’s Food Trust. She is proud to be a Director of The Let’s Cook Project.