‘I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers’, so wrote Lucy Maud Montgomery in Anne of Green Gables and whether you dream of New England in the fall or reminisce of conkers in the playground, autumn is a season filled with romance and nostalgia. There’s nothing quite like a walk through a city park painted in oranges, reds and auburns or along a country path dripping with brambles followed by a pint of real ale and a roaring fire. Autumn wraps you up in a blanket and keeps you warm as she signals the end of summer before the long dark nights of the interminable winter months.
In Scotland autumn is the season of harvest and whether wild or cultivated, the larder comes alive and it speaks to me of stews and soups, of roots and fungus, of orchard fruits, long slow cooking and of eating as a family. As a child, soup would mean either lentil with ham hough or Scotch broth. These thick, hearty and life giving bowls would bring warmth to the soul after a day of picking leaves from the forest floor or simply endless hours of football down the park; next goal’s the winner then home for dinner as the streetlights began to cut through the darkness that took us by surprise. I still love to cook these two staples but now have added to the repertoire of seasonal potage with kale, celeriac and the ubiquitous and multi-varietal squash – an ingredient for almost every application. I particularly love it twinned with sweet potato, creamed coconut and chilli. An exotic interlude to a very Scottish season.
If autumn speaks of hearty vegetables from just above or below ground then when it comes to meat it has to be one thing for me. Game. Everything is in season and in this country we have a bounty of wild birds such as mallard, partridge and pigeon as well as rabbit, hare and of course, venison. Game comes in the full range of flavours and elicits cooking of every style but it’s the richest meats that entice me in the darkening nights. I can still remember the first time I discovered wild mallard, a delicious, rich and gamey meat. As I bought one of the last two in the butchers shop an elderly German gentleman who bought the other (and would’ve bought both if he’d been two minutes earlier in his arrival) asked me if I knew what I was going to do with it. When I replied I had no idea his response was unequivocal. ‘Indeed you do young man, you’re going to put it on a rack then pour a good glass of red wine into your tray below, cover it and give it lots of heat for about twenty minutes. You see the mallard needs moisture or you’ll render it inedible, what a waste that would be’. That chance encounter has stayed with me for many years and I daren’t disobey even now.
As for venison, very occasionally I’ll treat myself to a cut of loin and roast it quickly until perfectly rare but more often than not it’ll be slow cooked and a cheaper cut. Surrounded by the flavours it lives amongst like juniper, heather, thyme, mushrooms and brambles plus a good glug of beer or wine stewed venison is the perfect autumn meal, especially on a Sunday afternoon when the act of cooking is as pleasurable as eating. In fact for me it’s what defines autumn, the perfect season from our majestic larder. A season denied to many around the world who inhabit a world without seasons, a world where there are no true Octobers.
First published in Eat Scottish