"For water is sold here, though the worst in the world; but their bread is exceeding fine, inasmuch as the weary traveller is used to carry it willingly on his shoulders" ~ Horace
It's dark outside while I'm cooking dinner. I've bought a sexy new pair of black suede ankle boots with a fur trim. My electric blanket is, without fail, switched on every night at 10pm. There are cooking apples, plump and red-tinged, burdening the branches of the apple tree that overhangs our garden. There are even more of them lying, half-rotten, on the lawn, reminding me to get off my backside and do something about drying them into foamy rings, or turning them into jam or crumble. The blackberries have been and gone, leaving crinkled little green stumps where once there were glossy, dark, edible treasures. I feel the need for my favourite pair of thick, lilac knitted socks when I'm just lounging around the house. A new series of Spooks is underway. I've started thinking about my Christmas list and - more excitingly - soaking the fruit to make the Christmas cake a couple of months in advance. My cotton dresses and harem pants have been relegated to the 'summer clothes' bag in the loft, to be replaced with Ugg boots, knitwear and leggings. I have to put my dressing gown on every morning just to survive the journey from bed to bathroom.
I feel I may soon have to accept that autumn is well and truly underway.
How do people who aren't interested in food cope with the onset of autumn?
I can bear the chill weather and the prospect of long, dark days because partridge and pheasant have started appearing in the butchers. Quinces, some of the most handsome I've ever seen, are piled high in the market. Small but perfectly formed crisp English apples - orange-scented Coxes and my favourite, the flavoursome Russet - bring a welcome change from the ubiquitous (and foreign) Pink Lady. Butternut squash, one of my favourite vegetables, will soon be everywhere, its sweet, sticky, golden flesh promising a plethora of delicious uses. I can finally cook the eight pigs' cheeks sitting in my freezer, braising them for hours in a sticky concoction of orange juice and star anise that will be just the thing to provide some cheer on a dark evening. Fine English pears are abundant, just waiting to be baked in crumbles or cakes, or scattered over my morning porridge with an obscene amount of nutmeg. As are some wonderful varieties of plum, so much juicier and taster than foreign imports, ideal baked with cinnamon and ginger for a warming breakfast or dessert. Earthy wild mushrooms will be somewhere, if I can just find them, ideal for coupling with fresh, zesty lemon thyme for an umami-rich risotto. I can't wait to take my potato ricer to some good old-fashioned floury potatoes, to make a rich mash to accompany a beef and ale stew.
Without all that to look forward to, I think I'd consider hibernation.
If you know anything about anything, or have any sort of taste whatsoever, you will of course have noticed the glaring omission from the above list.
I've devoted many words on this blog to the rapturous praise of figs. Every time I find myself bulk-buying them, I try and figure out precisely what it is that makes me so obsessed. I have come up with several answers.
1. Figs are beautiful. There's no fruit quite like them; the closest comparison would be a pomegranate, I think. With their beautiful red-pink interior, bursting with glistening clusters of golden seeds, their delightful deep purple skins, tinged slightly with green, and their curvaceous form, just begging to be held in the palm of one's hand, they are incomparable in their aesthetic appeal.
2. Figs are versatile. My favourite fruits are those that work as well in a savoury context as a sweet. Figs tick all the boxes. Wonderful baked with a little sugar or honey, or tucked into an almond tart for a dessert, they are equally delicious added to the cooking juices of duck, pork or lamb before serving. Juicy warm figs coupled with the rich meat of a slow-cooked lamb shoulder or a pan-fried duck breast is one of the best taste sensations you will ever try. Ditto figs with parma ham or goat's cheese. In fact, most cheeses, and most meats. Like pomegranate seeds, they add a wonderful burst of sweetness that is subtle enough not to overpower other savoury flavours.
3. Figs are elusive. Like a child, I want that which I cannot have. Figs appear for such a sadly brief season, and even then are rarely cheap. However, like the equally elusive Alphonso mango, I justify the cost because I am an epicurean at heart, and fully believe that money spent on good food is money well spent. So what if I spent approximately £60 on Alphonso mangoes over the summer months? (Oh dear...I think it might actually have been closer to £80, and now that I think about it that really does seem obscene). Well, I don't really buy inferior supermarket mangoes at £1-2 each for the rest of the year, so I'm only spending in one go what I'd spent in smaller stages year-round otherwise. Or something. Yes, OK, I concede that maybe that's too much to spend on mangoes. Moving swiftly on...
One of my favourite ways to enjoy figs - though now the season is in full swing I'm going to be experimenting with more - is combined with one, or both, of the following: Parma ham, and goat's cheese. After a delicious bruschetta I had at Polpo recently, I was inspired to try ricotta instead of goat's cheese. I've developed a bit of a fetish for ricotta ever since I started making my own (recipe here). Its crumbly, grainy texture and slight sweetness make it a wonderful match for nearly every fruit. I've been enjoying it with mangoes and peaches on toast for breakfast all summer.
Sometimes I try to be healthy and enjoy this dashing triumvirate of cheese, figs and ham in salad form, usually with lentils because leaves alone cannot satiate me enough to last until dinner (actually, neither can lentils - I'll always have some sort of mid-afternoon snack...). This was my virtuous plan for the week, until fate undid all my good intentions and supplied me with some of the best bread to ever pass my lips.
Altamura bread is made in Altamura, in the region of Apulia, southern Italy. It's famous within the country as one of the finest and oldest types of bread, so much so that it was the first baking product in Europe to be granted a DOP certificate; it uses yeast, grain, water and salt from within the region only. It's dense, with a thick crust and yellowish interior from the use of durum wheat. It last a surprisingly long time - at least 15 days - given the lack of chemical preservatives. Altamura is famous for this bread, and has been for centuries - the poet Horace described it as "exceeding fine".
Crosta & Mollica, makers of quality regional Italian breads, have brought Altamura bread to the UK (they sell their products in Waitrose, Selfridges and Ocado). Their bread is made using 100% local durum wheat, and has been baked by the Forte family in Altamura for over 50 years. I am eternally grateful to them for giving me my first taste of this incredible bread.
Altamura has quite a lot in common with sourdough. It lasts a long time, toasts well, has a satisfyingly crisp crust and a slightly sour crumb. Crosta & Mollica suggest using it for bruschetta, and I can't think of a bread that would work better. I topped mine, toasted, with ricotta cheese, slices of smoked Parma ham (I found this in M&S and am wondering where it has been all my life - the posh person's bacon, it's rich and deeply flavoured, a substitute for Parma ham with a certain je ne sais quoi), warm halved figs, and a little basil.
Oh, what a lunch. While ricotta, Parma ham and figs are always a good idea, putting them on this bread transformed a good lunch into a great one. The bread had just the right balance between a really crisp, crunchy crust and a yielding crumb with a slight tang to it. It's hard to describe what makes it so good, but I'd really urge you to try it. It's not hugely cheap, at £1.79 for a packet of five slices, but the slices are very large ones. I'd love to see what a full loaf looks like (and by that I mean "I'd love to eat a full loaf of this bread. In one go. With figs and cheese and ham, sitting on an Italian hilltop watching the sun go down, with a good glass of wine"). Each slice would probably constitute one meal for a normal person. I, being greedy, had two slices per lunch (which means, annoyingly, that I now have one slice left in the packet that I don't know what to do with - I personally think packs of six slices would be a better idea, but that I suppose is irrelevant).
I won't insult your intelligence by posting an exact recipe for this combination. Instead I suggest you head down to Waitrose and get a packet of Crosta & Mollica's Altamura bread (or, if you can't find it, some really good sourdough). Put it under the grill until nicely toasted on both sides - put the figs under the grill too, to heat through. Spread with ricotta, then layer over a few slices of smoked Parma ham (or normal Parma ham). Halve the figs with your fingers and place on the ham, using a knife to sort of spread them out so they cover the ham and cheese. Add a few leaves of basil.
Devour, and be glad for the rich bounty of autumn and Italy.