I stood at the side of the road yesterday evening watching a murmuration of starlings rising and falling in the sky above a rolling field. Two invisible washer women shaking out a blanket between them; turning it, shaking out the folds, end-to-end, middle to end, and then finally laying it taught against the surface of the field, hospital corners, surface smooth.
The RSPB tell me these things are a common-enough sight at this time of year, and yet they never fail to catch the imagination. Who wouldn't be transfixed by this mercurial living sculpture playing out against a winter sun? Their numbers are down, though. In the last few years the starling population has declined by 70% in this country, causing the RSPB to add them to its critical list. The loss is thought to be due to loss of permanent pasture and the increased use of farm chemicals.
Back home we are making a batch of mince pies for the freezer. My little helpers are ready with their tiny rolling pins and star cutters. All starts off well. There is little flour on the floor as yet. Helper number one is rolling out rounds for the cases and then eating the remains of the raw pastry. I am too late to point out that the idea is to roll it out again. Helper number two, meanwhile, is ladling in small spoons of mincemeat - one for the baking tin, one for me, one for the baking tin...I say that we only have two jars of mincemeat and quite a lot of pastry still to cover, but all I get is 'the look' with spoon in mouth.
Luckily, these mince pies are destined for home use only; Health and safety would fall on deaf ears, I think. For them, half the point in the making is the eating - at all stages of preparation, pre- and post-cooking. I thought I was being clever by making two lots of pastry (one with grated orange peel and juice added) so that I could track the 'better' mince pies down to squirrel away; but I was wrong. Oddly enough, the mince pies all looked the same - theirs and mine. It seems that somewhere in the cooking process they even themselves out and come out looking uniformally homemade. And surely that is the point: No mince pie should ever look as if it had come straight out of a packet.
At the minute I am using you to weigh down the Christmas cards I am making. Diaries 1 and 2 add up to just the right weight it seems to prevent the cards from curling up. Back in the summer there were weeds squashed between your sheets - well wild flowers, anyway - as we tried to preserve the colours of a summer meadow, so transient now as I squelch through calf-deep mud with the dog, the frost nipping the end of my nose.
You are taking stock of the rich red and coppery hues that a long Autumn has left unshed in your garden. 'The two pear trees outside the kitchen door are heartstoppingly beautiful this morning. The Winter Nellis has crimson leaves as slim and fine as a feather; the Doyenne du Comice is a mass of copper and orange.' Others would say your garden was in dire need of a good weed, rake and pruning. But you are caught for a moment, lost in this scene of romantic melancholy: 'They are wrong, of course, and I celebrate with a hazelnut-scented pear cake'(page 456).
I have made this recipe of yours before and loved the different textures with the lightly poached pears laid on top of the cake mixture and a crumble mixture scattered on that. Demerara and cinnamon are sprinkled on lastly for the crust. I particularly liked the taste of cinnamon added to the poached pears. It reminded me of 'Olde England' somehow and midwinter festivities and the Solstice. Our mince pies would once have contained minced meat along with the spices, though now the only trace of that is in the suet. Brought over from the Middle East by Crusaders in the 13th Century, the humble mince pie was frowned on by the Puritan authorities during the English Civil War but has remained popular right until today.
Looking back a couple of pages I find tonight's supper tucked seamlessly into 'November 17 - Poor man's potatoes' (page 453). One of those simple 'chuck-it-in-a-pan suppers' when all the ingredients are to hand and there's no necessity to go out shopping for that one elusive ingredient without which the dish is incomplete. There are tiny salad potatoes (to which I am quite partial) and red peppers and onion. You seem to agree with me about the choice of red over green pepper. The classic Spanish tapas dish 'patatas pobre' contains green peppers but red are so much sweeter and more inviting somehow. Green peppers are often just under-ripe versions of red and orange peppers, with less vitamin C and carotenoids to boot. Perhaps I have just been offered too many strips of raw green pepper and dips at parties and the slightly indigestible taste has rather put me off. So thank you for choosing it's warmer brother.
The salad potatoes are halved and placed face down in a pan with a little olive oil. Then sliced red pepper and onion placed on top. It cooks gently on top of the stove until the potatoes are starting to brown. Then a little stock is added and absorbed. It cooks by itself whilst I clear up the winter wasteland that was a mince pie workshop. The sticky residue which leaches from under the tops of the mince pies welds itself resolutely to the baking tins as I scrub