Cordial relations

Cordial: a sweet, fruit-flavoured drink. Originating from Middle English (‘belonging to the heart’), from medieval Latin cordialis, from Latin corcord- ‘heart’.

From time to time, I think it’s a good idea to stop and take stock of my life to see if there are things I could be doing better or differently, habits that could be dropped or new ideas pursued. Change is the only constant in life and I’m a firm believer in a little shake up now and again to keep things fresh and interesting. A couple of posts ago, I wrote about re-reading a favourite herbal and that inspired me to take a long, hard look at my current herb-growing status. Herbs have been a part of my gardening life for ever; in fact, if I were only allowed to grow a handful of plants, they would all be herbs. They are just have so many uses: culinary, medicinal, domestic, cosmetic, creative, aesthetic . . . and of course, many of them are fantastic for wildlife and suit the chaotic informal gardening style I prefer.

Rosemary and friend

Poring over my book (plus another couple of treasured herbals I naturally felt the need to consult), I realised that I’ve been guilty of complacency since moving here; happy that at last I’m able to grow varieties that I’ve previously struggled with, I’ve lost sight of the characters that are missing from the cast or the understudies waiting patiently in the wings that I continue to ignore. Time to go forth and make an inventory. Yippee ~ I do love a list! First, the herbs we have growing here and use on a regular basis. The items marked with an asterisk are ones which grow better here than in our previous gardens.

Flat-leaved parsley ~ volunteers appear all over the garden.

Herbs

  • Rosemary*
  • Sage*
  • Thyme (common and lemon)*
  • Mint (spearmint and apple mint)
  • Fennel
  • Dill*
  • Parsley *(flat-leaf)
  • Coriander*
  • Chives
  • Basil*
  • Comfrey
  • Lemon balm*
  • Lavender*
  • Hyssop*
  • Marjoram
  • Chervil
Thyme

Flowers:

  • Sweet violet
  • Pansies
  • Rose*
  • Primrose
  • Wild strawberries*
  • Pot marigold (calendula)*
  • Nasturtium*
  • Feverfew
Wild strawberry

Trees

  • Walnut*
  • Eucalyptus*
  • Bay*

Well, that didn’t seem a bad list until I realised how many old favourites are missing. As soon as we are able to visit a nursery or seed supplier, then I need to start gathering some new stars.

Wish list

  • Tarragon
  • Bergamot
  • Lemon verbena
  • Purple sage
  • Purple coneflower (echinacea)
  • Chamomile
  • Angelica
  • Peppermint
  • Salad burnet
  • Savory
  • Myrtle
  • Sweet cicely
Borage

Bergamot is one of my favourite plants and I’ve never been without it: how on earth have I let this happen? I struggled to grow lemon verbena until we lived in France where it revelled in the heat of a Mayennais summer and made the best lemonade ever; I think it will be happy here in the Spanish sunshine. I’ve always failed with sweet cicely and purple coneflower but it’s time to try again. I’m conscious of limited growing space and I don’t want any more pots to water so it’s going to be a case of balance, careful planning and sensible choices. In the past, I’ve gone overboard with growing as many different mints as I could lay my mitts on and a wealth of fancy-flavoured basils but really, there’s no need. Variety, yes. Overkill, no.

Marjoram

This led me on to a scrappy little list of plants I’ve tried to grow here and failed, or species I have no intention of ever growing again.

Bits and pieces

  • Cumin and anise ~ sowed seed, nothing happened.
  • Lady’s mantle (alchemilla mollis) ~ another great favourite, it just won’t grow here. 😦
  • Soapwort ~ sowed seeds three times with no luck . . . but now I think I might be there having been gifted a slip of root (thanks, Sonja!).
  • Lovage ~ I find the flavour too overpowering. Give me celery leaves any day.
  • Santolina, artemesia and rue ~ silver-leaved herbs I’ve grown in the past as foils for more colourful things but the truth is, I don’t actually like any of them.
  • Tansy ~ yuk! Sorry, I know it’s quite a pretty thing and is supposed to be a great fly repellent but I can’t stand the smell, to my nose it is pure Eau de Dog Mess. There’s just no need for that in the garden.
Honeysuckle ~ so much kinder on the nose than tansy!

The jury is out on on catmint: what to do? It’s a herb I love, pretty and fuss-free, but the problem is the package that comes with it: the attention of cats hell-bent on hitting a feline high and trashing it in the process. We don’t have any cats ourselves but the neighbourhood boasts a raggle-taggle bunch of wanderers who drift through the garden and I’m not about to waste time and money feeding their drug-crazed habits. However . . . I have now discovered that it’s good at deterring flea beetle which is a real nuisance in the tunnel, so I’m wondering whether a couple of pots in there might be a plan. Would they be safe or am I courting trouble from desperate moggies trying to break in and steal a sneaky fix?

Calendula and sage

Finally, I turned to a list of herbs I should be making more use of. It’s interesting that most of them are considered to be weeds, which had me wondering a bit. At what point did plants that had been valued for thousands of years as food or for their therapeutic qualities fall from grace? Who decreed, ‘Thou shalt be a weed?’ Why have they become the target of derision and eradication when they have so much to offer? There is a wealth of goodness here and I believe they all have a certain beauty and charm, too ~ but that’s just me.

Wild things

  • Dandelion
  • Nettle
  • Chickweed
  • Self-heal
  • Cleavers
  • Shepherd’s purse
  • Red clover
  • Daisy
  • Honeysuckle
  • Passionflower – not ‘wild’ as such but one I know I could be using
Plantain

I didn’t know that crushed red clover flowers are an excellent treatment for bites and stings (useful, since mozzie season is upon us) or that you can sprinkle daisies onto salads or turn honeysuckle blooms into a cough syrup. It’s time to get a grip and start giving these modest little plants the attention and kudos they deserve.

Daisies, red clover and buttercups

On which note, I’ve made a start and without wishing to big myself up too much, I’m actually feeling quite proud. Here is the woman who just a short time ago wouldn’t touch herbal teas with a barge pole yet last week I found myself on a foraging mission which resulted in (drumroll, please) . . . fennel and goosegrass tea. Yes, goosegrass ~ or cleavers, sticky grass, bedstraw, beggar lice, bur head, catch weed, cling rascal, sticky weed, sticky willy, sticky bob, stickybud, bobby buttons, robin-run-the-hedge, stickyjack, scratchweed, coach tongue or whatever else you wish to call it.

How was it? Well, the honest answer is it probably wins more prizes for the abundance of names it has than flavour but it was very palatable in an earthy sort of way and I enjoyed it (truly!) hot and cold. The important thing is, it’s a great natural system ‘cleanser’ and spring tonic; the tea was fine and I’d happily drink it again but that said, I’d pass on eating goosegrass as a pulp which I have seen recommended. Slowly, slowly . . . it’s early days yet. Don’t want to rush these things.

Apple mint

I have been trying out a few other new things herb-wise in the kitchen; having a forest of self-set dill, I used a pile of it to turn a couple of plump local trout into gravlax and I’m deliberately letting some plants go to seed so I can use the heads to make pickled gherkins ~ we’re growing a little Spanish pepinillo this year just for that purpose.

Dill

The extra mild winter has left us with more nasturtiums than we can shake a stick at so I’ve picked their crunchy green seeds to make ‘poor man’s capers’ and I’m also planning to experiment with nasturtium flower butter and leaf pesto, and maybe even stuffing the bigger leaves to make a version of dolmades, one of my favourite Greek dishes. Top of my list, though, with the weather hot and summery was to have a go at making a herb cordial.

Nasturtium

Much as I enjoy experimenting with herbal teas, I felt slightly nervous at the idea of going one step further and attempting a cordial as we have something of a family history of disasters where homemade beverages are concerned. The most famous was Sam’s ginger beer, which started off innocently enough as one of those ‘plants’ in a jar that needs daily care and feeding ~ a bit like a hamster, but less smelly and more useful. The resultant ginger beer was decidedly good and an apparent all-round success . . . until a bottle of it exploded in spectacular fashion (think Grand Prix drivers and champagne here), spray-painting the entire kitchen and leaving several indelible works of abstract art spattered across the ceiling. Despite numerous coats of fresh paint, the marks were still there when we sold the house several years later; on reflection, maybe the hamster wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

Spearmint

My own disaster was slightly less dramatic but equally as alarming. I set out to make a batch of elderflower cordial, something I’d made previously without any problems. Ah, that summery smell of muscadet flowers and lemons wafting through the kitchen. Wonderful! I don’t remember the exact circumstances but I think probably it was a hectic weekend sandwiched between two busy weeks, the elderflowers were at their best and I was impatient to get on with it; the problem was, I had no citric acid to act as a preservative. No problem, I thought, having a clever little lightbulb moment: I’ll freeze it in ice cube trays then everyone can help themselves to a portion from the freezer as and when they want. Blimey, that’s brilliant, I hear you say!

Double feverfew and nasturtiums

Well, it very much wasn’t brilliant and if I hadn’t been such a fool rushing in and had stopped for just a couple of seconds to think about it scientifically, I’d have realised it was never, ever going to work. There are hundreds of websites out there happily reassuring unsuspecting souls that elderflower cordial freezes like a dream. Please trust me on this one, my friends ~ it doesn’t! For ‘dream’, read ‘nightmare.’ The sugar content is far too high so that in the same way a sorbet is always slightly soft, it will never freeze solid.

Passionflower

Instead of handy little ice cube-shaped blocks to be popped out into a glass, I ended up with a pile of tacky slush; what’s more, it was a pile of tacky slush with a mind of its own which inexplicably travelled throughout the entire freezer (and we’re talking a big family-sized chest job here), coating absolutely everything in a fine film of sticky gunk. How this happened, I will never know but some dark and mysterious forces were at work once the lid was down. The business of visiting the freezer for, say, a bag of chicken stock or a loaf of bread and ending up with hands covered in a persistent, sugary ectoplasm became very tiresome, very quickly. It took months to eradicate the stuff. Never again!

Coriander flourishes outside all year round.

Anyway, I digress. It’s a given that things don’t always go right in life and that’s no reason to give up so, nothing daunted, I embarked on Project Herb Cordial, vowing that this time I would take time and do it properly. First, I considered a wealth of flavour combinations and tried them out as both hot and chilled teas, in the end plumping for lemon balm and rosemary which struck my tastebuds as a perfect pairing. Then, I researched zillions of recipes and methods ~ everything from adding sugar to a simple infusion to steeping piles of leaves, fruits and spices in a clay pot for several days to dancing round a cauldron in the garden under a full moon on the third Tuesday of the month. Okay, I may be exaggerating slightly with the last one but honestly, the more I read the more mind-boggling it became. Truly, how hard could this be?

Hyssop

In the end, I just decided to do my own thing: put a big bunch of lemon balm and a couple of rosemary sprigs in a pan of water, added the juice from two lemons plus the squeezed lemon halves, brought it up to the boil, switched off the heat and let the whole lot sit and infuse for a good hour or so. I strained the liquid through muslin into a milk pan, added the minimum amount of sugar I thought I could get away with (I don’t like sweet drinks), dissolved it in the liquid over heat and brought it back to the boil. We had saved a couple of screw-top glass bottles we were given after a race last year (it was a very yummy Asturian yogurt drink), so I stood them in the sink, filled them and covered the lids with boiling water to sterilise them, emptied them and, holding them in a tea towel, poured the hot cordial in and screwed the lids on tightly. Job done with the minimum of fuss, time, work and ingredients.

Lemon balm and rosemary cordial ~ disaster free!

I’m happy to report two things. One, the cordial is utterly delicious and particularly refreshing diluted with sparkling mineral water over ice. Two, the bottles have sat in the fridge in a very well-behaved manner and the contents have so far managed to remain locked down inside them, except for the portions we’ve drunk, obviously. Actually, now that I’ve successfully grappled with my cordial demons, I really need to get on and make another batch; the question is, do I stick with the same formula or try a different herbal pairing or maybe even another method? To be honest, it would make a lot of sense to play safe . . . but then I do quite fancy that moonlit dance! 🙂

Dare to be different

One of the many things I like about writing this blog is that it serves as a sort of vague gardening diary which I can use to refer back to what we were doing in previous seasons. I know this means I tend to repeat myself – and I have apologised for that in an earlier post – but it can be both useful and interesting to see how things were going in the garden at different times of the year as well as being a handy reminder that it’s time to be planting such-and-such once again.

What I really wish, however, is that I had been organised enough to make a note of the precise dates on which there have been major gardening events in the village over the last four years in the hope of finding a pattern. When we lived in France, it puzzled me that absolutely nothing happened in the vegetable gardens until the first week of May, then within the space of two or three days the entire patch was dug and everything (potatoes, onions, carrots, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and courgettes) was planted at once. Our neighbours thought we were très excentrique for pottering about the winter garden doing various jobs and being busy with preparations and plantings as early in the year as possible (mind you, they thought we were very strange for eating parsnips, too!).

Our pickle of a French potager raised a few Gallic eyebrows . . .

Perhaps it’s a quintessentially British thing, that urge to shake off the ennui of long, dark days and revel in even the slightest hint of warmth and seedtime? To be planning and planting and sowing as soon as the robins mark the lengthening days with their sweet song and the velvety bumblebees emerge from their winter caves. I don’t know. Here in Asturias, things are a little different to northern France; the winters are blissfully mild, there is a quiet level of garden activity pretty much all of the time and planting is certainly staggered. What fascinates me, though, is the way in which it all appears to be guided by a mysterious and invisible calendar, as if everyone is dancing in step to a familiar but silent tune, to ripples of invisible notes floating imperceptibly through the air.

I know some gardeners here work to the lunar calendar; indeed, we have bought from several seed outlets where the current one is displayed above the shelves of seed packets and boxes for easy reference. Last September, our neighbour Antonio told me that las berzas (winter cabbages and turnip greens) should be planted out on the day of the autumn equinox. I’m not sure of the relevance but it did at least seem to make a lot more sense than the old adage (which is not followed locally) about planting potatoes on Good Friday, seeing that is a date that can shift by a month and the equinox at least will only move by a couple of days. Recent weeks have seen several days with nothing much happening in village gardens followed by a huge burst of activity with everyone out and working like crazy, then disappearing as if by clockwork until the next big gardening day. It’s as if everyone wakes up one morning and thinks,’Ah yes, today is Bean Planting Day’ and that is why I regret not having kept a note because I’d love to know how they know!

Planting a block of celery . . . possibly on the wrong day?

As I have said before, our neighbours are all wonderfully tolerant, friendly people so our very different gardening style doesn’t seem to bother them one bit – or at least if it does, they’re far too polite to say. Yes, our garden is a bit alternative (well, a lot alternative) with it’s chaotic jumble of flowers and food and our piecemeal patchwork of planting but I celebrate the fact that it is a riotous mix of knowledge and ideas we have gleaned from our neighbours and our own eclectic approach. I’m not sure whether it makes us eccentric or exotic but to me, it’s a wonderful fusion of cultures and a living expression of our love for this exquisitely beautiful place.

The flowers in recent weeks have been bursting into bloom in a paintbox of colours, from broad sweeping swathes to surprising pointillist pops, and filling the air with their heady perfumes. I’ve spent precious moments knitting socks in the garden and seeing the gorgeous dye palettes reflected in the world around me.

The roses scrambling up the house wall have been indescribably stunning this year, dripping with blooms so heavy we have had to tie the plants with rope to stop them collapsing into the lane. There are four varieties in this mix; each has its own unique beauty and character but together they create a pot-pourri of astonishing allure.

Although there is much to be said for agreeable colour combinations, the kind garden designers classically choose to be easy on the eye, I have to admit to a sneaking admiration of those wild and startling combinations that nature throws into the mix. Phacelia has self-set all over the garden, flaunting its gauzy mauve prettiness in the kinds of soft Monet-esque pastel alliances that would happily grace an English cottage garden. That’s fine . . . but how I love its radical flirting with the stunning crimson of poppies!

I love the way things appear in the garden as if from nowhere, too. Rising unexpectedly from the froth of phacelia and poppies, scilla ‘Blue Arrow’ is a single spire of delicate stars; my goodness, here is a summer bulb I planted last year – or was it the year before? – and totally forgot about. It’s taken it’s time but it’s been worth the wait. Nasturtiums are two a penny here and with a very mild winter, they have flowered for twelve months with no break in as many shades of yellow and orange imaginable; now, from nowhere, on the terrace of summer brassicas, a flower of the deepest, richest red has emerged. In the ‘enchanted garden’ of the orchard, a mystery plant has proved to be a linaria which grows readily in the verges and wild places here and is more than welcome; its common name is Three Birds Flying which makes me think of origami or tai chi. It’s totally charming. Sweet Williams are a favourite of mine with their spicy clove scent and jewelled colours and they have set themselves all over the place, popping up in bright bursts in the most unexpected of places. How I love this business of gardening without so much as lifting a finger!

It seems that the insect world is enjoying all this unbridled floral chaos as much as me. We are used to the garden buzzing and fluttering with a healthy population of bees and butterflies and their supporting cast of gentle hoverflies, rowdy crickets, scurrying ladybirds and beetles of all shapes and sizes. There have a been a few new and unusual characters centre stage this week, though. Feeling the need to capture another riotous colour combination with the camera, I ended up with more than I bargained for in my picture. Look closely at that poppy . . .

The length of those antennae was outrageous! Meanwhile, it seemed a knapweed flower was the perfect setting to show off a smart metallic green jacket to great effect.

There’s nothing unusual about yellow butterflies, the garden is full of their buttery flutterings, but catching this one feeding on deadnettle was another reminder of how important it is that we leave plenty of ‘weeds’ to thrive amongst the ‘formal’ flowers. It’s a garden shared rather than a garden controlled.

Ah, but enough of this floral frivolity; ’tis time to turn to the business end of things and seek the food amongst the flowers. It’s an interesting time of cross-over where food from the patch is concerned. We finished eating some of the winter staples like parsnips and leeks several weeks ago, leaving the last plants to flower and set seed for planting next year; meanwhile, this year’s new seedlings are going strong. Otherwise, there are still dribs and drabs of overwintered foods left and we try to eke them out as much as possible at the same time as enjoying fresh pickings from the new season’s collection. It does create a bit of a juggling challenge in the garden, sowing and planting new things around the old which is partly why everything is so higgeldy-piggeldy; I know clearing the lot and starting with a wide open space of bare earth as the locals do would be so much easier, but where’s the fun in that? I love the fact that we have to fight our way through swathes of bee-ridden flowers to find the vegetables, for me it’s all part of the charm of our crazy little corner.

There’s plenty of vegetables to be found in there . . . honest!

So, what have we been eating lately? Well, the purple sprouting broccoli which we’ve been picking since January has gone on and on . . . and on. It’s been blooming in a froth of pale yellow for weeks and although we purposely leave the flowers for a bit (bees love them), it has felt like time to remove the plants to the compost heap for a while now, except they keep producing very edible stalks. Added to a picking of summer calabrese – this is an extra early plant which self-set last year – and we have a decent helping each time.

Last autumn, I planted a patch of beetroot with the intention of pulling a few baby beets but leaving most in the ground to pick the leaves for winter salads, a method which worked brilliantly. With the plants gone to seed, it was time to lift them and I was pleasantly surprised by how many tender, perfectly edible roots were left; roasted in olive oil then blitzed with walnuts, spices and Greek-style natural yogurt, they made a delicious dip of sweet, earthy gorgeousness.

One of our favourite default dinners is a meal that is comprised of several small dishes in a tapas / meze / smörgåsbord sort of way. I think this is a delightful way of eating, first because there is something infinitely pleasing and appetising about a spread of colourful, flavoursome dishes that appeals to all the senses at once but also because it is an excellent way of using up tiny quantities of ingredients in a meaningful way. Half a dozen olives bobbing about at the bottom of a briny jar might look like something that desperately needs hiding in the depths of a cooked dish . . . but marinade them for a few hours in a glug of olive oil with a sliced garlic clove and sprig of thyme, then lay them lovingly on a tiny saucer and you have a dish to be completely savoured. That beetroot dip was perfect for just such a meal, along with a hummus made from roasted squash (our penultimate one in storage) combined with tahini, oilve oil, garlic, spices and pomegranate molasses. A couple of globe artichokes and three spears of asparagus might not really present themselves as much of a helping but lightly steamed and sliced along with raw courgette – or perhaps a few peas or baby broad beans – dressed in a mustard vinaigrette and sprinkled with chive flowers, they become a delicate dish that is a celebration of the season.

Our salads have shifted to something new and different with the season, too. Gone are the oriental leaves from the tunnel (aubergine plants now fill that space), the beetroot and chard leaves and the outdoor rocket and land cress which have been left to go to seed. Now we are enjoying the first of the lettuce, pulled young and mixed with an abundance of fresh herbs and flowers, perhaps topped with artichoke, asparagus, peas and broad beans for a little more sophistication. Later in the season, when we have a glut of them, we will use them as a cooked vegetable but for now there is something wonderfully fresh and crisp about those tender raw leaves.

It won’t be too long before we are eating our own cucumbers, either; we’re growing a small Spanish variety this year which seems deliriously happy in the garden and is doubling in size each day. I love the way that a forest of self-set dill has appeared around the plants as if to remind me what a perfect pairing they are, that sort of classic combination like tomatoes and basil that shouts happy summer greetings from the rooftops.

On the subject of tomatoes, it took us four seasons of living here to finally crack the blight problem, much of last year’s success coming down to the wisdom of our gardening neighbours. This year we have kept things very simple with just three varieties planted in the hugel bed under their anti-blight shelter: beefsteak ‘Marmande’, cherry ‘Rosella’ and plum ‘San Marzano.’ Roger is being totally scrupulous in checking them daily, tying them in and pinching out the sideshoots; each plant will only be allowed to set a few trusses. This is very organised by our standards but we’ve learned the hard way with these beauties and it would be lovely to enjoy a truly abundant harvest this year. I have basil plants waiting in the wings, after all.

We are still eating celeriac, carrots, chard and kale although all four are almost finished now and the very last scraps will be used to make vegetable stock if nothing else. We’ve also eaten the last of our pears bottled in spiced cider and red wine; what an amazing success they have been, we will be preserving as many as we possibly can this year.

Where fruit is concerned our favourite forage at the moment is for wild strawberries that grow in such abundance here; it’s very exciting, though, that for the first time since moving here, we will soon have our own cultivated varieties to enjoy, too.

Our top priority in the garden is to produce sufficient fresh foods for our needs whilst having a minimal impact on the environment. Our choice of plants and varieties to grow has been honed over years of experience and while it might seem boring or predictable to opt for, say, ‘Musselburgh’ leeks or ‘Kelvedon Wonder’ peas, the point is we know that such tried and tested varieties will grow successfully. We simply don’t have the space for too many wild cards, especially as leaving patches deliberately uncultivated or planted specifically for wildlife is important to us. However, I think there should always be room in the garden for at least a little bit of experimentation to keep things interesting. Something new for us this year is a patch of ‘Barletta’ onions, the silverskin variety that is so popular here. As a dual purpose onion, it can be harvested young as a spring onion or left to develop fat white globes as the locals do to use as a cooking onion. Our crop is almost ready to start pulling and should see us through until the maincrop varieties grown from sets and seeds are ready for harvesting.

Sticking with the allium family, and last autumn we decided to have another crack at growing garlic; it’s never been happy here, struggling to thrive through the mild, damp winter. We opted for a Spanish purple variety ‘Spring Violeta’ this time and gave it a vernalisation spell in the fridge before planting; it has never looked back and promises a good yield, despite the fact it is currently providing a foil for a jungle of self-set Californian poppies!

One unexpected benefit of the garlic crop is the picking of scapes that have sprouted from the tops; these are perfectly edible and completely delicious, having a sweet, citrussy flavour followed by a garlic hit, perfect chopped into all sorts of dishes both raw or cooked.

I’m also trying some celery here for the first time, the self-blanching ‘Blanco Lleno Dorado Chemin’, some tubers of oca (thank you, Sonja!) which is a completely new one for us, plus some Spanish varieties of lettuce, sweet peppers and French beans in amongst all our usual crowd . . . and yes, a crowd it certainly is. It’s already standing room only in some places and there is still so much growing to be done. It’s a crazy, jumbly tangle. Many would probably call it a mess. Perhaps they have a point, but I love it; there’s food in there, more than enough once you really stop and look, and a wealth of wildlife, too. What more could we ask from our garden, even if it isn’t likely to win any prizes? 🙂

Rich pickings

I love this time of year in Asturias; actually, I love all times of year here but there is something very special about the way that autumn happens and October must be one of our most truly beautiful months. Summer lingers lazily and is never in any hurry to leave so the bright blue skies, vibrant green landscape and warm sunshine remain, yet there is a softness to the air and subtle shifts in the days that suggest a gentle reshaping of the season. Evenings fall earlier but we stay outside until the very last moment until dusk enfolds us and the bats come out to begin their nocturnal flittings.

The dark mornings feel strange; sunrise doesn’t happen until 8:30 am – although of course we benefit at the other end of the day – and being a ‘northerner,’ I find this absurdly late for this time of year. Still, what pure pleasure to enjoy my first mug of the day watching colour seep into the landscape, the mist breathing through the valley bottom in soft wisps, the garden sparkling under a blanket of dewdrops, the still, robin-haunted air brimming with the fresh, spicy, earthy scent of daybreak.

There’s a change rippling through the garden, a slow shimmy between seasons. We are still eating what Roger calls ‘clean veg’ – aubergines, courgettes, peppers, tomatoes and beans – as well as pears and figs, but they are slowing down now after a summer of busy fruiting and new flavours are starting to muscle in.

We’ve tasted the first sweetness of the autumn carrots, the aniseed crunch of Florence fennel and the earthy softness of Jerusalem artichokes.

Kale is shaking its leaves in various shapes and colours, the purple frilled variety as shameless and flamboyant as they come. Late-planted land cress and rocket have an extra fiery zing, balanced by the melting sweetness of young beetroot. There are leeks and parsnips still waiting in the wings but let’s not rush, they are surely comfort food for winter nights? That said, the ‘winter’ cabbages just can’t wait their turn, we will be tucking in long before ‘January King’ lives up to its name.

In the continued warmth, the garden carries on regenerating itself as it has done for many months; bare earth is soon covered once more, the green manure I planted in spring constantly burgeoning into a new carpet of green. The next generation of calendula, Californian poppies, cerinthe, pansies and nasturtiums are flowering in trails and pops of bright colour; the nasturtium below has emerged from under the waning courgette plants, completely different in shade and pattern to any other in the garden, that soft yellow as delicate as a primrose.

Elsewhere, a single self-set broad bean is a subtle reminder that it’s almost time to plant more, along with a row of peas for an early spring harvest.

Despite the season, there is still no shortage of harvesting to be done. Picking figs is a daily ritual that sees Roger balancing ever more precariously at the top of a ladder. I have the easy job, holding the trug to receive those luscious fruits and enjoying the bright puddles of sky caught between the tracery of branches and leaves.

We have two types of fig tree here, one yielding fruits with white flesh, the other pink; they have subtly different flavours but both are packed with an indescribable juicy sweetness. We are eating them fresh, freezing a few for winter puds and drying the rest. What a fantastic food they are.

Staying with fruit and we are down to the last few pickings of pears, now coming from the trees at the perfect stage of buttery ripeness. I’ve been peeling and chopping bags of them for the freezer – they’re lovely stewed with a few spices and mixed with oats and nuts for my breakfast – and we dried as many slices as we could when The Beast was lit (far too warm for that again this week!). Along with the dried figs, they have proved to be the perfect portable snack on our recent hikes.

The walnut harvest goes on and on and the horreo floor is slowly disappearing under a crunchy carpet of goodness. There are a couple of trees in the orchard but most of our gathering requires a walk across the meadow to the woods, such a lovely thing to do especially as the delicate autumn crocus are in flower now.

It might seem slightly crazy when we still have a garden abundant in fresh food that there should be such an urgency to go seeking food in the wild. In some ways, though, I think it’s quite natural; after all, Homo sapiens lived like that for around two million years before agriculture seemed like a better bet and maybe, even after all this time, we still have a vestige in our collective folk memory of an atavistic need to look for food. I’m not romanticising foraging by any means – hand to mouth and feast or famine are not easy ways to live, it’s unpredictable and precarious at best – but I welcome the chance to make that connection with our ancient ancestors and those communities where foraging remains central today.

Foraging is a joyful feast for the senses; for me, simply being outside and soaking up the sheer beauty of the season is enough, the food for free a real bonus. Deciduous woodland is quite possibly my favourite environment and I revel in the chance to indulge my appetite. Picking food from the wild also serves to reinforce that sense of interconnection, of being part of the web of life, and brings nature into even greater focus than a garden can. For a start, foraging can’t be rushed; this is no fast food smash and grab but a slow, gentle, focused concentration of moving quietly through the landscape, of observing, listening, tasting, smelling, touching. Savouring. Appreciating.

This seasonal bounty has had no helping hand from mankind, no careful nurturing of seedlings or tying in of climbers, no weeding or feeding or seeding; there is no easy picking from neat rows or raised beds, no guaranteed crop contained tidily in small spaces. I love the unfettered freedom of it all.

Truly, isn’t there something so satisfying about wild food? The gentle surrender of fat blackberries pulled from their brambles, the hedgehog prickles of chestnut shells opening sleepy eyes to reveal the glossy brown treasure within, the dusky bloom on black sloes, the frilled green crowns on silky hazelnuts and the lipstick shine of rosehips. Is anything quite as sensuous as the sweet-sour burst of bilberry juice on a purple tongue or the clean earthy scent of a mushroom plucked from its stalk? True, we might walk miles, balance and stretch and teeter in awkward places, be scratched and prickled and smeared in juice, cursed by jays and bitten by insects . . . but it is most definitely worth it.

Parasol mushrooms are a culinary delight.

There is nothing to match these pure, wild flavours of autumn; we are feasting like kings!

Heading home with dinner.

Like the circle of the year and cycle of the seasons, I shift through changing patterns, too: from running to yoga, from language study to handicrafts, from socialising to solitude . . . but there is no sense of slowing down yet, no need to slide into a winter-induced hibernation. On the contrary, I always enjoy such a burst of energy at this time of year, one that centres very much on practical activities, on making and doing things with my hands, that it makes me smile just to think about it.

So, no surprise that pottering about and experimenting with natural dyes finds me completely and utterly in my element. I have so much more foraging to look forward to, all those leaves and flowers and bits of bark packed with colour possibilities to explore! What a revelation making dye from walnut leaves was and there was something very much of the season about the soft hues it produced.

I could barely wait long enough for that wool and silk to dry before I was carding it into rolags and busy at my spinning wheel. Oh, those little soft, silky nests of gorgeousness!

I accepted long ago that it is pointless trying to spin a yarn for a project; perhaps it sounds fanciful but the wheel tends to choose how the yarn will be (I’ve spun two lots of identical fleece under identical conditions before now and ended up with two completely different yarns) and so I spin first and decide later.

This mix is spinning up into a beguiling yarn, all creamy coffee, cinnamon and ginger and that silk is totally sumptuous but, oh-my- days, it is so fine that I suspect the finished article will be laceweight . . . and lace knitting is my worst woolly nightmare. Mmm.

Nothing daunted, on to the next natural dyeing adventure, this time using ground madder root. Along with indigo, it was given to me by Vicky years ago and it’s ridiculous that it has taken me this long to use it. The good news is that it’s a substantive dye so needs no mordant, the even better news is that it can be used cold; no need to heat a dyepot, just let the fibres seep. Well, no problem, I got stuck right in with another length of Merino and a small pile of tussah silk.

I’ve often confessed to being a simple soul but honestly, this colour thrilled me so much that I couldn’t stop going to check the pot and giving it a bit of a stir. I left it for a couple of days, then rinsed the fibres and hung them out to dry. My goodness, that colour is delectable.

Jenny Dean, the absolute authority on natural dyeing, warns against using ground madder root unless it’s firmly tied in a muslin bag or old pair of tights because otherwise the particles cause speckles in the fibre. Of course, I considered this wise advice seriously and understood her point completely but part of me struggled to see how that would work; certainly, the muslin I have doesn’t have a close enough weave to trap the particles – which are very tiny – and I haven’t worn tights for seven years, so that’s a non-starter. In the end, I just went for it as I don’t mind speckled dye effects anyway, but nature has come to my rescue because the little bits are blowing out on the washing line like tiny specks of red dust. With the first batch done, I refreshed the dyepot with another dollop of madder paste and threw in my hastily finished skein of Romney / mohair mix – one I’d hoped would do for socks, so I was very thankful when it turned out at 3-ply weight. All of a sudden, I have a burning desire to knit . . .

I can’t begin to describe the fascinating, alluring beauty of these colours, only that I’m well and truly hooked. Orange on blue. I’m seeing leaves against sky again. Maybe it’s time to bring on the indigo? 🙂