Days of mists and mellow fruitfulness.
I’ve made blueberry muffins’, said a daughter a few days ago.
‘Really?’ I said. ‘How lovely.’
‘Yes, I found some blueberries in the freezer and used those,’ she went on. ‘Hope you weren’t keeping them for something.’
‘Oh,’ I said, thoughtful. ‘How do the muffins taste?’
‘Well,’ she mused. ‘Now that you mention it, they are a bit strange.’
I can’t honestly recommend sloe muffins. They are rather bitter, and the pips come as a nasty surprise. But this minor baking dabacle did remind me that the hedgerows on the farm are a veritable jewel box of berries right now, and that it is time I got the bowls out to go pick pick pick before the birds get the lot.
It’s sloe gin time – the time when I spend the evenings pulling thorny splinters out of my fingers, scrubbing my purple-stained hands, and trying to ignore the shifty alarm of the supermarket checkout man as he scans through another eight bottles of gin and a Mars Bar (necessary reward for hard picking labour). Last year’s batch has been strained and bottled and made its way to the bar at the Ox. Last year’s bottles need to be scrubbed and sterilized and filled with this year’s crop where, slowly slowly over the course of the year, the amethyst juice will seep into the colourless gin in a kind of alcoholic alchemy.
This year, I am making jelly too.
Until quite recently, I found jam and jelly making a hit and miss affair. But when my mother decided last year – after 60 years – that she didn’t want to make her annual batch of marmalade any more I realized I had to conquer my fear of scraping burnt sugar off pans and tackle the complexities of preserve making. Mum came and sat at the table and proffered essential advice, the kind of advice that I can be cavalier about following when it’s only written down. Recipe books always tell you to make sure the sugar is dissolved before you bring a jelly syrup to the boil but sometimes they need to tell you more forcibly, in the way that only a mother can.
So far, seven batches of four different jellies – sloe and apple, rosehip and apple, blackberry and apple, and quince – are stacked neatly in a cupboard awaiting the Ox kitchen’s “Can you send round more jelly?’ message on Whatsapp. As I write, I can hear the pop of a jam jar lid creating a vacuum, as the latest batch (rosehip) cools. As the days shorten, as the wild geese flap across the sky in perfect formation, as the early morning mists settle over the river valleys, I feel all the smugness of an 18th century housekeeper in some country mansion locking the still room door, preparing for the winter ahead and the consolations of gin, jam and a crackling wood fire.