From Autumn to Winter

Ardivachar Cottage BaySunday: it is quiet today. The wind has abated and the sea settles as the squalls are pulled northwards to chase round the eye of the storm as it heads for Iceland The November sun is too weak to banish the early morning chill so fingers remain cold and clumsy, thrust deep into the worn pockets of an old jacket with fraying cuffs . A miasma of seaweed emanates from the beach beckoning the birds to a morning feast. The mountains of amber kelp teem with life, a perpetuum mobile of foraging and squabbling starlings.
No time to idle along the shore inspecting the tide line for the discarded treasures of a storm, there is work to do. This is the reign of Cailleach Bheur, the blue hag, mother of darkness, bringer of storms and daughter of the winter sun and the last remnants of the summer have to be consigned to the flames.
Black RussianEarlier in the year I had not expected to have enough green tomatoes for a jar or two of chutney, however, our golden autumn rewarded us with a late harvest of peppers and tomatoes.  Usually the tomato vines are cut down in September, this year I was still harvesting a profusion of beautiful dusky fruits. I grew Black Russian last year with wonderful results. However, the summer of 2014 was very different to 2015 and I was not sure if it would still produce good tasty fruit. Fruiting was late, and the crop not as abundant, but this variety seems able to produces large juicy tomatoes with a wonderful flavour even in cool damp summers, although I expect some unexpected late autumn sunshine helped.
I’ve never had too much success with peppers, and had vowed that if I didn’t produce anything that was worth eating I would give up. I doubt if it was the growing conditions of our very miserable summer which made the difference or even the extended growing season of a good autumn, I suspect it was the choice of variety. Both Sumner and Spanish Spice produced satisfying numbers of bright red fruit of a good size and terrific flavour. King of the North was disappointing, only a small number of fruit which had to be coaxed to ripen on the kitchen window sill.

Spanish Spice

Spanish Spice



All good things must come to an end and there remains little chance of the last green tomatoes ripening, so they will provide me with a few jars of chutney which should be quite lively if I add some of the last few peppers.
Tomatoes and peppers
It would be an exaggeration to declare that we had a glut to tomatoes in October, but there were certainly enough to produce a series of tomato tarts and a few containers of roasted tomatoes for the freezer.

Tomato tart with a Crowdie filling and a pine nut crust

Tomato tart on a bed of Crowdie with a pine nut crust

A Sunday for Reflection and a Cake for Christmas

Novemeber rain

Time, which changes people, does not alter the image we have retained of them – Marcel Proust

This morning I watched the rain run down the window as the wind drove sheets of rain across waves of grass and beyond out over a turbulent grey sea. A metaphor for the poignant memories which turn my thoughts to the many Remembrance Sunday services when I stood quietly with my father and granny as a child, a girl and later a woman. Now I am the only one left to remember and stand in silence.
So thinking about my family, I begin to look forward – it is time to make the Christmas cake.
In the first half of the 17th century Christmas was one of the most important religious festivals and holidays. It was a period of indulgence with the consumption of great quantities of brawn, roast beef, plum-pottage, minced pies and Christmas ale accompanied by dancing, singing, card games and stage-plays. Christmas still retained the medieval elements of “misrule” and in the eyes of the Puritans of the Cromwellian Commonwealth it was an excuse for drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess.

The order of 19 December 1644 by both Houses of Parliament sums up the mind-set of puritan opposition to Christmas.

The order of 19 December 1644 by both Houses of Parliament describing the Puritan opposition to Christmas.

Among the stricter English Protestants the objections to the traditional Christmas celebrations were not based solely on questions of morality. The Christmas festival was popular among the Catholic recusant community and, therefore, in Puritan eyes it had all the trappings of popery. (After the Reformation those who refuse to attend Anglican services, whether Catholics, Quakers or other Protestant non-conformists were known as recusants)
Inthe the 17th century the original plum pottage¹ (a boiled beef with red wine, beer, spices, apples and dried fruit “soup”) had not yet evolved into the Christmas pudding. However, when the Christmas pottage was made flour and eggs were added any left-over mixture to make a cake to be eaten at Easter. There was also cake to celebrate Twelfth Night which contained almonds and was covered in marzipan. By the time Cromwell had finished the mince pies and mummers had been vanquished, but the Christmas cake, something of an amalgam of the Christmas pudding and the Twelfth Night cake, managed to survive. With the re-invention of Christmas by the Victorians, the Christmas cake became an iced and decorated extravaganza.

Ladies of fashion" gather in a confectioner's shop to buy a Christmas cake, in an engraving published in 1818. Image: Geffrye Museum, London

“Ladies of fashion” gather in a confectioner’s shop to buy a Christmas cake, in an engraving published in 1818. Image: Geffrye Museum, London

Now you can choose – a traditional Christmas cake, a panettone, stollen, bûche de Noël or a Dundee cake. Even if you choose a traditional fruit cake, you can adjust the mix to suit your taste – dense and moist or lighter and drier, plain or iced, with or without almonds.
I don’t make a cake every year and it remains unadorned, except perhaps for some glazed nuts. The cake is spicy, moist and rich, and although the composition of the fruit mixture may vary from year to year, the basic recipe changes very little. It is also well fed, so it needs time to mature. I’ve added my recipe for a Cake for Christmas to the Croft Kitchen recipes, so you can compare it with your family recipe.Christmas-cake¹Plum-pottage was also probaly the origin of mince pies (minced pies). The style of Christmas pudding we now consider traditional did not arrive until the 19th century.



Hebridean Autumn

Ardivachar-October morning Falling leaves, pumpkins, bonfires, conkers, mists and mellow fruitfulness, classic icons of autumn. Now add the adjective Hebridean and the picture becomes minimalist, the colours fade and the flames of autumn burn with a different hue. Here the smell of wood smoke becomes the softer, sweet odour of burning peat and the pungency of fermenting seaweed replaces the delicate, decaying aroma of wet leaves and ripening fruit. The echoing call of migrating geese and the roaring stags are more strident heralds of winter than the duet of the winter songs of robin and the blackbird. The rustling of the wind through the leaves is silenced by the bluster of a westerly gale and the beat of the rain against the window.Scotvein , Grimsay autumn cloudsOn a monochrome morning I watch a herd of whooper swans, pure white against the indigo waves, low over the water, wings beating hard against the head wind, seeking a winter sanctuary on the island. The evocative call of the curlews on the beach and the pee-wit of the lapwings in the field has replaced the ethereal song of the larks; the sublime aria of summer is now the haunting lieder of autumn. Melancholia arrives on the wings of the storm and whispers of the approach of winter.Ardivachar October dawn

Tomorrow the sun will rise above the hills of the east, conquering the wraiths of the morning mist and burnishing the grasses with gold. These are the glory days of the northern autumn, as sweet and as sharp as rowan berries, as complex as the golden fragrance of an old, mature, single malt. A time to savour and add to the store of memories, a talisman against the demons of winter.Scotvein, Grimsay
Lokking east towards SkyeIn these distant islands the images of autumn may be different but the metaphors for change, loss and remembrance still cling to this season. A symphony of change, a borderland between light and dark, the journey from summer to winter.Berneray Ferry to Harris