When we were at art school we usually got temporary Christmas jobs at the Post Office. While Madame sorted post I did a delivery round during the day and then at night I worked on Chippenham railway station, loading the mail trains with sorted mail. Every night we fought hand-to-hand with the guard who wanted to sort the mailbags as they came on to the van, whereas all we wanted to do was to get them on there and clear off to somewhere warm. We would stand on the platform with the bags loaded on to a trolley and then the moment the doors opened we would hurl them into the van so fast that the guard would be buried under the pile, cursing us furiously.
I was reminded of this because there comes a time, every season, when we realize that we need to prepare for the onslaught of produce which invariably ripens all at once but in an unpredictable order so – as has happened this year – the glut of aubergines has overtaken the courgettes and there’s no sign of any ripening tomatoes. Ideally we’d prefer them to ripen slowly but simultaneously so we could turn at least some of them into ratatouille which freezes pretty well. There are four – no – five alternatives as the crops come in. Eat them fresh; store them for a short period in the fridge but eat them before they go mouldy; freeze, bottle or preserve them in some way to last the winter; give them away to deserving neighbours who – if it’s courgettes – will secretly feed them into the recycling bin; or feel overwhelmed and give up even trying until they’re only fit for the compost heap. This has, for the third or fourth successive year, been a difficult season for growers. After months of drought I’m considering adding another 1000 litres of rain water storage – just in case. I checked the tanks today and it’s surprising how a day and a half of heavy rain can replenish them – but I need to build a sloping roof over the compost bins to increase the harvesting area.
There’s also the issue of jam jars and here, I confess to a rather silly obsession with uniformity. We have tall jam jars, shorter honey jars and then a whole collection of very lovely looking imported Italian ones in different shapes and sizes. The thought of bottling a single batch of jam in a variety of different jars would stop me in my tracks. However, we always make too much jam (and jellies, chutneys, pickles and preserves), so rather than chuck the elderly batches out I order another box of jars and then we preside over a large quantity of – say – strawberry jam of different vintages. Being human we eat the newest first and so the ancients gradually get paler and paler, possess less and less flavour and sometimes even the sugar begins to crystallize out. I once saw a jar of marmalade in a convent labeled as “King Charles the Martyr” – it rather put me off!
So every few years we have a cathartic clearout of the larder – which extends across three rooms and the garage and we spoon large volumes of anonymous gunk into the recycling bins so the jars can be reused. Washed and sterilized they gladden my obsessive heart as I ponder what to do with them next. So this week I’ve made redcurrant jelly – which we add to mint sauce and other sauces; and Tayberry jelly. The Tayberry is a cross between a raspberry and a blackberry and eaten straight off the vines it’s very tart; but cooked and strained through a jelly bag the pips are all removed and it makes the kind of jelly that sells for nearly £10 a pot in a classy delicatessen. This Tayberry was only planted three years ago and it suddenly produced a decent crop of what a Greek scholar might describe as “wine dark” fruit (that should add at least a couple more quid to the value. So this year we’ve done 20lb marmalade, and about 10 lb each of damson, redcurrant and Tayberry, with blackberries and blackcurrants in the freezer waiting their turn. This is where the problem originates.
Then, the tomatoes will start to flow and they’re the backbone of the kitchen when it comes to sauces, ketchup and passata. The plan is to get all this done before September. Our Borlotti beans took us by surprise because I failed to read the packet or to remember that nano means dwarf. So ours are thriving at ground level, being towered over by a tall set of bamboo canes which they have no need of. Madame is suggesting we sow the proper variety underneath the canes and hope they make it. It’s a risk because dried borlotti are another kitchen staple.
This morning after sulking for a fortnight since our holiday during which it wasn’t fed – the sourdough starter finally gave it up and frothed energetically like an excited spaniel – so I started a loaf that I’ll bake tomorrow evening. 36 hours is a long fermentation but it allows the full flavour to develop. Life is good, but whether I’ll still be saying that after winding the passata machine for hours and hours is another thing. But when winter comes and if I’m feeling sorry for myself I just need to open the cupboards and look at all the food we’ve grown and I’ll cheer up!