Don't lament the loss of summer, embrace autumn’s abundance, says Hamish Smith
It’s almost autumn, the season that coaxes us from nature’s bounty to dormancy. There’s no time to stall, to mourn your fading summer favourites – the carousel of seasonal ingredients is turning and it’s all too easy to fall behind. So resist the long-haul import and embrace the new season. Autumn is in business and there’s far more to this season than pumpkins.
If you have a good supplier, why not talk to them in the language of regions and varieties, not grades and sizes? It’s perfectly normal to want to know where all your ingredients come from and besides, as an ongoing pursuit, ingredient sourcing should be less transactional, more conversational. If you want to get ahead with seasonal drinks-making you might want to think ahead too. So plan out your calendar a season or year ahead – barring the vagaries of weather, harvest times don’t change much from one season to the next.
It’s possible that a good supplier is where sourcing starts and ends for you, and that’s fine, you’ve got a job to do too. But to be in harmony with the seasons and at one with your ingredients, you might want to grow or find your own. Foraging isn’t only sport for retirees, it’s as non-committal as a walk with a carrier bag – exercise with culinary benefits. Hauls may be better in the countryside – think hedgerows, woods, scrubland – but in urban areas fruit trees hide in plain sight. Foraging for drinks can be a walk in the park – literally, your local green space. Once you look, you’ll start to find, but for added accuracy check out fruitcity.co.uk – it maps the fruit trees around the country.
So what’s in season this season? The less-common though generous yellow raspberries have taken over from red, while the British damson is having its moment too. Try to catch the last of the late summer greengage flourish. The sweet-tart profile of these cool-climate plums is perfectly deployed in drinks. Look out for the distinctive lobed leaves of the fig tree, so often leaning out of gardens at this time of year. The leaves are edible, but the figs are better tasting and easier to borrow. Right now, they’re on their journey from green to purple – few things improve brandy more than ripe autumn figs.
HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES?
The French have their grapes and we have our apples. We have the perfect terroir for them too. About a third of the world’s apple varieties grow here – 2,500 – though, given our cool climate, varieties lean to the acidic side and, by dint of that, to cocktails too. Try the sweet and nutty Egremont Russet, the acidic but honeyed Cox or the strawberry-like Worcester Pearmain – all, and many more, are in season now. Applejack, freeze-distilled apple brandy, apple wines and ciders, or an apple spin on anything else; just use more apples.
Apples and pears have more in common than rhyming slang – they are part of the same family and come into season together too. Most of what your supplier will muster will be the ubiquitous Conference, but look out for its better-tasting cousin, Concorde. If you’re picking wild, be happy with what you’ve got. But know when to pick a pear – their ripeness is fleeting. The fruit forms in summer and is ready to harvest from first windfall to first frost, September until November, depending on the variety. They ripen from the inside out, so pick when firm but easily persuaded from the tree.
Nuts are also dropping at this time of year. Try to resist the default shop-bought varieties, often grown and flown in from North and South America. Next time you’re in your local park, look up. Likely there will be a sweet chestnut tree, and if you’re quick – quicker than squirrels – September can be generous. Hazel trees, indigenous to these lands, also abound. By all means buy the farmed British variety for that familiar nutty hazelnut taste, but the ones you forage will be green and fruity. Finally, the plentiful acorns falling from oak trees as we speak are not inedible too, though do your homework on how to prepare them, should your customers not be pigs. So get on the seasonal merry-go-round – it doesn’t wait around; soon it will be winter.
FRUIT, BERRIES AND NUTS THIS AUTUMN