After a long hot summer here in France, autumn has finally arrived. The sun has calmed its fury, and retired behind the clouds. Rain is forecast and will be relief to the wildlife and the farm animals alike. Three young roe deer flit daily across the fields behind the house, buzzards and kites fill the sky with their wings and cries, pheasants run their dinosaur run along the lanes. Mushrooms will soon do their thing, before the first frosts arrive and freeze the ground hard. The hedges are heavy with rose hips and haws, crab apples and sloes.
The autumn kitchen is a busy one; filled with pans of bubbling fruit, trays of drying fungi, and boxes of curing walnuts. A demi-john of cider bubbles by the fire, and bottles of berries in alcohol line the shelves. The garden is slowing down, though there are still carrots, cabbages, pumpkins, parsnips. Now is the time to gather and preserve for the winter ahead, and it is hard, steamy work, full of heady aromas.
A break for lunch during a day of preparation is vital, a chance to take a step back, take stock, and breathe, before plunging back into the steam and the hiss of the tasks at hand. A plate can be filled with the things that are currently being cooked; a buffet of sorts. Some of this fruit, a handful of those nuts, a little cheese, a wedge of bread, and a quiet half hour are really all the ingredients needed. This recipe is inspired by those plates of tasty convenience, though takes somewhat more time.
Quince, walnut, goat’s cheese, bacon, wild greens.
Quince (Cydonia oblonga) are ready for picking early autumn. Rock hard, and softly furred, they take an age to ripen and release their delicate perfume. Cooked down to a purée and mixed with sugar, they make an excellent fruit cheese. Jam and gin are also excellent destinations for this flavoursome fruit. They do not grow wild, but are to be found feral in old city orchards and abandoned gardens – I picked a couple of kilos from a tree overhanging the lane from an empty house. Most greengrocers will have them from late September onwards.
The walnut (Juglans regia) is mostly to be be found in parks and gardens, though occasionally you’ll find one in the forest. Native to Central Asia, it was spread through the usual routes of trade and war. If you pick your own you’ll need to cure them before use. To do this, remove the outer green husk (wear gloves or your hands will be yellow for days), then give them a wash in an old bucket (again due to the colouring). Pop them in a tray so the air can circulate around them, and put them somewhere dark and dry for a month or so. They’re ready to use once the shell yields to a nutcracker fairly easily.
There are a lot of wild greens around in autumn and winter. Here I’ve used some dandelion leaves and some chickweed. Dandelion (Taraxacum aggregate) gives a last hurrah in a warm autumn, with new leaves and a few flowers thumbing a nose at winter’s approach. I’ve found that autumn leaves are less bitter than the new growth of spring, but do pick the smaller and lighter in colour from the plant nonetheless. Chickweed (Stellaria media) is around for most of the year, and autumn growth can be quite vigourous. Its mild and slightly sweet crunch is a good counterpoint to the bitterness of the dandelion.
These autumnal treats, brought together with some salty bacon and creamy goat’s cheese, offer a tasty and very seasonal lunch or supper.
Ingredients (serves 4)
1 large or 2 small quince
6 rashers streaky bacon
250g soft young goat’s cheese
1 litre water
8 tbsp white sugar
1 tbsp honey
1 cinnamon stick
1/2 star anise
20 walnuts, shelled.
1/2 handful each of dandelion leaves and chickweed, picked over and washed
Put the water, sugar, honey, and spices in a pan, and bring to the boil. Cut the quince in half (small) or quarters (large) and put straight in to the hot syrup (they’ll go brown if left in the air too long). Turn down the heat to a simmer and poach for 25 minutes or so until tender enough to slide a knife into the flesh.
Meanwhile, whip the goat’s cheese until soft and fluffy. (It’s easier with an electric whisk.) Set aside in the fridge.
Cook the bacon slowly on a medium heat until crispy. Remove the rashers from the pan and set aside. Keep the fat in the pan.
Once the quince is ready, remove from the syrup and set aside somewhere warm. Turn up the heat and reduce the syrup by half. (Any leftover syrup, left in the fridge overnight, will set to a loose jelly and is great on toast for breakfast.)
Put the bacon pan back on a medium heat. Cut each piece of quince into three, and add to the bacon fat. Gently push them around for a couple of minutes until starting to colour. Add the walnuts, give the pan a shake, and then remove from the heat.
To serve, spoon some syrup into the bottom of four bowls. Add three quince slices to each. Spoon some goat’s cheese onto the quince. Break up the crispy bacon and arrange on top, along with the walnuts. Finally scatter a few of the wild greens on top. Serve immediately with some crusty bread.
This article first appeared in a slightly different form on Locavore Magazine’s website.