Places that were in full sun at 7 pm three weeks ago are now in semi-darkness thanks to the long, Nosforatu arms and fingers of shadows prefacing the arrival of Autumn. Of a morning, full sun with a fresh wind makes working in the garden a joy of warm skin, whereas only last week there was an unpleasant mixture of burn and sweat.
The major (in fact, probably the only) downside of this time of year in Lot et Garonne is the arrival of the bluebottle fly on its last legs. Your common or garden fly has six legs, whereas your fat and deeply unpleasant, hairy, meat-eating bluebottle has four. So with just the four appendages to start off with, Mr Bluebottle on his last legs is a serious pain in the butt.
For one thing – having proceeded through the manic, bashing every wall that looks like an exit but isn’t stage of June – the bluebottle fly has, by late August, become a dope-addled jerk whose idea of avoiding trouble is to sit on the nose of known predators. For example, me. He’s also hugely attracted to wine glass rims, confit of onions and pc screens.
One way to impress your friends during the foreplay prior to Autumn supper parties is to demonstrate an apparently demonic skill in catching bluebottles. In June, the will evoke ridicule; in late August, awe.
But one real, unalloyed joy of the pre-Autumn interregnum is herbs.
Being a keen amateur cook, I have a thing about herbs, and over the last eighteen months I’ve established quite a big herb garden here. Actually, it’s more the size of a small orchard cos I’m largin’ it inni? What am I loike?
Truth is, there are seventeen varieties of thyme alone – and twice as many of mint. And it would be sort of, you know, cool to own all of them so they were, like, all mine. I could go to specialist herb auctions, and turn heads as people said, “Wow, there goes le Slog, he owns every herb there is” and stuff. I could open my garden to herbiphiles, have Raymond Blanc begging me to supply Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons with genuine Slog herbs becerrrrze zai are so soostenarrrble. I’d found a herbs exchange and make the search for a sage/rosemary cross every bit as famous as the development of The Black Tulip, become the soul supplier of sun-dried chives to Fortnum & Mason, establish the first herb tabloid, tell Heads of State which countries to invade, pervert the course of Justice, have people murd….wait a minute, I’m getting carried away – quick, read me an Yvette Cooper speech.
When you’re marinading stuff, herbs can infuse all kinds of wonderful tastes. Certain sauces (like parsley of course, but also tarragon with chicken) are the centre of the dish, and others (like Rosemary) can ruin it if you don’t know what you’re doing. Never, ever put Rosemary in a casserole: the result will be the same as if you’d soaked the meat in yew-piss for a week beforehand.
But for me, the smells of each herb are a huge part of the attraction. I confess to being a tad weird about pongs, because they can transport me five decades backwards in an instant. This is especially true of Basil, just one torn leaf of which makes me think of my dentist’s body odour problem when I was a kid. Parsley puts me in mind of early and erratic attempts to make fish pie thirty years ago. Mint places me next to Auntie Myra and fresh peas for Sunday lunch at The Thorns in Misterton in 1964. And unsurprisingly, sage transports me back to mum with half an arm thrust up a turkey arse 45 Christmases ago.
There is, however, yet another dimension of herbs, and this – hot days with cooler evenings – is the time to be enjoying it. For yer ‘erbs roit, they is like well easy to preserve….not just for themselves, but to lift other everyday condiments.
One of these is vinegar. A bottle of white wine vinegar kept in the fridge with tarragon added turns a winter vinaigrette into a guest response along the lines of “Yoooo simply must give me the recipe dahhhling”. The tricky bit is finding a bottle of plain, white wine vinegar in the supermarket today.
The segmentation of the vinegar sector by the marketing chaps is a wonder to behold. In my youth there was only malt vinegar to be splashed all over fish n chips with pillars of salt, but then wine vinegar began to be served up at Abigail’s parties around 1972. Sherry vinegar followed, succeeded at a leisurely pace by cider vinegar, until Balsamic vinegar took the Metropolitan set by storm around 1990.
There was a point in the mid Nineties when it was entirely possible to be banished forever from polite society if you didn’t have a server of Modena Balsamic next to an Extra Virgin olive oil crushed under the pieds noirs of Moroccan farmers. I’m delighted to see most recipes now returning to the simplicity of oil, lemon, fresh garlic and salt: but out there in Supermarketland, the vinegar market has been segmented in more ways than you could thin-slice a salami sausage.
You can now get Balsamic in runny or velours, plain or with either lemon or orange added. You can get it (or sherry and white or red wine versions) with chives, basil, thyme, tarragon, and garlic plus parsley as the added value. But what you can’t get any more is effing plain white wine vinegar.
Desperately investigating an Intermarché hyper last week, I asked an assistant where the white wine vinegar was. I didn’t really like interrupting her, as the vinegar aisle was half a kilometre in length and she was busy stocking the shelves with walnut oil in seven varieties including one with Bolivian probiotic chilli peppers. But she smiled sweetly with her lovely brown-flecked green eyes in a way that made me want to be thirty again, and pointed at some cheap plastic bottles that looked as if they might contain Mississipi moonshine.
But that’s it in 2015. If you want the generic in vinegar, its White Stick alcohol vinegar or nothing.
Anyway, it’s in the fridge in various recycled bottles variously labelled tarragon, basil, thyme, oregano and rosemary, but it isn’t really what I had in mind.
In the meantime, bluebottles may be on their last legs, but the first walnuts of 2015 are dropping to the dry-baked ground. I tried one this afternoon, and it had the soft creamy texture that lasts a tantalisingly short time before nature takes its course. So then, just the two tons of last year’s crop to consume before I’m buried in the bloody things.