If I had to name my biggest personality flaw (or, rather, select one from an epic list that includes 'raging temper', 'neuroses' and 'inability to not say what I really think'), it would probably be my impatience. I'm just awful. I notice it the most when in public places. Striding quickly down the street, for example, keen to get to my destination, I frequently find myself stuck behind some idiot who insists on dithering around, moving from side to side of the pavement and generally holding up my entire life with their sheer ineptitude.
I could be on a cycle path, breezily pedalling away until I come to a crowd of people, invariably middle-aged and therefore not in a hurry, walking five or six abreast along the path, laughing away, not a care in the world, completely oblivious to the fact that I'm hovering behind them, making that 'Um, hello, there's a cyclist behind you' noise by back-pedalling. So I ring my bell, and they take approximately two hours to actually move and let me past. What amazes me is always the look of surprise and/or indignation that accompanies this action, as if the path was their sacred domain and I've just waltzed in and hideously violated it.
Oh, and don't even get me started on the tourists when I used to live in Oxford. You can tell someone who's just moved to Oxford a mile off by the fact that they actually stop to avoid getting in the way of tourists' photos. It doesn't take you long to realise that if you make that a habit, you WILL NEVER MOVE ANYWHERE in the city centre. Literally nowhere. You will be stuck, for eternity, slowly circling the Rad Cam, unable to progress beyond the Bridge of Sighs and definitely without a chance of ever passing the Sheldonian theatre. You will perish tragically, incarcerated in this touristic Bermuda triangle, unable to escape to find food, water, or your own house.
'But,' I hear you ask, 'Why don't you just say 'excuse me'?'
Because, dear readers, I long ago decided that the best strategy in all these situations is not politeness. The obvious solution is to passive-aggressively mutter 'Moron' at a decibel level that is not quite under my breath, so is still vaguely audible to the offending party, and then fly past while simultaneously making a sort of huffing noise.
It surprises me, then, that when I get into the kitchen I become a different person in this respect. What I lack in everyday life in terms of patience, I make up for in the world of cooking.
While there is a lot to be said for food that you can get on the table in a matter of minutes (but not, I think, for the crazed antics of a certain Mr Oliver who writes meal plans which are only feasible if you have a small army of kitchen minions on hand to wash everything up on the go, plug in your blender, open your packets and weigh out your ingredients), there is also much merit to be had from taking it a little bit easier, culinarily speaking. (Again, I can only do this in the kitchen - I'm totally incapable of taking anything remotely easy when it comes to normal life).
Take a stew, for example. While a stir-fry or pasta dish is a lovely thing, it can't really compete with the utterly divine aroma of a meaty mass that has been bubbling away in the oven for a good three hours or so - or even longer, if you go for that slow-roasting, oven on overnight thing (the idea of an unattended oven scares me a little, so I've never tried this). My favourite thing about stew is the total transformation it undergoes, from a mass of disparate meat and veg floating around in stock to a sumptuous, tender medley of slippery vegetables, ultra-soft meat and rich, thick gravy.
While I frequently make a loaf of soda bread for breakfast, enabling me to have fresh, warm, cake-like bread on my plate slathered in jam in under forty-five minutes, it can't quite compete with my homemade sourdough, the starter for which has been months in the making. The actual loaf takes pretty much a whole day to make, but oh my goodness is it worth it. The first time I took homemade sourdough out of the oven, I may have done a small gleeful dance when I spied its burnished, floured crust, looking exactly like something you'd pay good money for at an artisan baker's. When I bit into it, and tasted that tangy, sour, aerated crumb, it was so worth the days and days of stirring up an increasingly pungent mixture of flour and water.
Then there are marinades - nothing quite like placing some lovely meat or fish in a veritable bath of flavour for a few hours then taking it out to cook, knowing it's been soaking up all that deliciousness. I'm always suspicious of recipes that instruct you to marinate something for around 30 minutes - surely that's not enough time for proper absorption to take place. I love the feeling of sticking a tray of spice-rubbed, oil-soaked meat or fish in the fridge before I go to bed, knowing it's sitting there becoming tastier and tastier as I sleep.
Then there are the joys of preserving. While it is a faff, during the height of summer, to slice and poach kilos of apricots before packing them into a jar, spooning over syrup and sealing them in the oven, when there are gluts of these gorgeous fruits at the market, it is so worth it a few months later, in the middle of January, when I can spoon these delicious golden fruits onto my morning porridge; just as tasty as they were when they were in season. While my first instinct with gluts of fruit is just to gorge myself on them, pure and unadulterated, there's a lot to be said for taking the time to make jam, to be enjoyed at a later date.
Last autumn, I made sloe gin. I couldn't resist picking the sloes that were everywhere up in the Yorkshire dales when I was on holiday for a week. It's funny to read that post, where I extol the delights of Yorkshire eating, a year later, now that I've ended up living here.
I spent an hour or so dodging thorns to end up with a bag of fat, speckled sloes which I put in the freezer then bashed with a rolling pin until they were all crushed. They went into a big jar with gin and sugar, and then the waiting game began. I shook the jars every week or so, to let everything mingle nicely. It was a good seven months later before I had my first taste. Definitely more patience involved than I've ever had in public.
Sloe gin is a delightful beverage. Unfortunately it's so delightful because it's sweet and warming, and you can easily forget it's alcoholic. That way awkward drunkenness lies. However, as luck would have it, it's also wonderful to use in cooking. During the summer I baked halved peaches and apricots with a splash of sloe gin in a foil parcel in the oven and on the barbecue, and they were utterly luscious. The gin imparts a gorgeous rich syrupy sweetness.
So, in the spirit of using two classic autumn ingredients, for the dessert course of my autumn feast in association with Floral & Hardy contemporary garden design, I've combined our lovely sloes with one of my favourite autumn fruits: the fig. While figs are generally imported from Turkey at this time of year, you can grow your own if you're lucky. Running with the idea of the baked peaches and apricots, here I've baked halved figs in sloe gin and brown sugar until the figs mellow and soften, leaving behind purple syrupy juices. It's sweet and delicious, and a beautifully simple way to enjoy the perfection of a fig without too much messing around. All you need is a spoon and some good ice cream.
6 figs, ideally fairly ripe, but rock-solid ones will still work
3 tbsp brown sugar
5 tbsp sloe gin
Pre-heat the oven to 180C. Slice the figs in half and place into a baking dish that will fit them snugly. Toss them together with the sugar and gin, then arrange cut side down in the dish. Cover with foil and bake for 20-30 minutes, until soft and tender. Serve with some of the cooking liquid spooned over.