Saturday, 22 October 2011

The thin veil of Samhain - summer's end

This is one of my favourite times of year. I love the smell of fire in the night air, coal and wood on a crisp cool wind. Retreating to the complete darkness of the Oxfordshire Cotswolds is a particular treat - walking silently in a darkness so dark you cannot see your own hand of front of your eyes. The summer has ended, a new season has begun.

There are so many traditional foods associated with this time of year, I do not know where to begin. Last year I helped to make Pumpkin Korroke for a special Japanese birthday party, and there were Soul Cakes too. It is tempting to do something similar. However, I have been thinking along different lines of late.

For me, this haunting season, which is so brief and could so easily be missed - Halloween, All Souls and All Saints - is, more than anything else, a time of preparation. The thin veil of Samhain - the recollection of the connection between the living and the dead - reminds me that life is short - sometimes cruelly so, every moment we have here is one to be celebrated and enjoyed. Samhain reminds me that our life here is a preparation for our life there (wherever there is), and the veil between the two worlds is thin. There is a beautiful church in Widford, near here. St. Oswald's is isolated, it sits lonely in a field, surrounded by a low dry stone wall and curious cattle. As you approach it, you begin to notice that the shape of the land is strange. The odd shaped mounds of grass on which the cattle graze form a pattern. St. Oswald's was once in the centre of a busy village, but it was abandoned in the Middle Ages as a result of the Black Plague. Now, the Church is all there is, built in the 12th Century and still standing strong. On the walls inside are some badly damaged frescos from the 14th Century. The best preserved is the cautionary tale of the Spectres and Kings: 'As you are, so were we: and as we are, so you will be'. Part of me would like to walk to this church in torchlight on the night of Halloween, the longest and darkest night of the year, just to sit for a few moments in the stillness and feel the past.

As the evenings and mornings have become dark two songs have been whirling around my head. The first is, perhaps, not that strange for the time of year: Lead kindly light, amid the encircling gloom, lead thou me on. The night is dark and I am far from home, lead thou me on (Newman). The other, has arrived in my consciousness a few months early: A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks, a new and glorious morn! Fall on your knees, hear the angel voices. Oh night divine! Oh night when Christ was born! (Cappeau). It is the combination of these two tunes flying around my brain that has brought me to the decision to write a recipe for Halloween that will not be ready until Christmas. Summer is over and a time of preparation is upon us. Winter is coming, but hope springs eternal.

In the fields and in the kitchen preparation begins with harvesting, and is closely followed by storing and preserving. I find that by far the best way to do this is to make delicious drinks. Today, Sloe Gin. Ruby red and sweet fruit is a potent reminder of sun drenched country lanes when you open it in front of a winter fireplace! There is something beautifully appropriate about spending the night when the veil between the living and dead is thinnest preparing a drink to toast the coming of the new dawn at Christmas. It speaks to the gothic romantic in me.

1 pint Gin (doesn't need to be the expensive stuff)
2 - 3lbs Sloes
about 1lb Granulated Sugar

You should pick the sloes after the first frost has softened them, but in the temperate weather of this year - I wish you luck! In the valley leading down to St. Oswald's there is a wealth of sloe berries, so I am going to get mine from there. Wash your berries carefully and prick them all over with a sterilised needle. Almost half fill screw top bottles with the fruit. Add enough sugar to just cover them, and then fill the bottle with Gin. Leave in  a dry, dark place for six weeks (at least), shaking the bottle and turning upside down carefully once or twice a week to dissolve the sugar. At the end of this time the juices should have run freely and the Gin turned into a warm ruby-red colour. Strain into a jug, then pour into smaller bottles to seal ready for Christmas. Do not discard the fruit! It will be liquor soaked, can be frozen for use later or used straight away. Simmer it in a pot until it is very soft and use it as a base for ice cream, make a cake with it, turn it into a rich red sauce to accompany meats, cheeses or pies!

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