WIN­TER BOUNTY

Nigel Slater rel­ishes the sea­son’s rich flavours in the pages of his north­ern diary

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence -

ENGLISH ap­ples and a fat pig: Oc­to­ber days in Eng­land can be warm enough to eat out­side, yet some carry a chill that will slice through the thick­est fleece. This year it is sim­ply damp. There are still toma­toes on the vines out­side the back door and rasp­ber­ries, the colour of blood from a deep cut, still hang on their wiz­ened canes. As early as the first week of the month, there is a heavy, fun­gal smell to the gar­den, a scent of mush­rooms and to­bacco that I as­so­ci­ate with Hal­loween. Al­ready, the farm­ers’ mar­ket is aglow with the am­ber and jade of early pump­kins and cook­ing ap­ples.

The first two trees I planted in this gar­den were ap­ples: a Blen­heim orange, the ap­ple of the Bene­dic­tine monas­ter­ies, for cook­ing, and a dis­cov­ery for its co­pi­ous blos­som and the scent of its small, flat fruit, which re­minds me of the ap­ple trees we had when I was a child. Nei­ther has fruited well this year, and what fruit there was has been ea­gerly scrumped by the squir­rels.

So the fruit in the mar­ket, tum­bled into brown wooden crates, is more tempt­ing than ever. It is the smell that gets me first, the pear-drop notes of the honey-skinned rus­sets, oth­ers still with hints of rasp­berry, ba­nana or green hazel­nuts. I am a crunch fa­natic, choos­ing ap­ples so crisp they make your gums ache. Rib­ston pip­pin, jupiter and the pear­mains are sure to be a crack­ing eat this early in the sea­son, though I have been known to pick up early Coxes, too, be­fore they soften and their flesh sweet­ens.

This north­ern win­ter is also the sea­son of the pig. My ap­petite for pork is what stops me be­ing a veg­e­tar­ian and now, with the damp turn in the weather, I want it even more than usual. Next to the farm­ers’ mar­ket is a butcher’s shop where, de­pend­ing on the day, you may find meat from Tam­worth pigs (a rare breed, even in Eng­land) and Glouces­ter Old Spot pigs. It has a thick coat of dense, white fat, which is what gives it its suc­cu­lence. I buy ribs with more fat and bone than flesh to them, per­fect for Chi­nese cook­ing, when the fat soft­ens to a quiv­er­ing morsel, a sweet nugget of silky savouri­ness that quiv­ers be­tween your chop­sticks.

A bas­ket of ap­ples: The best, pos­si­bly the only, places to get crisp ap­ples with any true depth of flavour are the farm­ers’ mar­kets and farm shops. I walk 30 min­utes ev­ery Sun­day to get a de­cent ap­ple. To­day there are straw­berry-scented Worces­ter pear­mains, small, striped El­li­son’s orange, ma­roon-flashed Lax­tons, and orange and rust Egre­mont pip­pins. I avoid the Cox’s orange pip­pins, know­ing they will be bet­ter af­ter a few weeks in stor­age. I come home with a mixed wo­ven bas­ket that looks like some­thing from a me­dieval coun­try fair; cer­tainly noth­ing like the blue polystyrene trays and cling film so typ­i­cal of the su­per­mar­kets. I put it on the kitchen counter for all to ad­mire.

The cook­ing-ap­ple la­bel has al­ways seemed in­ap­pro­pri­ate. You can cook al­most any ap­ple; even the rus­sets will fluff up in a hot oven, though the com­plex­i­ties of their flavour may dim with the heat and the es­sen­tial driz­zle of cream. If it’s the majesty and froth of a baked ap­ple I am af­ter, then it’s Peas­good None­such by choice, fol­lowed by a fat or­ganic Bramley. To­day I make a cake, a shal­low square with an open crumb and chunks of sweet ap­ple. I use a mix­ture of ap­ples, not that it will be any bet­ter that way but I can’t make up my mind which one to use. We eat it warm, with thick, yel­low pour­ing cream.

From the cheese shelf: My lo­cal cheese shop has an en­tire shelf of blue cheeses: bleu de Gex, Fourme d’Am­bert, two types of gor­gonzola, Col­ston Bas­sett stil­ton, Cashel blue, Pi­cos, Been­leigh blue and three types of ro­que­fort. I de­cide on a thick piece of ro­que­fort bi­ologique. Later, three of us settle down to a salad of raw ap­ple, spinach leaves, toasted wal­nuts and crum­bled ro­que­fort. The dress­ing is lit­tle more than olive oil, wal­nut oil and lemon juice. We make it more sub­stan­tial by putting long, thin slices of toasted baguette on the side, each one, as it came from the toaster, driz­zled with some of the salad dress­ing. Af­ter­wards we eat crum­ble made with some late, dark red plums. For a change I put coarsely ground hazel­nuts in the crum­ble and chopped ones on top. THE last fat, yel­low leaves fell off the fig tree this morn­ing, leav­ing next year’s buds at the tip of each grey branch and 40 green fruits that will never ripen. You approach the tree with cau­tion, each piece of stone around its base splat­tered with squashed figs, hop­ing for just one ed­i­ble fruit. We have been grate­ful for the shade of its leaves, though, pro­tect­ing our necks as we ate our tomato lunches un­der its boughs.

The last week of Oc­to­ber has brought a gen­tle shift of gears in the kitchen. The gar­den door is still open as I cook. I have had lunch out­side twice this week, but on both oc­ca­sions I had to put on a sweater half­way through. When some­one started burn­ing leaves, the smell of wood smoke waft­ing across the back gar­dens made our lunch of roast toma­toes and moz­zarella seem in­sub­stan­tial and want­ing.

I have held on to sum­mer for as long as I can but, as each day now ends with a chill breeze, I want smok­ier, earth­ier flavours: ham cut thicker and of a deeper, more herbal cure; rust-red chorizo rather than mild saucis­son; gold veg­eta­bles, not green. Last night I moved the jars of dried beans to the front of the cup­board. This is an edited ex­tract from The KitchenDiaries by Nigel Slater (Fourth Es­tate, $39.95).

Na­ture’s cool room: Crisp ap­ples ready for har­vest, main pic­ture; rich French cheeses, top right, and lo­cally grown beurre bosc pears, bot­tom right

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