Category: Short stories and other writing

From the Witch

O IS FOR OCTOBER AND ODE TO AUTUMN

The Wheel has tilted, and it is Autumn, my favourite  time of year.  In my garden, looking ragged yet rather lovely,  is Michaelmas Daisy, best appreciated on frosty mornings beneath the scarlet rowan berries,  papery seed heads of alium and lingering roses.

Aster Frikatii 'Monch' aka Michaelmas Daisy
Aster Frikatii ‘Monch’ is a particularly good varity of Michaelmas Daisy

October reminds me of Mr Wright.  He was the head teacher at Western School, my first primary school,  and much loved by children, staff and parents alike.  This was in the days of the West Riding County Council and long before the National Curriculum.  The freedom of those Far Off Times gave him the leeway to regale the whole school in Assembly with tales of his early days as a young teacher.    We sat cross legged on the parquet floor in the school hall, all 350 of us, shivering with delicious horror, as he told us about the Old Days: the red wiggly things in the drinking water before the school had mains water; the little girl whose finger got jammed in the heavy door to the Infants playground, and hung down attached by only a scrap of skin; the delights of bread and dripping – especially the crunchy bits – on a cold winters’ afternoon.  At this point, Mrs Pratt would look pointedly at her watch, annoyed, because he was eating into her maths lesson.  Crafty members of the ‘top’ class knew how to manipulate Mr Wright with the cunning request:  “Please sir, will you do ‘Ode to Autumn’?”  He didn’t need asking twice. He had this poem by heart, and I still remember his broad Yorkshire accent reciting Keats’ wonderful verse, oblivious of the irritated Mrs Pratt.  Mr Wright: we will not see your like again.

So in his memory, here is Ode to Autumn by John Keats.

Ode 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-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed 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’erbrimmed 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-reaped furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed 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 cider-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 redbreast whistles from a garden-croft;
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

W IS FOR WHEEL OF THE YEAR

Have you felt a bit of end-of-summer tristesse this year?  A twinge of dread at the thought of the nights drawing in, and the coming of the cold months?

Take heart! It’s not that time yet. Late summer/early autumn is its own time, with its own leisurely rhythm.  We don’t have a name for it, but in the pagan year it falls between Lughnasadh, the first harvest celebration on August 1,  and Mabon, the celebration of the second harvest and autumn equinox, on September 23 this year.

I have just started dipping my toes into the waters of paganism, and I rather like the Wheel of the Year.  It marks out time in a way that is both grounded and special.  It feels intuitively right to me.

A beautiful Wheel, by an unknown artist, whom I would like to acknowledge if I only knew their name.

So this time is the time of misty mornings, late roses and spiders, of runner beans and sweet corn, of the first tinge of gold on the green leaves of summer, and the time of early apples.   But above all it is the time of blackberries.  And you still have time to go foraging for them, because this year Nature has been truly abundant.

Ripe blackberries

Here is a recipe for the time of year.

BLACKBERRY AND APPLE CRUMBLE

Serves 6 – 8

Ingredients

For the fruit filling

  • Cooking apples – 3 medium/large
  • Black berries – enough to fill a coffee mug to the top, more if you like
  • Sugar – 2 TB

For the crumble

  • Butter 100g
  • Oats – 2 handfuls
  • Hazle nuts – 1 handful
  • Plain flour – enough to make the crumble mix up to 200g

To make

You will need a large oven proof dish.  I used a Pyrex one with a lid.

  1. Heat the oven to 200C, 400F, Gas Mark 6
  2. Wash the blackberries gently.  A surprising amount of stuff comes off.
  3. Peel, core and slice the apples into a bowl.  Mix in the sugar.
  4. Chop the hazle nuts coarsely.
  5. To make the crumble, rub the butter into the flour, then mix in the oats and hazle nuts.
  6. Put the apples into the oven proof dish and gently mix in the blackberries.  Scatter the crumble mix evenly on top.
  7. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the top is golden.
  8. Remove from the oven and let it cool a bit.  You want it hot, but not incandescent.
  9. What to serve it with?  Vanilla ice cream? Custard? Cream?  A delightful dilema, which I leave to you!

Note: the trick is to be generous with the blackberries

N IS FOR NASTURTIUMS

There is something child like about nasturtiums.  Perhaps it is their glorious bright colours and the way they tumble around everywhere.

NASTURTIUM 2 EMPRESS OF INDIA NASTURTIUM 1

In fact, they are good first flowers for children to plant, as the seeds are easy for little fingers to pick up and push into the soil. Quick to germinate, enthusiastic to thrive on poor soil, and generous to set seed (which can be easily collected in the autumn, so you get an endless supply of nasturtiums), everything about them seems designed for children to enjoy. As a child, I even remember nibbling the pointy bit at the end and sucking out the drop of nectar.

In fact, from an adult point of view, the whole lot is edible: the flowers (sweet and soft in the mouth), the leaves (soft and peppery), the stalks (juicy, sweet and peppery) and even the seeds (very peppery).

When picking nasturtiums to eat, be aware that they are favourite food for other creatures too.  Check for cabbage white caterpillars and blackfly: if they’ve got there first, find another leaf!

One way to enjoy nasturtiums is to put them in a Pho, a light yet invigorating soup from Vietnam. Pronounced ‘fur’, Pho is basically a tasty, clear stock, into which you throw whichever thinly sliced vegetables and herbs that come to hand. Here is a recipe for Allotment Pho with nasturtiums.

ALLOTMENT PHO

Serves 2

Ingredients for the stock

  • Marigold stock powder: 3 tsps disolved in 1 pint boiling water
  • Fresh ginger: a thumb sized piece
  • Spring onion: 4 – 6 depending on size
  • Juice of half a lime
  • 2 tsps brown sugar

Ingredients for the Pho

  • Brown rice noodles: 1 handful
  • Tofu: 2 x finger’s width, cut from a block of tofu
  • Oil for frying: 1 tsp
  • Nasturtium leaves, young ones with their long stalks attached: about 20
  • Nasturtium flowers with stalk attached: about 10
  • Fresh chilli: 1
  • Pak choi: 1 head
  • Mushrooms: 2 – 3
  • Runner beans: 2 -3
  • Nasturtium leaves, young ones with their long stalks attached: about 20
  • Nasturtium flowers with stalk attached: about 10
  • Fresh coriander: a small bunch

How to make

  1. First make up the stock in a saucepan.  Finely grate the ginger, slice the spring onion and add to the stock.  Simmer gently with a lid on while you prepare the other ingredients.
  2. Put your soup bowls to warm in a very low oven.
  3. Soak the noodles, as per instructions on the pack.
  4. Cut the tofu into small squares and fry till golden.
  5. Prep the veg: finely chop the chilli, roughly chop the pak choi and the coriander, thinly slice the mushrooms and green beans.  Add all the veg to the simmering stock, while you sort the nasturtiums.
  6. Wash the nasturtium leaves and flowers in a large bowl.
  7. Turn off the stock, and stir in the brown sugar and lime juice.
  8. Now for the fun part.  To assemble your Pho: into the warm soup bowls, add first the noodles, then pour on the stock with the veg and next, toss in the fried tofu pieces.
  9. Add the nasturtium leaves.  Swirl it all around a bit, then add the nasturtium flowers at the very end.
  10. Eat immediately.
Allotment Pho
Allotment Pho with nasturtiums

Thưởng thức  as they say in Vietnam!

Note:  There are many ways to make Pho.  For more traditional, Vietnamese versions see  www.vietnamesefood.com.vn

R IS FOR REVOLTING

R is for Revolting

Revolting larvae of the lily beetle
Revolting larvae of the lily beetle

How can something as handsome as the Lily Beetle ( See H is for Handsome), have such revolting offspring?  They are fat and maggoty, and live in a lump of sticky black poo, glued to the underside of the lily leaves by their crafty parents.  As mentioned in the previous post (H is for Handsome), I remove them with the hose, set on a gentle spray, and as they drop, I collect them by hand, into a container bound for the compost heap. Yuk.

H IS FOR HANDSOME

H is for Handsome

A lily beetle looking very handsome
A Lily Beetle looking very handsome

The Lily Beetle, aka Lilioceris Lillii.

I noticed them in spring, just a mating pair, and in a moment of weakness, I was overcome with admiration for their shiny scarlet carapace and natty black antennae.  Besides, it was spring.  Let them have their fun, I thought.  Needless to say, I have regretted that moment, as over the following months, they and their loathsome offspring  have decimated my lilies. (See R is for Revolting)

From then on, it has been war: I use my hose, set on a gentle spray, to wash off the grubs from the underside of the leaves. The thin threads of orange eggs I scrape off, although they are not easy to spot.  As for the adult beetles, and here I’m being completely honest, I crush  between my nails.  OK, OK, I know it’s gross, and I do have a twinge of regret.  However, I love my lilies more, so I harden my heart against the scarlet blighters.

The RHS are currently tracking Lilioceris Lillii, as it scoffs its way through the lilies and fritilleries of the UK, concerned that their numbers are on the rise. If you grow lilies, you may like like to take part in their survey: it only takes 2 minutes.  https://www.rhs.org.uk/lilybeetleonlinesurveys

P IS FOR PATTEN, MARGUERITE

P is for Patten, Marguerite

I mentioned Marguerite Patten in my first post (A is for Abundance), and then I realised with some sadness that this wonderful lady has died, aged 99.

Although I was vaguely aware of her cook books, (and she wrote 170 of them, the photograph and her bold signature on the cover of her ‘500 Recipes’ series will bring back memories), it was only recently that I began to read them properly.  Her ‘Eat to Beat Arthritis’ is excellent: I have the beginning of osteo-arthritis in my knees and toes, so I do her arthritis diet once a year. Since I have got into preserving, I’m always dipping into her ‘Jams, Preserves and Chutneys Handbook’ from the Basic Basics series.  Her ‘Feeding the Nation’ cookbook gathers the recipes she promoted during World War 2, with recipes for making sponge cake from potatoes and biscuits from carrots, without wasting a scrap. And the classic ‘Century of British Cooking’, where each chapter covers a decade of the 20th century, giving both recipes and history, has just been re-issued.

She had considerable success as one of the first demonstration cooks, along with Fanny and Johnny Craddock, but she will be remembered best as a distinguished and much loved cookery writer.  Described by Jamie Oliver as ‘a matriarch of the kitchen’, she made it clear that she was a cook, not a chef, and she wrote for ordinary people. I admire her because she understood why it was important for people to know how to cook.  In 2015, the year of her death, when we have an obesity epidemic, an over-reliance on ready meals, and we waste vast amounts of food, her books are still as relevant as ever.

Hilda Elsie Marguerite Patten, cookery writer and broadcaster; 4 November 1915 – 4 June 2015. RIP