Sunday, September 25, 2011

Apples, Apples and More Apples (And Some Grapes!)

It's that time of year again, and the venerable old apple tree at the bottom of our garden is full of fruit, and also keeping us well supplied with windfalls in the rough weather. Of which we have had far, far too much, this summer, here in the West of Scotland. The apples are, according to Nigel Deacon, who knows about these things, an old variety called Golden Noble, and wonderful for cooking. Naturally sweet, they turn fluffy when cooked and are fabulous in pies and jams and cakes. The longer you keep them, the more they live up to their name and turn a gorgeous pale golden colour: a noble fruit indeed!

We also have a grape vine, with the root outside, and the fruit under glass, which produces lots of sweet black grapes each year, and this year is no exception.

Most of them aren't quite ripe yet, and we could do with a bit more sunshine over the coming week, which we are seemingly going to get, so we'll be donating some to the village shop, as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, I've been doing rather a lot of apple cooking! We have frozen several boxes of blanched apples, and I've made several jars of a low sugar preserve, with apples, plums (from a friend in Oxfordshire) and a few strawberries thrown in for good measure, boiled up with some sugar, but not as much as you would put in jam. This has made a gorgeous pale pink 'butter' which is now stored in the fridge, in jars - it doesn't keep for more than a couple of months, but we'll have finished it by then.

I've made apple pudding, with suet pastry, and apple pie, and I'm planning an Eve's pudding for some mid-week visitors, sponge baked on top of stewed apple, which I always associate with my lovely late mother-in-law who made so many delicious traditional puddings.  But today, I made a scrumptious Apple Potato Cake, following a recipe from an old book called Talking About Cakes With an Irish and Scottish Accent, by Margaret Bates. This is one of those much loved cookery books that I've had for years. There are recipes written in the back from when I was a teenager, and it's quite nostalgic to look at them, all these years later.

According to Margaret Bates, this dish is from Armagh and the recipe is quite vague, but certainly works. One of those marvellous recipes that turns unpromising ingredients into something magical. You take a quantity of cold mashed potato (leftovers are ideal) and mix it with some fine, plain flour and a little melted butter. I used about four rounded tablespoons of flour to about a quarter kilo or half a pound of mashed potato. There are no hard and fast measurements, but it should be a soft, pliable dough, like a soft pastry. Divide it in two, and roll each piece into a circle. Finely chop some cooking apple - enough to make a good thick layer - spread it on one circle, top with the other and pinch the edges together, so that it makes a big 'cake'. Cook this very slowly on an old fashioned 'girdle' - but a good, heavy non-stick pan will do the same job - oiled with a little butter. Turn it over half way through the cooking - easiest to do this by sliding it onto a plate and then flipping it back onto your pan. It takes about 15 - 20 minutes. When you think it is almost cooked, and the apple is beginning to bubble, lift the lid a little, sprinkle with brown sugar and dot with a little butter, lower the lid and leave for a few more moments. Serve very hot. If you add the sugar too soon, it will spill over your pan and caramelise.

Eat it immediately. Then make another. So many apples, at this time of the year, that it's justified!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Absolutely Gorgeous Printed Silk Gauze Paisley Shawl

I could hardly believe it, when I saw this amazing shawl hanging up in the saleroom. It's a printed paisley shawl in finest silk gauze, as light as a feather and probably dating from the 1840s or 50s. It's very very long, with the colours as fresh and warm as the day it was made,  and clearly designed to be worn over a crinoline, but probably for evening wear. There's no warmth in it, only great beauty. The lady who wore it must have considered herself fortunate to possess such a fabulously beautiful item. I hope it was a gift from somebody she loved! These are rare items. They come along once in a blue moon, for the simple reason that they are so fragile, so featherlight, that they didn't often survive. This one has a few - but only a few - faults - a few places where the silk has worn a little thin, where the slight weight of the fringe has tugged at the fragile silk threads, but to be honest, these are small matters. It's the kind of textile that gives your heart a little lift when you see it - the kind of textile that makes the whole business of trying to source and rehome these wonderful old things, so often women's things, as I point out in my novel, The Curiosity Cabinet, so very much worth while! Gathering this up gently, touching it, is like touching a little bit of the past.