Stephen Jardine: Autumn is the favourite season of food lovers

Let's enjoy the magnificent harvest of this time of year while we can, says Stephen Jardine

Pumpkins are one of the main symbols of autumn, having taken over from turnips as Halloween lanterns.
Pumpkins are one of the main symbols of autumn, having taken over from turnips as Halloween lanterns.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness. That is how John Keats summed up this time of year in his poem ‘To Autumn’ and it reaches fruition about now.

If you like food and drink, you can’t help but love autumn as the highlight of the calendar. Spring may bring lamb and summer has it’s strawberries but right now is when eating and drinking is at it’s very best.

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I first realised this a decade ago when I spent a year eating only Scottish produce. Spring brought some relief from the kale and cabbage of the dark winter months, summer added much needed soft fruits but autumn was when everything came together and the cupboards filled with plenty.

You can sense it coming. The old English word for autumn was harvest and it heralds changes. As the raspberries grow smaller and more expensive in the shops, produce to match the colder weather starts to appear.

For me the first sign comes in the form of a specially cultivated hazelnut. Cobnuts reach the shops as the start of October and always seem to signal the change of season. They are delicious roasted, or go well grated over pasta and even as an ingredient in cakes.

Then comes the brightly coloured squashes and pumpkins filling the shops in the run up to Halloween. Anyone who complains about the demise of the traditional Scottish turnip lantern has clearly never tried to carve one. If the smell doesn’t get you the inevitable slide of the knife off the impenetrable flesh will do the job instead.

Unlike the turnip, the inside of a squash lends itself to numerous cooking uses from pies and cheesecakes to even squash spaghetti.

Given all this, it’s no wonder most chefs so look forward to autumn. “For me the autumn season is unbeatable,” says Edinburgh chef Barry Bryson who runs a popular event catering company in the capital. “It’s a key season for all that amazing shellfish and fish we produce so razor clams, mussels, langoustine, lobster, monkfish can feature on your plates at their best. It’s also that time when we can start enjoying those hearty root vegetables alongside the feasts of the game season”, he added.

Game is something Scotland is famed for and now is at it’s best. In recent years it has also become much more widely available, shaking off it’s privileged image. A dish like pheasant with chestnut and apples sums up everything tasty about autumn.

Maybe it was the lousy summer but this autumn seems to have delivered a bumper crop of fruit. For the first time in a decade, the ancient apple tree in our garden has produced fruit worth picking and every hedgerow has been groaning with brambles ready to form the basis for an autumn crumble.

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And it can be eaten guilt-free. If summer is a time demanding salads and light, healthy eating then autumn is when the body craves more sustenance. It’s a time for thick soups and hearty stews, for mashed potato with lots of butter and old fashioned puddings served with custard. Let’s be honest, not many people wake up on a crisp autumn morning and think what they really, really want to eat is avocado with some tahini.

It’s moment will come but autumn is about food that is comforting as well as good for you.

Sadly, the food lovers’ favourite season doesn’t last long. Soon the frosts will come and the nights will grow darker and things will change again in the run up to the greatest feast of the year. Then comes the guilt of January, gym memberships and resolutions. However that is still some time off. Right now remains a little warmth in the air, things are still growing and we are spoiled for good things to eat so let’s enjoy the magnificent harvest of autumn while we can.