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