Autumn awakens an industriousness hitherto dormant in me, more so than at New Year, no doubt a relic of new school terms past.
It is a time for invigorated routines. I find myself sitting at the kitchen table, making a list of what is to be done over the coming weeks. Tomato coulis, jams and chutneys first. Later, quince cheese, sloe gin, vin d’orange and olives. The list is considerable but so are the rewards.
There is other work, too. In London, a nine to five.
In Provence, the grape harvest, or vendanges, in the fields from eight am until four pm.
Thoughtfully prepared packed lunches and quick and satisfying evening meals are the order.
There are the hot soups to greet us at home as the temperatures cool. The stews and daubes, prepared a day in advance for gentle reheating when needed. The aromatic slow roasts of weekends as we draw inside our homes.
But in between all of this, there is the list.
In Provence, a necessary drive to preserve as much of our produce as possible.
In Britain, part of a deep desire within me to remain connected to my family’s harvests and a way I know many of my fellow urbanites and friends love to mark the season. We buy our ingredients in bulk from unpretentious markets. We set about preparing lovely things and our cupboards are soon joyfully replete with preserves and liqueurs for the coming winter months.
The majority of us won’t have vast quantities of home-grown produce to save, and no one is forcing any of us to make any of these products ourselves. Yet if I don’t make or prepare the things on my list, I begin to feel a sense that I am losing something.
The memory of Tata Régine (my Great Aunt) splattered with tomato juice making her coulis becomes a little more distant.
The taste of Papé Xime’s (my grandfather, Maxime)olives fades in my mind. For all of us, shown once how to make tablet, sloe gin or vin d’orange by a dear friend, mother or grandfather and it becomes a small, life-affirming ritual. The tasks take on an important if bittersweet meaning: the passing of yet another year, the work that we do in the world, and the things that we must continue to grow, eat and save.
Autumn is anchored in Provence by that most illustrious of fruit harvests: the grape harvest, known as les vendanges.
Growing up, the vendanges were talked about in almost mythical terms and it was only as an adult that I began to help the family: children are spared the work, of course.
As September arrives Papé Xime will take a final walk through his vines, inspecting the heavy purple bunches.
He will have a little nibble and say, “Le vin sera excellent cette année.” He says this every year.
Sample grapes are collected and driven to the cooperative cave to have their sugar level tested.
The ripeness and quantity of sugar in the grapes will determine the alcoholic strength of the wine made from them. If there is enough to reach 13.5 per cent, then we’re off and the vendanges can begin.
Electric energy fills the air. The vineyards come alive with activity and people. Tractors whizz about in all directions from vineyards to the caves where they tip trailers, replete with grapes straight into de-stemmers before speeding back to the fields where little sun hats bob up and down the rows of vines. Extended families and teams of hired pickers move in unison, harvesting bunches impossibly fast, filling up buckets, tipping their contents into a trailer, pulled by a tractor, which in turn moves with the pickers. It’s an industrious yet festive atmosphere and we work in the knowledge that we are all a part of something bigger, that in farming communities across Europe, the same thing is happening.
In our family vineyards, we meet at eight thirty am.
Papé always drives the tractor while the rest of us, his children and grandchildren, do the picking. Picking is a balance between going as fast as possible, keeping up with everyone, not missing a single bunch and finding time to examine the grapes quickly, clipping off any that are rotten, unripe or dried up, all of which would affect the quality of the wine.
Sometimes you can see where a wild boar has had a bite. This doesn’t matter, those go in, too. My great aunt also loves to eat grapes as she picks. Whenever I offer her water, she will shake her head and say, “J’ai mangé du raisin.”
We stop at midday to eat together, either picnicking in the shade of a cabanon, the little stone houses that dot the landscape or, if it’s too hot, we will drive back to whichever family member owns the nearest farmhouse.
On the menu will be a salade composée (mixed salad) with bread, followed by quiche and something roasted, then cheese, wine and dessert.
On the last day of picking, we will have a big celebration lunch, les grillades, in the vines: Serge’s aubergine caviar on baguette to start, followed by green salad, and grilled merguez (spicy sausage) and lamb chops, and, of course, wine, toasting another year and another harvest.
Epaule d’agneau a la provençale
Ingredients, serves 6
For the lamb
- 1.6–2kg lamb shoulder
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 sprigs of rosemary, leaves
- picked and finely chopped
- 1 heaped teaspoon dried thyme
- sea salt flakes
- freshly ground black pepper
For the potatoes
- 1.5kg potatoes, cut into 2.5cm chunks
- 400g ripe tomatoes
- 5 bay leaves
- 4 garlic cloves, lightly bashed
- 1 heaped teaspoon dried thyme
- extra virgin olive oil
- 450ml vegetable or chicken stock
1. Remove the lamb shoulder from the fridge at least 2 hours before it is to be roasted. Preheat the oven to 220˚C. Pour 1 tablespoon of oil over the base of a relatively deep oven tray or large lasagne dish.
2. Place the potatoes in the dish. Chop the tomatoes into similar-sized pieces and add to the potatoes. Add the bay leaves and garlic cloves. Sprinkle over the thyme, plenty of salt and black pepper followed by a few tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil. Mix together, then pour in two thirds of the stock, aiming for the liquid to come up to halfway over the potatoes.
3. Place the shoulder directly on the potatoes and drizzle over olive oil. Sprinkle over the rosemary along with the thyme, and season with some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Pop the dish in the oven. Roast for 1 hour 10 minutes to 1½ hours, depending on the size of your shoulder. Turn the meat over every 30 minutes and keep an eye on the level of liquid in the base: if it ever looks too dry, pour in the remaining stock. After 1½ hours, your shoulder should be ready and hopefully still nice and pink in the centre. Remove the dish from the oven and place the meat on a board to rest, covered in foil.
4. Assess the potatoes: those that have been sitting directly under the meat may lack that desirable golden brown crispy top. If this is the case, turn the oven up to 240˚C/220˚C (fan)/ gas mark 10 while the meat is resting on the counter and put the potatoes back in for 5–10 minutes to cook to perfection.
5. Carve the rested meat and serve together with the potatoes and copious amounts of red wine.
Petit épeautre et ses legumes
Ingredients, serves 4
- 250g petit épautre (small spelt)
- 2 carrots
- 1 leek
- 1 celery stick
- 2 shallots
- generous squeeze of lemon juice
- 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
- 3½ tablespoons olive oil
- ½ garlic clove, crushed
- 4 ripe tomatoes
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Place the small spelt in a bowl of tepid water to soak while you prepare the vegetables. Peel and trim the carrots. Wash and trim the leek and celery, and peel and halve the shallots. Drain the soaked grains, place in a pan with the prepared vegetables and cover with plenty of fresh water and a pinch of salt. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and simmer for 20 minutes while you prepare your dressing.
2. In a bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar and a generous pinch of salt. Once the salt has dissolved, add some black pepper and the olive oil and garlic.
3. Once the simmering grains and vegetables are tender, drain in a colander. Remove and slice the cooked vegetables along with the tomatoes. Add the grains and sliced vegetables and tomatoes to the bowl with the prepared dressing and toss immediately. Taste to check the seasoning and serve: this is delicious warm or at room temperature, if you wanted to prepare it in advance for a packed lunch.
Ingredients, makes approx 2 litres (in 3–5 500ml sterilised jars)
- 3kg eating apples (about 15-18, peeled, cored, quartered then halved)
1. Place the prepared apples in a large saucepan. Cover the pan and place over a low heat. Allow the apples to gently steam in their own juices for about 45 minutes, keeping a close eye on them and stirring every so often, until they are tender. If concerned about the apples catching at the start, add a few tablespoons of water. After 45 minutes, use a potato masher to crush them in the pan. Gently cook the mashed apples (there should be barely a wisp of a bubble) for a further 5–10 minutes, then follow-up with a stick blender or food mill for a silky smooth finish.
2. While the apples are cooking, thoroughly sterilise and ready the jars. When the compote is ready, pour half into a serving bowl and set aside to cool. Later, cover and place the bowl in the fridge to enjoy over the coming days.
3. Using a funnel, pour the remaining compote into the sterilised jars, leaving a 2cm air gap at the top of each. Seal tightly.
4. Place a tea towel at the bottom of a tall, deep pan for which you have a lid, then place the sealed compote jars inside. Fill the pan with water, ensuring that the jars are covered by at least 2.5cm of water, then put a lid on. Place over a high heat and once the water is boiling, put a timer on and boil the jars for 1 hour.
5. Turn off the heat and leave the jars in the pan until cool enough to handle. Dry and label, then place the compote jars out of sunlight in a cupboard. This will keep for a year.