Forever fall’n

I have been waiting some time for it to really become autumn, but the seasons don’t seem to do what they’re supposed to be doing these days. First it was too hot, then it was too grey; the week so far has been dense and muggy. We’ve had a few mizzling wet days, but today is the first, I think, that can really be described as crisp, the adjective properly associated with autumn. The trees opposite my house are a bright yellow, and I am contemplating buying more sweaters.

Every cook I know loves autumn. It is a time to get back in the kitchen, after the lazy months of bread and salads, to break the richly muted skins of roots and gourds and stew and braise and roast them. It is a time, most importantly, of lacerating nostalgia – both for the just-dead summer and for Octobers long gone – which is the very best mood in which to cook. It is strange what a couple of bay leaves can conjure out of the past. More fundamentally, it is a time for eating soup.

Making the staff meal at work the other day, I sweated some sweet onion and celery in olive oil, stirred in a little pumpkin puree and some dried chilli, then added a parmesan rind and a quantity of ham hock broth, which puttered away thickly and happily. Half an hour before we ate I added some fregola and the shredded outer leaves of hispi cabbages; fifteen minutes later I took it off the heat and added some croutons, grated cheese, chopped parsley, and quite a lot of black pepper. Soups like this need a little rest.

Now, while this took me minutes to put together, a full recipe for it would seem a daunting prospect; it relies on leftovers and byproducts, the kind common in a commercial kitchen or perhaps in some idealised farmhouse, but less so at home. More achievably, perhaps, the other night I cooked some yellow lentils in a spiced tomato passata (mine was fermented, yours needn’t be) and, separately, some chubby tubes of pasta, putting the two together with some grated kashkaval cheese and a whole pack of spindly rocket, leaving the lot covered for five minutes like a calm risotto before stirring vigorously together so the rocket wilted into a hot and bitter vegetable; I’m not sure if the result was a soup or a pasta dish, but it warmed me right through to the edges.


Clammy Cells


I’m sure I say this every year, but autumn really is an extraordinary time for British food. We spend the height of summer eating greenhouse tomatoes and endless gluts of courgette, wishing we were south of the thick black coffee line drinking something cold and pale in a cafe by the sea; it’s a season that we are not fully equipped to deal with, and so we spend it semi-conscious, drifting between shore and field in a sort of gentle fever dream, punctuated by ice-cream. Autumn, on the other hand, is the time to wake up. The hedges are making good on the promise of the early blackberries, with damsons, crabapples and soon sloes weighing down the spindly branches; country roads are once again teeming with semi-wild game birds, running idiotically between their Scylla and Charybdis of front wheel and gun. On the days after the first shoots, the flattened corpses of young partridge carpet the roads.

At least partridge tastes quite nice. The strange situation with pheasant is that these birds are bred in protected environments (often to the detriment of other, perhaps more native creatures), then released into the wild to be shot at, in such numbers that ‘hunters’ give them away for free; no-one wants to eat as much pheasant as can be killed, because, finally, it’s just not very interesting. A sort of dark white meat which dries out easily, it has none of the bloody excitement of a duck or pigeon, it’s too big to tear apart with your hands … to make matters worse, people often don’t prepare them properly, so the legs are full of tough sinews which must be picked laboriously from the meat. All in all, a waste of everybody’s time. If you do get given one, best to brine it in salty tea and then joint it so you can roast the legs slowly, the breasts quickly. Like all game birds, it goes nicely with a jelly or compote of appropriate fruits.

The chickenish paleness of their flesh is, I assume, due to both their early captivity and to their lifelong habit of walking everywhere, even out of the way of oncoming cars; it is certainly shared by the similarly-raised partridge, though the meat of these latter birds is somewhat finer, capable, I’m sure, of a rewarding blush when carefully and delicately cooked; I like to brown them in hot oil and then pickle them. This is a treatment native to Andalusia, but it seems appropriate for an English autumn, and as a recipe it is about as simple as that – just make up a vinegary brine, flavoured appropriately, and pour it, hot, over the browned birds. You don’t need to worry too much about acidity and salinity unless you intend to put them up in a barrel for the winter, in which case you are on your own; fermentation is one thing, but the sterile preservation of protein is fraught with danger. Just put them in the fridge and eat over a few days, and no-one will get botulism.

If you roast or stew your partridges, remember that, as with all pale, wild flesh, they will need a good helping of fat, having very little of their own, either in layers or running through the meat. It’s traditional to roast such birds covered with little strips of streaky bacon, which the cook can then silently eat while preparing the accompaniments; another way is to wrap them in prosciutto or similar and pack them tightly into a casserole for pot-roasting. I once cooked this for Julian Assange, oddly, though I don’t know if he liked it. He certainly never came back. I don’t know if partridges traditionally hide in pear trees because they are themselves pleasingly pear-shaped, or even if they do so at all, but they certainly go nicely with pear, perhaps pickled; or possibly it is just the pleasure of the association. Either way, worth a try.

So much for these sort-of game birds. My own personal favourite is the pigeon, as I think I’ve said before, but as they are easily availably year-round, they don’t carry the seasonal thrill of, say, a nice mallard (smaller and neater than the fat, farmed Gressingham duck), which is what I happen to have in my fridge right now, next to the pot of pickled partridge. Duck is perfect with the sweet tartness of the season, the hedgerow fruits, the heavy, honeyed flavours; there are so many options that I’m not quite sure, having briefly considered Pekinese and Venetian treatments, what I should do with it. Duck and damsons sounds nice, but if you have any suggestions, I would be glad to hear them.

Pickled Fruitfulness

From the amount of water currently falling from the sky, the drop in temperature, and the vast profusion of brambles covering every bit of roadside and waste ground, I think it’s fair to say that autumn has arrived. Last night I made a celery gratin, straight out of Marcella Hazan, braising the stalks in chicken stock and bacon, then grilling them under a blanket of parmesan; warm and savoury but stopping short of outright rib-sticking, it was a good way to usher in the most British of seasons – the one where you can really get down to the business of cooking, after all the saladeering and cold-cut-arranging of summer. Nuts, mushrooms, stone and orchard fruits, the first of our local shellfish; so much that is good comes from autumn. It also, of course, marks the start of the game season.
There is a tendency among chefs to lump in all game as equally good (ethically, environmentally speaking) wild meat, free of the endless problems of welfare and sustainability that surround the farming of domestic food animals; certainly, you can see why. A wild bird is shot in its natural landscape, never having seen the inside of a barn of abattoir; what is killed is sold and eaten. The management of grouse moorland, meanwhile, is claimed to be an outright ‘good thing’ for the local wildlife, although it should be said that this claim is largely made by hunters and gamekeepers. Conservationists, pointing to the killing and persecution of legally protected raptors which seems an inevitable consequence of, particularly, driven grouse shooting, tend to differ.
It is, perhaps, unfortunate that the people making such great strides in terms of ethically produced domestic meat should think so little of wider issues, especially since those issues – of habitat and ecosystem – are familiar from debates on fishing; so it goes. Since the whole thing seems designed, not for any gastronomic benefit, but for the sport of a gilet-clad, blunderbuss-toting aristocracy, of which the meat is almost a by-product, I find the whole thing rather distasteful; perhaps we should leave them their sport, lest they take their guns to the urban poor. Perhaps, though, it should be banned outright, and those who kill protected species fully prosecuted. I don’t know. Best to steer clear of the issue, sticking to the rough shoots, the meat of pests and vermin which can be enjoyed with a fairly clear conscience – that is to say, of rabbits and of pigeons.
I’ve written about rabbit twice before, and it remains one of my favourite meats; pigeon, though generally available pretty cheaply year-round, has a much more gamey character, a rich redness which makes it worth saving for the game season proper. I suppose you could stick one on the barbecue, but for me it isn’t really a summer meat, its affinity with peas notwithstanding. Pigeon does very well, however, with any of the produce of early autumn, with a little mushroom sauce or cobnut salad, or, as here, with blackberries. It is a truism that meat goes well with things that it like to eat; rabbit with carrots and radishes, venison with mountain herbs, pork with pretty much anything – although as pigs apparently dislike plants of the oregano family, I try never to include them in recipes. Presumably grouse live on bread sauce and sherry.
With pigeon, though, there seems a little truth in it, insofar as the aforementioned pea plants they love to rob, and in the fruit of the bramble, which goes as well on a plate with them as in their stomachs – though it should be noted that blackberries, especially when lightly pickled, go pretty well with all game, their inky sharpness cutting through the animal rankness of wild meat. This is an extremely simple recipe, for which I make no apologies – the first meals of any season should always be simple.
I’ve said it before, but it’s worth saying again – if you buy blackberries, you’re an idiot. Unless you live in a dystopian city block or a desert, go and find some.

Serves 2
2 whole pigeons or 4 breasts (depends what the butcher has)
2 knobs of butter
2 handfuls of blackberries
200ml white wine vinegar
1 tbsp salt
1 tbsp sugar
A dash of gin
Salt, pepper, oil

First get your pigeon out of the fridge and out of whatever packaging. Pat it dry and maybe give the skin side a preliminary salting. If the birds are whole, pull out the hearts and set aside for a snack.
Put the blackberries in a bowl – it’s hard to cook with them in your hands. In a small pan, bring the vinegar to the boil with the salt and sugar, making sure they’re dissolved, then add a little gin and pour over the berries. Leave to cool.
If you’re using breasts, cooking them is really simple. Find a pan big enough to hold four breasts without touching, and get it really hot. Add a splash of oil and then the pigeon, skin side first, pressing down a little to prevent curling. Sear for two minutes each side, then remove to a plate to rest.
Whole pigeons are only slightly more involved. Heat the oven high and get an ovenproof frying pan really hot. Oil, then sear the birds on each breast until nicely brown, then sit on their backs, stick a knob of butter inside them, and put in the oven; eight minutes should do it. The butter should have melted. Put on a plate to rest, breast-side down so the juices flow through it.
Done! Carve the meat (breasts horizontally sliced, birds cut through the middle with a cleaver and opened out) and serve with a spoon of pickled blackberries on the side. Perfectly delicious.