A cheat's guide to autumn
Today I woke up to autumn. The subtlest of seasons, autumn edges in indecisively. Before the tell-tale blaze of leaves lighting up the trees, there’s a subtle change in the texture of the air, a keening of the breeze. This October it seemed as though it would all come at once, but a walk last weekend through Richmond Park revealed swathes of still-green trees and residual warmth in the wind. Today is different. The grocers are stocking roots and squashes, I needed a jacket to head outside, field mice are testing the limits of London masonry and the streets are lit up with leaves putting on their Sunday best for their last hurrah.
We are here, enjoying this last swell of life before the year dies.
Accordingly, what we eat will change with the mellowing temperature. Softer, fuller spices will creep their way into my cooking. Caraway and softened onions will mingle with white cabbage. Cinnamon pull-apart bread will be an afternoon project, filling my flat with the deep Christmassy smell which makes lone working more bearable. A good portion of an office-bound afternoon is to be spent deliberating between ossobuco and lamb’s liver.
Autumn is the season I really give myself over to food fantasy: at heart I am the love child of Keith Floyd and Clarissa Dickenson-Wright. Summer cookery doesn’t sit so readily with their butter-and-cream-heavy approach to food. For supper tonight the autumnal chill in the air demands one-dish fare, but I’m not yet ready for the ragús and casseroles of winter. Fish pie is the perfect transitional meal.
The effect of fish pie is much the same as a walk on a Scottish beach under the clouds banked dense and purple, low on the horizon. Or a pint in a steamy pub at 5 o’clock in the chilly gloaming: the combination of flushed cheeks and a cold nose. As with all pies it is the combined textures which make this dish so irresistible. Top heavy with fluffed mash, beneath the surface a delicately rich sauce cradles flakes of vividly dyed smoked haddock, a stray prawn, maybe mussels, shelled, and chunks of salmon blushing rosily against the béchamel. A classic fish pie is always enjoyable, quartered boiled eggs lurking amidst a parsley flecked sauce, yolks winking like chocolate coins in a Lucky Dip. But I routinely turn to one of two variations which enliven this eternal dish.
My grandmother’s sweet variation. She melts spring onions and slivers of smoked bacon in the base of her sauce, omitting the eggs and parsley in favour of sweetcorn kernels and a topping of sweet and ordinary potatoes whipped with sour cream.
Or a Caribbean-raised friend’s recipe. Again, sweet potato with nutmeg, allspice and a generous whack of butter, conceals a luscious creamed coconut filling, wilted spinach and fresh coriander peeping through the lime spiked sauce.
Whichever I choose, it’s the perfect end to a perfect autumnal day.