Is it the smell of fresh-cut grass that reminds me of England? Well, no, I'd have to say it's the smell of leaf decay, log dust, damp woods and the wonderful delicate scent of temperature drop. This can only mean the onset of autumn, and I feel impatient for summer to officially end in yellows, reds and brown. The generosity of the next three months is staggering, and the sheer volume of cooking possibilities should see us feasting at the good table like squirrels on nuts.
In the wild, the medicine cabinet is open wide with sloes, rosehips and horseradish to bottle and store while all game is praised for its life and delicious roasting smells.
The confident will hopefully be grading their mushrooms on newspaper with a wee brush, and don't forget to gorge on the spoils of war against the signal crayfish.
The market barrows are straining beneath cabbages, leeks, gourds, beetroots, fabulous chard, apples, pears and quinces, to name a fraction of Mother Nature's load. One cannot deny her kind intention that these goodies are to bolster us for the meaner season awaiting.
Oysters are to be devoured with the shamelessness of the walrus and carpenter, with the mussels and clams also fat and sweet again. Autumn is pig time, but make sure that crispy belly, boiled bacon and faggots are varied with grass-fattened cow and wonderful lamb, at its peak from now.
Of course, all these fine dishes should be rounded off with great cheeses and the chutney made last year.
If I dare say a season is reliable, it's wonderful autumn.
Crayfish with Hazelnut and pastis Butter
I could eat these stuffed crayfish from dawn till dusk. Select the larger ones if you can, as they will give you a better meat-to-stuffing ratio. This recipe requires live crayfish that must be dispatched. If you are the squeamish type, I wouldn't read beyond this point. This recipe works well with langoustines and would feed five.
30 signal crayfish
Lemon wedges, to serve
For the stuffing
Large handful of shelled hazelnuts
Large handful of picked parsley leaves
1 big ripped handful of slightly stale rustic bread
125g butter, cut into small cubes
2 good garlic cloves, peeled
A good splash of pastis
Large-flaked sea salt and a big grind of black pepper
Turn the oven to its grill setting.
Grate the lemon zest on the medium-fine holes. Wash the parsley leaves, drying them thoroughly. Chop by hand as finely as you can. In a food processor, break the stale bread into medium-fine crumbs, not dust. Add all the remaining stuffing ingredients, except for the parsley, to the breadcrumbs and blend until thoroughly combined. If it forms into a lump, remove the lid and break it up a little with a spoon. When all is blended well, add the parsley and blend again. Don't try to chop the parsley in the processor, as it will take on a chlorophyll taste. Once chopped with a knife, when put in the blender the blades will not be able to chop it further.
Take each crayfish, holding it behind the front claws, at the armpits so to speak. It cannot nip you when held in this way. Hold it down on the table and put the tip of a long, sharp knife into the centre of its head. Push = crunch = dead. This manoeuvre will kill the crayfish instantly. Pick it up, holding the tail end. In the centre of the actual tail, take the middle piece and gently twist it between your thumb and forefinger. Pull away as you twist and the signal's waste sac should come out attached to the tailpiece. If it does not go according to plan, don't worry, they can be picked out with the tip of a knife once the crayfish have been split in half. Cut all the crayfish lengthways from tip to tail, using the point you made in the head to start. When this is done, remove any waste sacs you had not previously removed.
Take an oven tray, your stuffing and a knife, and set them down next to the crayfish. Pick up a generous amount of the stuffing and paste it on the flesh side of each half crayfish. You really want a good teaspoon's worth per half. Lay them, side by side, on the tray as you prepare them. When all are done, sprinkle them all over with salt and put the tray beneath the grill. They will want to cook relatively close to the grill for about 4 minutes. They do not take long. The shells will go red, and if there is any remaining signs of dark brown or blue colouring, they are not ready and require a couple of minutes more.
When done, transfer them to a plate, stacking them up in rows, and serve with little lemon wedges. I think the red shells oozing with green butter look great. I like to accompany this with a cold pastis with ice and water.
The marrow has been rather forgotten, poor thing. People just don't seem to know what to do with it. It has a wonderful taste, a combination of pumpkin and courgette. Because of their water content, they do need a lot of gubbins in the middle so that the stuffing-to-marrow ratio is correctly balanced. You will need at least 1kg of stuffing to a 2kg marrow.
I have gone slightly "Eastern bloc" on this recipe, as I think the raisins, cinnamon and smoked paprika work well. I have used beef shin, which I've braised and shredded. When cooking the beef, the marrow I refer to is that in the bone of the beef shin (of course you can leave it out if you wish). This is a game of two marrows.
1 x 2kg marrow
For the stuffing
1.5kg good beef shin on the bone, chopped into 3-4 pieces (by the butcher)
1 large onion, peeled.........
2 good garlic cloves, peeled
1 x 400g tin chopped tomatoes
1/3 cinnamon stick
1 small teaspoon of cumin seeds
2 heaped teaspoons of hot smoked paprika
Finely grated rind and juice of 1/2 lemon
1 conservative handful of raisins
1/2 tomato tin water
A heavy, heavy grind of black pepper
100g stale bread
1 teaspoon of celery salt
2 heaped teaspoons of large-flaked sea salt
Select beef shin pieces with a good lot of bone marrow, as this is tasty and keeps the meat moist when cooking. Get a large, lidded flame-proof casserole, put it on a low heat and pour a generous slug of olive oil into the bottom. Put in the pieces of shin. Finely dice the onion and garlic, then add to the pot. It is not the aim to brown the meat at all, but to let everything slowly come to the heat and cook gently. Chuck in the remaining ingredients, except for the bread and both salts. Put the lid on the casserole and turn the largest gas flame or hob to as low as it can go, so that the stew is bubbling away slowly in the pot. Cook this for 3 hours.
Smash up all the bread to crumb size in a food processor or by any other method necessary. Put the crumbs to one side.
When the shin has braised, allow it to cool completely. When cooled, pick up the meat, which should easily come away from the bone. Pinch each piece between thumb and forefinger to break it up and string it out a bit. Throw away any unsavoury bits, but not before you have extracted every last bit of meat. Do this over the sauce so that the meat falls back in. Make sure any marrow hiding in the bones has also been poked out into the meat and gravy. Season the filling with the salts. Don't be alarmed by the amount of salt, as marrow dishes need it. Add the breadcrumbs to the pot, where it will firm up the sloppiness, giving the stuffing a nice texture.
Preheat the oven to 200ºC/400ºF/Gas 6.
Split the marrow evenly down the middle from end to end. With a spoon, scrape out the seeds and pith from down the middle of each marrow half.
Double over and lay a sheet of foil across an oven tray, with long enough sides overlapping the tray that they might be gathered round the assembled marrow and folded on top. Oil this sheet lightly where the marrow's underside will sit. Place the marrow on the foil. Fill the marrow with as much of the meat stuffing as you can. Don't worry, the foil will keep all present and correct. (If the filling is fridge-cold, bring it to room temperature first; otherwise you would have to overcook the marrow.) Gather the foil round the middle of the marrow and fold over on the top to secure all. Yes, I realise the ends of the marrow are sticking out. Cook the marrow in the preheated oven for 35-45 minutes; it is cooked when a skewer slides in with the tiniest resistance, but not like a knife through warm butter.
It can be tricky to release the marrow from the foil once it has been cooked. Put it on a serving dish with the foil, and open it at the table. Cut in slices, and there you have it. Eat with cold, bottled beer.
Sloe Gin and Blackberry Jelly
As I rarely eat jelly, I would happily have my tonsils put back in order that I could have them taken out again to give me an extra excuse to eat this.
4 gelatine leaves
4 tablespoons caster sugar
juice of 1/2 lemon
150ml sloe gin
About half an hour before doing anything else, break the gelatine and soak it in just enough warm water to cover. In the bottom of a pan, place the blackberries with the water, sugar and lemon juice. Bring to a gentle simmer, and cook until the fruit has collapsed and fallen apart.
Place a sieve lined with a double layer of muslin over a bowl and drain the blackberry mixture until every drip has been extracted. Don't press the pulp as this will make a cloudy jelly. Discard the fruit pulp.
Reheat the fruit juice gently, to little more than warm, and whisk in the gelatine, making sure you eradicate all lumps. Take the liquid from the heat and pour in the sloe gin. Pour it into your 700ml jelly mould, and leave overnight in the fridge with a plate over the open end. Rabbit shape is my favourite.
When ready to serve, fill a large saucepan with tap-hot water to just under the level of the jelly in its mould. Place the mould in this water, and count to no more than 20 seconds. Put a plate over the top of the mould, remove from the water and up-end. Hopefully, you will hear a sucking sound as the jelly releases from the sides. Lift the mould off carefully. Behold, your wibbly-wobbly creation. I think few things are better than single cream poured all over the top.