After a long hot summer here in France, autumn is finally here. The sun has calmed its fury, and retired behind the clouds. A soft rain has been falling for days to the relief of the wildlife and the farm animals alike. Three young red 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. Although six weeks later than usual, mushrooms are valiantly doing 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, though 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 an hour are really all the ingredients needed. This recipe is inspired by those plates of tasty convenience.
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 in old city orchards and gardens – I picked a couple of kilos from a tree overhanging the lane from an abandoned house. Most greengrocers will have them from October 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. 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.
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Kieran Jefferson is a chef, forager, and writer. He recently relocated to rural France to become as self-sufficient as possible and to reconnect with the older ways of doing things. His plans involve an extensive fruit and vegetable garden, an orchard, chickens, pigs, bees, wild food, and a lot of cooking and eating. As online editor for Locavore, he is always on the lookout for stories, news, and events.