Au­tum­nal de­lights

‘Sea­son of mists and mel­low fruit­ful­ness…’ This cer­tainly sums up my au­tumn kitchen, says Kate Houghton Cheshire Life: Novem­ber 2018 Cheshire Life: Novem­ber 2018

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Ilove Au­tumn. From the salad days of sum­mer we move into cosy meals of warm­ing beet­root and horse­rad­ish soup or but­ter­nut squash and chorizo risotto. It’s def­i­nitely my favourite time of the year in the kitchen.

Hav­ing spent many happy hours in my kitchen over the sum­mer months, mak­ing jams and jel­lies with fruit from my gar­den, it’s time to start raid­ing the hedgerows for fruits I can do slightly more - shall we say - ex­cit­ing things with.

Yes, it’s time to get creative with gin. And vodka. Oh, and there’s a bot­tle of blended whisky my hus­band won’t lower him­self to, so that’s up for grabs too.

Please don’t think I am some sort of gin-swill­ing party girl, I’m re­ally not, I just love to take ad­van­tage of the sea­son’s fruit­ful­ness and re­ally can’t face mak­ing more jam. The prob­lem with jam is that it needs eat­ing – on toast, spread on cakes, or loaded onto crum­pets – and there are only so many of those I can eat be­fore my jeans no longer fit.

First up, be­fore Septem­ber’s sun­shine turns to chill, it’s dam­son sea­son. Dam­sons were, it’s thought, brought here by the Ro­mans and Cheshire was a ma­jor dam­son-grow­ing area right up un­til the Sec­ond World War, af­ter which chang­ing tastes, the ef­fect of wartime sugar ra­tioning and the rel­a­tively high cost of Bri­tish-grown fruit caused a steep de­cline. They are re­lated to the sweet dessert plums we know bet­ter, but are quite sharp to the taste, as many dis­cover to their cost when the temp­ta­tion to take a bite over­whelms. This year they have been fat and sweet and juicy how­ever, no doubt due to the

ex­tended pe­riod of hot weather we en­joyed dur­ing the sum­mer.

My dam­sons come cour­tesy of a lo­cal dairy farmer, who pa­tiently lifts me, his wife and our re­spec­tive chil­dren in a spe­cial ‘man bas­ket’ on the front of his trac­tor up to the fruit-laden trees, while we are watched by be­fud­dled cows won­der­ing what we’re up to. It’s quite the an­nual oc­ca­sion now, five of us reach­ing into the tree and fill­ing boxes and buck­ets with fruit. Not a lot of fruit is needed for my pur­pose, but there’s so much and it’s so tempt­ing, I know I’m go­ing to be ‘jam-ing’ as well as ‘gin-ing’!

It’s a sim­ple process, but a sat­is­fy­ing one: take 500g of washed dam­sons, avoid­ing any with splits or bruises, and freeze them overnight. Next day, put them in a large Kil­ner (or sim­i­lar) jar and add 300g of caster sugar and a litre of gin. Shake the jar ev­ery day un­til the sugar is fully dis­solved, then pop it in a cool, dark place for two to three months. When you de­cide you can’t wait any longer, place a square of muslin in a sieve, hold it over a jug and pour though. De­cant this into ster­ile bot­tles (you could use the orig­i­nal gin bot­tle) and pre­pare to have a very merry Christ­mas! I made the dam­son gin with my daugh­ter Amy this year, who is plan­ning on de­cant­ing into 250ml bot­tles and gift­ing it to her friends. As an im­pov­er­ished stu­dent she’s quite thrilled with the high-im­pact low­cost gift this will make.

As Septem­ber draws to a close, it’s time to check the hedgerows for sloes, which start to come

‘Yes, it’s time to get creative with gin’

ripe about now. Re­lated to the dam­son, they’re very sim­i­lar look­ing, but smaller and rounder. When they’re ripe they take on a lovely pow­dery sheen. Take care when pick­ing, as the name sug­gests, the black­thorn bush on which they grow has long, sharp thorns. My sloe gin recipe comes from my grand­mother and has no weights or mea­sures; it’s all done by eye, but it works ev­ery time, so I won’t be chang­ing it.

Pop your sloes in the freezer for a few days. This makes them swell and the skin split. Then take a clean bot­tle and fill it around one third full of sloes, add around the same amount of sugar (less if you like it less sweet) then fill the bot­tle with gin. If you’ve not got a ready empty bot­tle, use a Kil­ner jar, as for dam­son gin. You need to leave it for at least three months, but if you can leave it for longer, do! When you’re ready, strain the gin and fruit through a muslin square then pour the gin back into the bot­tle. If you like a mea­sur­able re­sult, BBC Good Food rec­om­mends 500g sloes, 250g golden caster sugar and one litre of gin.

Are you won­der­ing about the whisky? Well, that has bram­ble writ­ten all over it! Hedgerow black­ber­ries are rather small and densely seeded, so don’t make great pud­dings or jam. They are best con­vert­ing to a jelly (which is mar­vel­lous when added to red cab­bage) or mak­ing a fruity whisky. I use the River Cot­tage recipe: wash your fruit and al­low it to dry, then fill a Kil­ner jar two thirds full. Add sugar till it comes half way up the fruit and then top up with your whisky. Seal and gen­tly shake. Do this ev­ery day un­til the sugar has dis­solved, then pop it away for about six months. Strain and de­cant.

That’s me done un­til De­cem­ber, when cle­men­tines ar­rive in the shops and I have an un­con­trol­lable urge to make mar­malade. The same mar­malade that makes a rather ex­cel­lent mar­malade vodka…

‘It’s a sim­ple process, but a sat­is­fy­ing one’

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