I woke up to autumn the other day. I could smell it, sharp and cold up my nose, and the colours in the landscape had shifted – just slightly – to a riper, richer tone. Summer had slipped away and it made me smile. The time had come to stack the woodpile and stock the larder, to forage, pickle and preserve before the harvest ends and winter sets in.
I set off up the lane with my basket in search of crab apples, rowans, brambles and any other hedgerow edibles I could spot. It was still early and silver balls of dew clung to the grasses and picked out the cobwebs that slung, sparkling, from thistle to thistle. Nobody else was up, and the boats slept in the marina as I passed. I had the morning to myself. Sunshine flickered through gaps in the dense pine forest as I followed the track up to Ascog. After a while, the trees gave way to open moorland, bruised purple with patches of new heather.
Loch Ascog is small, brown and trouty, and has a ruined castle perched on its bank. The loch isn’t set in the prettiest spot – the loggers have left the land barren and marked it with wide tracks for their machinery – but the castle, the old seat of the Lamont clan, is a beauty. It grows out of the ground like a crag, its remaining walls held upright, it would seem, by swathes of ivy. I sat feeling the history around me. A fish rose with a plop, rippling the surface. Two eiders flew low across the water, their reflections beating in time. And then I spotted it – a crab apple tree huddled in the shelter of the ruin’s walls. Its branches were thick with small, hard apples. I picked those that had a rosy blush and set off home, grabbing a bag full of berry-red rowans on my way – all the ingredients for a crab apple and rowan jelly.
To make the jelly you’ll need:
• 1kg rowan berries (stalks removed)
• 1kg crab apples (chopped roughly, including the cores)
• 1.5kg sugar
I put the fruit in a big pan and added about 600ml of water, simmered it all until the fruit was soft (mashing it with a spoon helps), put it in a jelly bag and left it to drip. You then add 750g sugar for every litre of juice you have, boil this mixture until it reaches setting point and pour it into jars. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to that stage – I had an accident involving a doormat at the juice-dripping stage. Such fruitlessness! Still, it’s a good excuse for another nose around the castle. Fingers crossed the apples manage to cling on in these gales – it’s blowing a hoolie out there. Just the weather to crack open my bramble whisky…
‘These autumn days will shorten and grow cold. The leaves will shake loose from the trees and fall. Christmas will come, and the snows of winter. You will live to enjoy the beauty of the frozen world. Winter will pass, the days will lengthen, the ice will melt in the pasture pond. The song sparrow will return and sing, the frogs will awake, the warm wind will blow again. All these sights and sounds and smells will be yours to enjoy, Wilbur—this lovely world, these precious days…’ Charlotte’s Web by E B White.