With that problem in the chiller, I can think about filling the stores. The harvest is coming in and I make time every day to pick, or gather, or cook up a batch of what's been picked and gathered. I've filled one small shelf in the pantry with chutneys - French bean, plum & chilli, apple & onion - and tomato relish. The house smells perpetually of malt vinegar during September.
A small selection of chutneys
Preserving food is part frugal and part ritual. Though, as far as frugality goes, by the time I've bought canning jars, spices, and had the stove on for two hours, I can't in good conscience say it's free food. But everyone with a vegetable patch knows the mental anguish that comes with a glut. Compost it and you feel wasteful. Serve up beans or courgettes twelve days in a row and face a mutiny at your kitchen table. (A Mutiny from the Bounty!) Try and give it away, and you realise everyone else is wrestling with their own glut.
Garrison Keillor once said that the only time anyone locks their car doors in Lake Woebegone is during tomato season, simply to stop people leaving boxes of their surplus in your car. A fictional town and a fictional harvest, but surely a true statement.
In the UK, there's never an overabundance of ripe tomatoes. Not enough sun. Here, we lock our doors against courgettes. Courgettes and marrows (think a Hulked-out courgette). We can't even make ratatouille with them unless we - gasp! - buy tomatoes.
Pickling spreads the load. I can hardly face another plate of runner beans right now but the week before Christmas, that runner bean chutney with cheese and a door-stop wedge of home-made bread will be most welcome. Courgettes can be made into pickles that will keep until next spring.
A pair of cucumber plants burst out of their makeshift polytunnel - made from leftover pheasant pen sections.
Freezing apples and blackberries is very frugal and less of a time-suck than standing over a jam pan. Peel and roughly chop the apples, add a squeeze of lemon juice, and freeze in recycled takeout containers - what could be easier? Blackberries just need washing before freezing. Voila! - instant makings for a hot crumble on a cold day. The only limiting factor is the size of your freezer. If I shoot a good-sized deer, then we have crumbles every other day to free up some space. And now you're back to the "too much of a good thing" scenario.
This is why eating seasonally has its drawbacks.
But you can't beat preserving for satisfying our human need for ritual. Harvest is probably the most rewarding time in a farmer's or grower's calendar. Whether your harvest is laid out on the counter for canning, or stacked in a barn for overwintering animals, it's a tangible measure of one's successes that year. It marks the culmination of so much luck, skill and hard work coming together. When the chutney or jam has been spooned into jars and you hear the 'plink' as the seal sets, that plink says to me "Your food's safe, now go and enjoy the quiet, contemplative months of winter". After lambing, cutting wood, culling deer, and shoot season of course.
Another crop about to burst out. The ewe's legs look like they are buckling under her weight!
My other favourite ritual job at harvest is braiding onions for storage. I've pulled and dried a small but respectable onion harvest out of the vegetable patch. I braided the best ones and they are hanging in the spare room on the curtain rod - the curtain rod with its end still resting on top of the bookshelf, having pulled out of the wall two years ago when I hung my braided onion strings on there the first time. You'd think I'd get around to fixing it during one of those quiet, contemplative winter months I mentioned earlier.
The onions too small or soft to make it on the curtain rod have been going into the chutneys. I use them as a self-limiting mechanism: when the onions run out, no more chutney. If you have compulsive tendencies (and let's face it, who doesn't?), canning can become a self-rewarding stimulus. Or perhaps sniffing vinegar stimulates dopamine production, I don't know.
Anyway, the onions are going to run out soon, but the beans seem never-ending this year. I've started feeding them to the dogs, cooked in lamb fat or with scrambled eggs. We have seven dogs and I'm always grateful that not one is a fussy eater. In fact, they never pass up an opportunity. When I'm making chutney or jam, Pip sleeps in the kitchen on the mat by the back door - far enough away that she's not being sent out for getting under my feet, but close enough to snaffle up any apple peelings or blackberries that hit the floor. Quincy adores banana skins, but has to rummage in the compost for her fix. Spud likes the ends of the cucumbers Mike eats in his sandwiches every day.
I hope everyone's had a bountiful season. Tonight we're having our first harvest of late carrots and some beetroot given to us by friends. And, if you're having problems curtailing your own canning impulses, I'm available for interventions.