Autumn

Autumn

By
Matt Wilkinson
Contains
19 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781742708324
Photographer
Jacqui Melville

For me, more than any other season, autumn is broken into two halves: early and late.

Early autumn is taking advantage of the last of the summer bounty. There is the last of the tomatoes, zucchini and corn coming through in the garden. It is all about getting the most out of the days, while it is still light in the afternoons, before the chill of winter descends, before the days get shorter, and the sunlight diminishes.

Autumn mornings are amazing – crisp, clean and cold – and the nights are clear and full of stars. I love to get out and forage and fish, before it gets too cold. This is the season of mushrooms, and mushrooming. Of earthy scents and flavours. There are endless goodies that we can now get all year round which used to be ‘seasonal’, but if you really want to enjoy produce at its peak, indulge yourself by going to your local farmer’s market in autumn and getting a selection of wild mushrooms from around your area. Cook them down in a pan with a bit of butter, seasoning and some soft herbs… what a start to the day on toast!

In Victoria, autumn is the best time to eat pears and apples, and it is also the season for hunting and eating game. Game is considered to be any animal that is hunted for food, and not normally domesticated. In Australia, this can include deer, duck, rabbit… and even crocodile, emu and kangaroo! In Ol’ Blighty it also includes more traditional birds such as grouse, pheasant, quail and partridge. (In my head, I just got this image of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck arguing over whether it is ‘duck season’ or ‘wabbit season’ and Elmer Fudd trying to shoot them both!)

Late autumn brings with it a certain moodiness. The nights become longer, and the cold settles in. There is such rich colour all around – all the gorgeous, varied shades of different yellows, reds and oranges when the leaves turn on the trees, before they fall to the ground. Which is why, of course, Americans refer to this season as ‘fall’. Interestingly, autumn was called ‘fall’ in England too, and the pilgrims took this word with them to the New World. The word fell out of favour and use in Britain, but remained in America.

Autumn was traditionally the season for preserving meats, to take full advantage of winter’s drop in temperature, ensuring the meat wouldn’t spoil when hung out. I have such fond memories of being invited by my friends, Jo and Arnie Pizzini, to their home in the glorious King Valley in north-east Victoria, to help with their annual salami and sausage making. I love that in this age we live in – in which everything is so readily available – there are communities who still delight in the custom and art of making and enjoying their own cured meats. It is a tradition that goes back centuries in so many cultures around the world, and I hope that it will continue for centuries to come. It is such a wonderful way to engage people in the food that they are consuming, and also a way of communing with nature and the seasons.

Autumn is the time to conserve as much of summer’s bounty as we can – including olives and grapes. Autumn is the season of wine-making and oil production. There are regions of Italy, such as Umbria for example, which are renowned for their autumn oil and winemaking, practices that have been going on in nearly the same fashion (give or take some modern technology) for millennia. The Roman Empire was built on the skills of the Italian vintners and olive farmers being able to make the most of the year’s harvest in autumn, and preserving it in earthenware pots called amphora that could be transported to the far reaches of the Empire, to feed and ‘water’ the troops. Archaeological sites all around the United Kingdom are littered with their remnants.

We forget today, in the golden age of the supermarket, that once upon a time, and not too many centuries ago either, this was life and death stuff. Autumn was the harvest period (prior to the fifteenth century, the season was actually called ‘harvest’), and food needed to be preserved and stored properly so that there was enough to sustain farmers and their families or communities throughout the long winter period.

In the northern hemisphere, particularly America, autumn is associated with the holidays of Halloween, and particularly Thanksgiving – where the pilgrims gave thanks for the fact that the Native Americans shared their autumn harvest, saving the Founding Fathers from starving to death after their own crops failed.

Back home in the United Kingdom, nearly every little town or village has its own harvest festivals. I have fond memories of using the freshly milled wheat, oats and barley to make bread and biscuits when I was a lad at school, as part of the celebrations. Britons have been celebrating the end of the harvest since pagan times, and while it is a lovely practice even now, centuries ago it was central to the role of religion in everyday life. The festival was to thank God for the bounty that He had provided, and as a reminder to Christians to share with those less fortunate. Produce of the season is fundamental to these special days. I mean, what would Thanksgiving be without pumpkin pie, or Halloween without the carved pumpkin jack-o-lantern?

Getting back closer to home, autumn is a great time to enrich your garden with a good feed. It has given so much of its nutrients to the summer plants, and it really needs to be replenished. It will benefit from a good mulching too.

Start putting your brassicas in, ready for winter. Now is the time to plant out carrots (my favourites) and beetroot too.

Also take advantage of the fact that the fabales family (which includes peas, beans, chickpeas and lentils) are in season twice throughout the year – in autumn and spring. They pack a natural nitrogen punch, and are fantastic for releasing nutrients back to the soil after the abundant summer produce has depleted it. This will get your soil back into shape, to support the slow-growing brassicas over winter.

Early autumn

I get easily confused in the garden in early autumn. The apples, pears and figs are ready – such a delight to cook with and eat raw – but I’m starting to find the summer vegetables and fruits a little tiresome. I’ve gorged myself on them so much, and the plants themselves are starting to look a little tired. I’m still waiting for some eggplants to get bigger, and the capsicums to turn a vibrant red.

The kitchen is full of just-harvested goods to preserve for a later time; I’m making and bottling my tomato sugo, and chutneys of all kinds. My beans, peas and broad beans are coming on brilliantly, as is my spinach, kale and silverbeet.

I’m loving the last of the berries – fighting my children, the Mrs and our crazy dog, Quincy, as to who gets to pick and eat the strawberries straight from the plant. And just enjoying the last of my raspberries and blackberries before the end of the warmer weather…

Mid autumn

What an amazing time in the garden. My pumpkins and watermelons have finally coloured up, ready for picking and tidying up the long vines taking up so much of the garden. The basil is crazy, and it is now time to harvest and make my most-loathed dressing, loved so much by my family: pesto!

Out in the countryside it’s mushroom season, rediscovering our secret spots in the hunt for the pines, grey ghosts and slippery jacks. Driving in and around the areas where we hunt for mushrooms, the nuts are falling from the trees: chestnuts, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts. It’s a marvellous time, cold mornings foraging and gathering wild foods. I love it.

My neighbours’ trees are full of figs and quinces now, and the first of the pomegranates are ready. It’s time for me to ‘help’ harvest my neighbours’ and the council’s trees that are overhanging onto the streets, laneways and roads. I do hope they thank me soon…

Late autumn

The cold and damp has started to set in, but there are still some cracking days of warmth and sunlight. Winter is nearing, but we are still hunting for mushrooms and using lots of amazing root vegetables, such as radishes, beetroots, and my love – the humble carrot – from our brilliant growers. My proud growing moment is here, admiring my brilliant fennel, planted at the right time during summer so it didn’t go to seed. I’m digging out and using my horseradishes. The flower heads of the sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) have died and I’m harvesting another bumper crop out of the soil; whether in soups, salads or garnishes for main dishes, I love the knobbly little buggers.

Other uses for hot and sour dressing

–Dress any cooked grains, such as couscous.

–Great will grilled mackerel or bonito.

–Drizzle over a salad of bitter leaves, feta and torn bread.

–Toss through a roasted zucchini and bean salad.

–Great with grilled haloumi and eggplant.

Other uses for cheddar dressing

–Use it as a fondue in which to dip bread.

–Chill the dressing, stuff into mushrooms, add breadcrumbs and bake.

–Use in a corned beef, cauliflower and potato bubble 'n' squeak.

–Stir through gnocchi with fried bacon.

–Fold through fennel and lightly bake.

Other uses for anchovy and djion dressing

–Drizzle over poached fish or roasted pork.

–Lovely with diced leftover chicken, put in a sandwich with some currants.

–Turn cos lettuce into a Caesar salad.

–Mix with cut apple and pear, figs and celery.

–Roll hot chicken drumsticks in the dressing and serve with a simple salad.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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