So much fuss is made over Summer in food circles, but essentially it’s all just spin. Sure, the season starts with some rather good berries, offers up some fetching salad greens and some splendidly sanguine tomatoes along the way, but Summer is really a time of growing, ripening, charmless hot nights and not much more. The real eating, the premium cru if you will is entirely Autumnal. Mellow fruitfulness and all that.
If, like me, you’ve been prowling farmers markets, fruits shops and your garden lately (just to clarify, I’ve been prowling my own garden, not yours – last thing I need is another food-related restraining order), you will know why I’m so full of Autumnal glee. The-dare-I-say-it almost tediously epic, parched and blazing summer has delivered a harvest for the record books, at least in terms of quality if not quantity. In store and under tree right now can be found some of the finest example of grapes, figs, quinces, apples, persimmon, honey, pumpkins, walnuts, almonds and more, that you’re every likely to try .
The following are to me, what Autumn is all about…
Autumn starts and finishes with figs. These are the true darlings of the season. All Summer long the trees taunt us with their gorgeous fragrance, until that day, usually around Easter, when the previously hard little figlets seem to swell and ripen almost overnight into succulent, sticky-sweet perfection. Figs do not travel well unless picked unripe, and if picked unripe never ripen much further. So the only way to experience the indecent, fleeting joys of a fig in its prime is to grow your own.
Sure you’ll be battling birds from whoa-to-go once the fruit start blushing, and wasps and humidity can take their toll, but take it from one who dwells on these things rather more than is healthy -when it comes to things comestible, a perfect fig is worth any amount of toil. As the season runs its’ short but abundant course you may turn to fig tarts, fig jams, fig relish, et al; but initially, for the first few samples of the season, there is no better way to experience figs than with a drizzle of excellent honey, and a splatter of seathingly ripe double cream blue.
The original golden apple of Diana fame has, in a few short years, gone from being a fruity-relic that your Grandmother banged on about, to a coveted star of contemporary cuisine. And it’s easy to see why – in fact it’s more of a mystery that it ever fell out of favour. Although rock-hard and linty when fresh from the tree, a little rough and tumble on the stove transforms it altogether. With its impossibly ruby-toned flesh, rosaceous fragrance and ancient flavour it is a thing of pure grace. Quince tastes like nothing else – complex, sophisticated and always sure to please.
Quince paste is probably the best known guise of this fruit, and it’s a doddle to make. It’s a doddle to make that is, if you don’t mind 3rd-degree burns to your face, hands and any other tender regions you are bold enough to expose to the volcanic ooze. In my experience most keen cooks make quince paste once. Just once.
Pumpkins and squash are at their absolute best around now. The once-rampant vines have done their dash and shrivelled back to brittle tentacles, while the fruit sit defiantly plump and ready for the pot.
I love the deep, nutty sweetness and fudgy texture of a fully ripened pumpkin, and don’t like to adulterate it any more than is necessary. Pumpkin soup, by all means, but very thick and embellished with nothing more than a little chicken stock, some nutmeg and drizzle of great-tasting olive oil.
The American classic, pumpkin pie, is actually a very good (if not the most respectful) use of a well-turned-out pumpkin and is certainly worth a try. But, to my mind, the definitive way with the very best pumpkin is slowly roasted with rosemary, a little nutmeg, a splash of olive oil and served with few crunchy salt flakes. A useful tip I learned for opening rock-hard pumpkins is to heave them off your deck – when dropped from a height onto a hard surface they split open nicely. I suspect a great many fingers are lost to pumpkin-cutting mishaps.
Although not a game for the novice, mushroom foraging is about as Autumnal a ritual as you’re ever likely to find. If you’re lucky enough to have cattle in your neighbourhood you stand a good chance of finding bucket loads of exquisitely loamy wild field mushrooms. Fry them in bacon fat with a little garlic, a splash of balsamic and maybe the tiniest drift of crème frâiche. Scooped up with toasted tombstones of sourdough , there are few finer breakfasts. Those of you near a decent stand of conifers may well find the delicious slippery jack (pictured above). This close relative of porcini is very common in the North Island, and has a huge following among European expats . Auckland’s Woodhill forest is awash with bucket-toting foragers on Autumn mornings, all chattering away excitedly in pretty much every language but English, and annoying the living daylights out the rude and pushy mountain biking set.
There are a good many other edible mushrooms to be found in New Zealand – including the prized porcini and morel, but considering the potentially lethal consequences of mistaken identities I suggest you stick exclusively to what you know (and even then don’t blame me if your liver explodes).
The other day I was offered an alarmingly blotchy hand to shake. The man at the other end of it –our very affable vet – explained that he had spent the morning hulling walnuts, and could not for the life of him erase the inky evidence. This is a cautionary tale for the prospective nut forager – the juice from walnut husks oxidises to an indelible black ink. Don’t let it anywhere near your bench tops or chopping boards.
That aside, fresh walnuts are one of the great pleasures of autumn. Still-milky and sweet as a … well, a nut… they are a million miles from the often-rancid and bitter contents of the supermarket bulk bins.
Fresh walnuts are perfect in autumn salads – think pears, spinach, bacon and blue cheese – and make a great stuffing for ravioli when mixed with ricotta, silverbeet and parmegiano .
Autumn is a generous season that brings many other treats besides those listed here, almost bracing us for the brassica-dominated months that follow. But this generosity doesn’t last forever, so get cooking – and share your recipes with the rest of us.