'Round our neck of the woods things are getting Autumnal. Not a huge leaf fall, as yet, or the fade to brown of all things green; but there are small pockets of activity here and there. Driving down to the village shop three miles away, I notice the odd tree dotted about one per field, covered in a rainbow mantle of reds, yellows and burnt orange - looking for all the world like a painted sculpture driven into the ground by guerrilla artists, against a backdrop of solid green. It is uncanny this Autumn on the cusp. Like many people I have always believed that the change in colour was due to the lowering of the temperature. But now I find that I am wrong. The colours and their intensity may be dictated by the temperature outside, but the actual change in colour is caused by the lengthening of the night at this time of year - whether it is cold outside or not.
There is vitamin C hanging for the birds on every hedge in the form of vibrant glossy rose hips and tiny peppercorn elderberries (to keep away bird flu perhaps?...well, who knows...); and clods of mud on the road left by the constant trail of tractors from the fields. We have to skip round them on our way to the bus each day. There is an old farmer in our village kept in constant work - I presume paid by the parish or district council - to keep the roads and the verges tidy. Every few days we wave at each other as he strims the verges, prunes the hedges, sweeps up the muck from the road. It is a part of the necessary, and hidden, polishing of our countryside which keeps it looking 'pretty pretty' for the tourists and locals alike.
The big event of the week here is the annual pea and pie supper at the village hall. It follows the Harvest Festival at the church the day before, with the supper preceding an auction of produce. The children revel in a chance to bid for a bunch of red onions and a gingerbread. They are less enamoured of the green sludge pertaining to be mushy peas. The pie is good and solid and meaty with plenty of dark gravy. (In a village where the only shop is a Butchers it would be a poor do otherwise.) The large selection of puddings proves more popular.
The vicar is down to her last 67p and is frantically bidding for a jar of marmalade. This year the bidding starts off at a pace and then slows down as people get worn out. It is late and I am eager to take the kids home to bed but there is still twenty or more individual items. Another jar of red cabbage. Another bunch of gladioli. I want to bang my head on the table. Please, let me go home. Someone is refusing to let the vicar have her jar of marmalade for 67p. It's been a good evening, but too long. We have to stay for the raffle. We are trapped. There would be an uproar if I tried to make us leave before the drawing when they have had their tatty pink tickets stuffed in their pockets all evening - each one pointing to a jar of bath salts or some asti spumante.
Back home I am making a spinach, leek and Stilton soup. It takes a phenomenal amount of spinach - four huge bags - and even wilted it seems a lot. I often think some recipe writers ignore the financial constraints of their readers. Have you ever noticed this? You are out shopping, slavishly following someone's ideas to the letter, when you get that gnawing feeling that tonight's dinner is costing a kings ransom, and wouldn't you prefer to eat out instead? Occasionally, of course, it is our own fault. We have decided to cook something where the main ingredient is out-of-season and expensive. But not always so. I have notes littered on books all over the house saying, 'don't bother...it's far too expensive' or 'use tinned instead of fresh tomatoes as it seems to taste exactly the same...'
I like it that you follow the seasons round with us. You make the food I want to eat right now at this time of year. Today you are using up some leeks to make little 'tarts of leek and cheese' (page 369). You are using Taleggio, which is one of my favourites to cook with. The leeks are thinnings from a friend, removed to allow the others to fatten up in the coming months. These have a more delicate taste than the dark fat leeks in my trug. You say that 'the French and the Flemish have more ways to use the humble leek than the Innuit have words for snow or the Lapps have for reindeer'. You like 'the more robust notes of our own leek and potato soup..than the French vichyssoise. It's a more common soup - you rarely see it on menus now'. Not in our house, Nigel. It's one of the few soups I can guarantee they'll all eat. The beetroot, lemon and chive was too red, apparently, and this one I'm making is too green. Doesn't seem a fair argument to me. The little tarts are made with puff pastry and the leeks are merely softened in a pan and them sprinkled with cubes of cheese.
'Later, as we tuck into the steaming pie with its puff pastry and sweet, mild filling, it occurs to me that the precious leeks my neighbour had grown from seed were actually meant for my garden.' Whoops!
You are also making soup. It's good to know you are prepared to dive into your freezer and come up with a big bag of frozen peas, like the rest of us. My freezer is getting to that chaotic state when I know I have to do likewise and eat our way through it if there is to be any chance of putting things by for Christmas. The bag of frozen peas go into a large pan with some vegetable stock (made from powder - Marigold, I presume?), spring onions, mint and salt. Blended with cream, you eat it with rye crackers and smoked salmon. Here is a lesson in the economy of soup, sorely needed here at present. There are vegetables crying out to be used up and I am 'following a recipe' when I should, perhaps, be experimenting with frugality.
Like the answer to Sophie's angling of the tooth fairy: 'Emma gets £2 from the tooth fairy in her house.' 'Well,' I say,'I think the tooth fairy is a bit more frugal around here.' Molly has lost her top front tooth and is doing pirate impersonations. There is enough space to be able to suck a straw with her teeth closed. I find some tiny milk bottles, like the kind we used to have at playtime with gone-off warm milk inside, which everyone left. They make great milk shakes for after school. Note to self - write out a hundred times: I will make frugal soups. I will make frugal soups.