Autumn; my favourite season. The colour palette of the world changes from green to russet and conker brown hues; rich warm tones surround us, reminding us that we can find warmth even in declining temperatures and that it is time to drag woollen jumpers, hats and scarves from the back of cupboards.
Autumn; season of preparation, of busyness. Nights become longer, days become shorter, I always have the feeling that there is much to do. Events crowd the autumn calendar, defining months. Halloween, Bonfire Night and amidst it all, preparations for Christmas. Harvest festival reminds us that we should store for the cold months ahead. Root vegetables are evicted from the garden. Apples are picked from October trees and mixed with blackberries from the hedgerows to become mouthwatering pies. We forage for sweet chestnuts in woodland near my parent's house, to roast on the fire, or make into stuffing. Sloes are picked and left to ferment in gin; to become a welcome festive winter warmer. We bake, we make, cooking in batches. One pot stews simmer gently for hours and are then frozen for colder days. Knitting needles click into action with a sense of purpose, knowing that what they create will be worn and well received.
Winds start to blow, trees shed their leaves, they whirl and swirl, jumping about fields and pavements. Mother nature is blowing her nose, ridding herself of what she does not want, sweeping out, cleansing, to guard against stagnancy and rot. Finally, tree branches stand bare and frozen, and we are in winter, cold, slow, season of stillness; we hunker down and wait for life to spring again.
Winter holds little appeal for me. The cold light of January dulls my spirit. The start of the year drags. Yet, autumn I love. I like the feeling of a long ‘to do’ list that the season gives me. I like it’s rich colours, the blowing of the breeze, the sense of wrapping up, of people, of presents. My feelings for Autumn are deep rooted in family tradition. This is the time that we make Christmas puddings, and have done every year, ever since I can remember.
In the October half term, my mother’s dogeared, handwritten recipe book would be pulled from the bottom drawer in the kitchen, an orange checked, battered affair, illustrated with deep purple grapes. Inside, pages and pages of handwritten recipes in cursive hand and sometimes my own childlike scrawl. Sellotaped towards the back, in my grandfather’s looped handwriting, a recipe passed through the family from my mother's great aunt Alice, given to her when she was a kitchen maid, at a country house. At the top of the page, written in a different, unknown hand, the title; ‘Super Christmas Pudding’.
Our family tradition upholds one rule for making Christmas puddings. Every member of the family must be present in the household during the making of the pudding. Pudding making therefore always happened in the early evening, when darkness had already closed in, shortly before my Dad returned from work. We made in bulk, usually with enough mixture for two puddings, in a huge bowl.
Making Christmas puddings was a sensory experience. First, we’d add raisins, sultanas, currants and mixed peel; dried fruits from sunnier seasons to add warmth and zest to the pudding. Next, chopped almonds, for texture and sweetness. Nutmeg, which we cradled in our hands like a small birds egg, was grated gently, exuding an exotic fragrant aroma into the kitchen. Tiny pieces of carrot and apple were added to the bowl too, bringing vibrant, joyful colour to the dark fruity mixture. We crumbled any lumps in our small fingers as we added the remaining dry ingredients: flour, breadcrumbs, suet, rich dark, brown sugar sometimes in pieces that seemed as hard as stones - stones that must be crushed. Then, a squeeze of lemon; performed on a special lemon juicer. How we loved to twist and turn the lemon round and round on that speared head, trying to squeeze out every last drop. When the time came for the important business of stirring, it was all done by our small hands; sifting dry ingredients, letting small pieces of fruit drop like precious gems through fingers. All the time, tasting, testing, exclaiming, proclaiming. ‘This is going to be the best Christmas pudding EVER’. Finally, the wet stuff; our strategy never changed. Small hands piling the ingredients high to the side of the bowl, making a volcano like hole in the centre. A drop of vanilla, eggs. Gooey now. Barley wine, a strange alien taste, foaming up inside the hole, and then the final flourish, the brandy. One of us would hold the tablespoon, whilst Mum poured out the measures, we’d marvel at the strong, vapours from the golden brown liquid glistening on the spoon, whilst afterwards daring each other to lick it.
The solemn matter of the ceremonial stirring came last, sealing the magic into our pudding. Each and every one of us would be called to the kitchen table in turn, a large wooden spoon passed along the line. We all enjoyed our own separate moment. Stirring clockwise, using all our miniature might to move the spoon through the thick fruity, fragrant mixture, eyes shut tight, we each made a wish. We never told, we never talked about our wishes, pudding wishes were sacred.
Into the bowls, tops wrapped in muslin and string, boiled to sterilise. Then placed on a shelf, in the small room at the back of the house to mature, sometimes for Christmas that same year, but usually for Christmas the year after, to be watered at three monthly intervals until then, with liberal sprinklings of more brandy. A sense of specialness, even when we were young. Family puddings, made to the secret recipe; different to everyone else's.
This autumn we made Christmas puddings with Pip. Another descendant in the generational line, sharing the recipe, placing hands in the bowl, shovelling dried fruit into his mouth in greedy handfuls, just as I did when I was a girl. Aunt Alice’s recipe on the table, Mum, Pip and I, stirring, each making a wish. Just as my family have done for years and years. A sense of tradition and belonging, a sense of continuity. A sense that however much things change in the world around you, some things, will always be preserved if they are precious enough.
The ceremonial making of the Christmas puddings, just one of the reasons why I love autumn.
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