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Our landlord’s peach tree simply couldn’t bear its own weight any longer. A single crack, the unmistakable sounds of birds in sudden flight and it was all over for the poor tree. I’m typing to the strains of chain saw on peach tree.

peach and thyme jam

Still, something had to be done with the fruit, and I was more than happy to oblige. These sudden gluts remind me of one of my favourite childhood books: Ruth Orbach’s Apple Pigs. We’ve had peaches for breakfast, peaches for lunch and still we have peaches. Time to realise my long held ambition to make jam.

I’m warning you now, this is a non-WI approved recipe. I took the easy route and just bought a pack of jam sugar from the supermarket, ready loaded with pectin and printed with simple instructions that even a novice like me can follow. Plus, I don’t have my sugar thermometer or any fancy equipment out here.

peach jam

So here we go, peach and thyme jam.

Makes three jars

1 kg ripe peaches, peeled, destoned and chopped into small pieces. As a guide, that was equivalent to 27 small whole peaches for me

3 sprigs of thyme, leaves only

One 500g pack jam sugar

Pop the fruit, thyme and sugar into a large saucepan and bring to the boil on a high heat. Let it bubble away for a good five minutes until the fruit is soft – the packet suggested three minutes, but I was unconvinced after three. If you’re unconvinced, take a teaspoonful and leave to cool. If it starts to set, it’s ready to go.

Pour into sterilised jars and screw on the lids. Leave to stand, flipping the jars after three minutes so the fruit sets evenly throughout the jar.

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purple power: aubergines big and small for bonfire night

You couldn’t dream up a more British celebration than Guy Fawkes night, or Bonfire night as it’s commonly known. The French have Bastille Day, the United States have July 4th. Both mark the day when the establishment was overthrown, the triumph of successful revolution. In England, we celebrate the failure of anarchy, a plot foiled. Admittedly Fawkes’ intentions weren’t exactly to steal from the rich to give to the poor, entrench human rights in a written constitution or usher in democracy, but still.

Still, dubious roots aside, Bonfire night has to be the most fantabulous celebration of the year. For a start, no one has really worked out how to flog stuff for it. It’s a marketing department’s nightmare; a whole celebration with no bottom line benefit. Ha! Sure, locked fireworks cabinets appear in supermarkets, garages (gas stations) probably shift a few more bags of logs and hawkers stock up on glow sticks to flog to the crowds but there is no ‘Happy Bonfire night’ card, no big gaudy display of tat you don’t need and aren’t even sure you want. The closest you’ll get is a BOGOF deal on bangers (sausages, my non-British friends). It’s just pure, unadulterated fun, free from Hallmark sabotage and phrases like ‘bottom line’. My beloved Bonfire night flies in the face of corporate bullshit and that is why it is so special. Oh, and did I mention the fireworks?

As for Bonfire night food, it’s a time of year to indulge your childhood campfire fantasies. Sausages, jacket potatoes and marshmallows, all cooked over the fire and it’s better than a barbecue because everyone expects it to be cold and damp.

This year, inspired by a recipe Adolfo and I improvised over the ‘summer’, I thought I’d try something a little different: aubergines (or eggplants as they are known across the pond). The advantage of this recipe is that you can make it with the tiniest fire and therefore the tiniest of gardens – a disposable barbecue would work. And for very little effort and even less skill, you get something that tastes exquisite. The flesh becomes a melt-in-the-mouth smokey sensation. An explosion of taste.

Serves: as many as you need to

A selection of aubergines (eggplant) – whatever shapes and sizes take your fancy: allow 1/2 a large or 3 baby aubergines per person

A good glug of good olive oil

A sprig of rosemary, leaves stripped from the stem

2 cloves garlic, chopped

A generous pinch of sea salt

chiminea: bonfire night aubergine

Lay the fire like a good girl guide (not that I would know, I was neither good nor a guide) with a pile of newspaper swirls, covered by a teepee of kindling with a log or two poised and ready over the top (or just cheat and use firelighters!).

Come on baby light my fire: aubergines

Light and nurse to get a good flame going then let it burn until you have a bed of red-hot embers and a steady, gentle flame licking around your logs.

Gently heat the olive oil, rosemary and garlic in a frying pan until the aromas start to rise and scent the room, then set aside to cool.

Prick all the aubergines with a knife or skewer. Tear off a large strip of foil and pop an aubergine or two in the centre – I did two big aubergines per piece, or a handful of the littlies.

Test the oil to check it’s cool enough to handle and spoon over the aubergines, making sure to include some of the rosemary and garlic on each sheet. Give each aubergine a good rub to make sure it’s completely coated in oil and then scrunch the foil up and over the aubergines to make a little parcel. Pop another layer of foil over your parcel—better safe than sorry!

aubergines cooked on a wood fire

Hopefully by the time you’ve done this, your fire will be well and truly on its way. Pop the foil parcels on the embers as close to the flames as you can get them without putting the fire out and/or burning yourself. This is what barbecue tongs were made for.

I’m afraid cooking times are a little sketchy on this one. It’s really a case of size matters: both in terms of the fire and the aubergine. You should be able to hear the oil start to sizzle, and then enjoy a natter and a glass of wine something-completely-responsible-and-appropriate-for-someone-who-is-tending-a-fire before you have to worry—but do have a little check once in a while —we’re talking a ballpark of 15-30 minutes. I’d say check every 10, turning the aubergines inside the parcel if needs be. The skin should wrinkle, the flesh soften, the structure collapse. Sprinkle over the salt and tuck in!

aubergines cooked on open fire

pumpkin

Blogging is tough in winter. By the time I get home from work, it’s too dark to take photos. By the time it’s light enough to take photos, the dish is no longer at its best, visually at least—I, for one, find that stews, curries and casseroles usually taste better the next day.

This is a very long-winded way of saying that this dish is considerably more delicious than I could make it look in a picture at 7am yesterday morning. Hence the lack of picture so far. I’ll try again at the weekend. It’s my first ‘free’ weekend for what seems like months, so I’m hoping to get the blog well and truly back on track.

Last weekend, we went to the Ardennes to celebrate my dad’s 60th birthday. It’s a stunning place, that does a great line in charcuterie and Trappist beers. We stocked up on both.

I’ve been keeping an idle eye out for something to do with my various squash, so I was thrilled when I spotted a recipe for Spiced Pumpkin and Coconut Casserole in Waitrose magazine. Only, when I told the husband what was on the menu, his first question was whether there was any way of working some meat into it. Men. You’d think I was trying to starve him. Luckily I had a ‘piquant’ salami to hand fresh from the Ardennes. Also, the original recipe called for a ‘Cajun spice mix’. I am not about to start buying any more spice mixes when I have a cupboard full of spices at home, so I improvised.

Serves: 8

A pack of shallots, peeled but left whole

2 fennel bulbs, cut into chunks

1 spicy salami or chorizo, sliced

3 peppers (preferably red, but I had green lying around, so I used those), de-seeded and cut into chunks

6 cloves garlic, crushed

The flesh of one small eating pumpkin, cut into chunks

The flesh of one butternut squash, cut into chunks

A good sprig of thyme

1 chicken stock cube

Oil for frying

1 tin coconut milk

1 tin chopped tomatoes

A good tbsp tomato puree

100ml single cream

For the Cajun spice mix:

1 tsp cumin

1 tsp basil

1 tsp fennel seeds

A good pinch of sea salt

1 tsp crushed chilli

2 tsp paprika

1 tsp mustard seeds

A good grind of black pepper

Crush the spices in a pestle and mortar. In a large casserole, fry the shallots and fennel in oil for 6-8 minutes until they take on a nice caramel colour. Set aside, and fry the peppers and salami until the salami has browned and the peppers’ skin starts to blister. Scrape in the crushed garlic, then pop the shallots etc back in, together with the squash and pumpkin, sprinkle over spices then stir until everything is well coated.

Add the tomatoes, tomato purée, coconut milk, thyme and 150ml water, then crumble over the stock cube, give it all a good mix and leave to simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Turn the heat off, stir in the cream and serve with some delicious crusty bread.

Hungarian goulash, Halloween ghoulash

Yep, I’m still nurturing an unhealthy obsession with Halloween and all-things autumn. In my defence, it is October now and at least I’m not banging on about you-know-what (whisper it, Christmas). If my enthusiasm is starting to grate, I suggest you check back post Oct 31! That is, unless you dislike Bonfire night, in which case, why are you reading this exactly?

Did anyone else read/watch The Worst Witch when they were little? It was my very favourite film for a long time and surely must be responsible for my love of this time of the year. I desperately wanted to be a witch when I grew up (insert your own sarcastic comment here). This was pre-Harry Potter so it was a little more unusual as aspirations go. Unfortunately here I am, 30 years old and still no nearer to flying or transforming people who irritate me into toads but the one thing I can do is stir a huge bubbling cauldron… although, don’t panic, I left the eye of newt out of this potion recipe.

Oh, and I’m sorry I couldn’t resist the pun on goulash.

Serves: 6

2 red onions, chopped

2 red peppers,  stalk and seeds removed and chopped into chunky strips

2 yellow peppers, stalk and seeds removed and chopped into chunky strips

1 orange pepper, stalk and seeds removed and chopped into chunky strips

1 pack of thin-cut pork loin steaks (there were five in my pack, on special offer in Waitrose), cut into bite-size pieces

1 tbsp flour

2 tsp smoked paprika

Half a tsp cumin

1 red chilli, whole

1 bay leaf

Salt and pepper

Oil for frying

2 tins chopped tomatoes

A small bunch of coriander, chopped

Sour cream, to serve

Fry the onions and peppers in a casserole until the onions are golden brown and the peppers slightly softened, then set aside.

Pop the pork pieces into a freezer bag and pop in the flour, paprika and cumin. Season and shake to coat the pork. Heat some oil in the casserole you used to fry the onions etc and seal the pork. Pop the onions and peppers back into the casserole, then pour over the tomatoes. Prick the chilli with the tip of your knife, then lob it in with the bay leaf. Bring to a simmer then leave to bubble away for a good hour or so, until the peppers are melt-in-your-mouth soft, the pork is tender and all excess liquid has evaporated.

Sprinkle over the coriander then serve with rice and sour cream.

fall table - autumn decorations for harvest festival or halloween

I dearly love, and seize upon, any excuse to celebrate. Especially if it involves decorating. Or eating. Or both.

But it seems positively ages until Halloween. Eons. Too long, in fact, for this impatient soul. But we had eight guests due to join us for the inaugural roast of the year at the weekend and I wanted to get into the autumnal spirit. And so to Clissold Park to gather a satisfyingly crisp pile of dip-dyed fallen leaves, the shiniest of conkers and their spiky shells. A pumpkin and a squash, who have been spared the pot temporarily while I rejoice in my fall fantasy, complete the picture along with two splendid heathers, displaying every graduation of orange from ochre to burnt umber. Like Christmas, autumn deserves a riot of fabulous jewel-rich shades. It is not a time for pretty pastels and cool whites.

But the star of the show has to be the rescued runner. This is my precious chiffon of many colours. The self-same chiffon that was irredeemably paint splattered and ripped during the works and can no longer serve as a net curtain, but is too pretty to throw away.

And how much did it cost for total autumn immersion? £2.50 for the heathers, £3 for a pair of Halloween candle-holders that gripped me with their promise of better days to come while I was feeling in need of good cheer in Waitrose and £2.50 for the pumpkin and squash. £8 in all, which I will justify thus: it is less than a really nice bunch of autumn flowers and will last a lot longer. Plus, I will be eating the pumpkin and squash, the Halloween candle-holders will last forevermore and the heathers will sit nicely in my rather sad and defeated-looking borders. And it has made this rather tired, rather emotional and almost defeated blogger keep the smile on her face for another day. Bring on Halloween!

fall table - autumn decorations for harvest festival or halloween

conkers, horse chestnut

I hereby declare that it is officially autumn. For the first time in months this morning, I didn’t want to leave the warmth of my bed. There was a real bite in the air, I shivered as I pulled on my dressing gown and cast a sideways glance at the heating dial as I passed on by. (Okay, it was actually the husband’s dressing gown – why is it that other people’s cosy clothes are so much better than your own? I always nick my mum’s jumpers too!)

Jogging was too much of a shock to the system. I made Jo walk instead. All the better to take in the fallen leaves, the conkers already spilling from their prickly cases. Their shiny, smooth chestnut shells too enticing to ignore. When did this happen? I’ve been in London too long.

Next, the virginia creeper that engulfs our garden wall will turn a bright, intense red. The prunus leaves will fade to burnt umber, then the leaves will wither and fall, carpeting our little garden as the blossom did in spring.

There’s a wind that whispers new boots, sparklers, woollen gloves and pumpkins. Candlelight, catherine wheels and cosy blankets. Red cheeks and noses but no more roses, autumn’s here. Autumn’s here.

But I shan’t be bowed. I’m with Keats on autumn: it’s the king of seasons. And for the record, the heating’s staying off until October.

To autumn
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
      For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.
Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
   Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
   Steady thy laden head across a brook;
   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,
      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.
Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?
   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
   Among the river sallows, borne aloft
      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.
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