I’m in England, and it’s autumn, my favourite time of year. September in particular is lovely in Sussex; soft air and bursts of sunshine (everyone is wearing sunglasses in brief interludes) in between the torrential downpours and foggy breath. Cobwebs stretch for miles it seems – it’s like being surrounded by endless pairs of gossamer tights.
On my walks so far I have seen crab apples, rose hips, elderberries, haws from the hawthorn bush, the first blackberries and what looked like small, blushing quinces. The last time I was here, there was a fox lying in the brambles nearby. It was a beautiful orangey-red with streaks of black. Apparently it had signed up with the local vet and was receiving regular meals from neighbours. Every time I passed by that spot, it was there. This time it was gone. But there are cats everywhere, large and languid, stalking their way through the golf course. The sea is one big, frothy grey drink. People stare at it through their windscreens and eat sandwiches. It reminds me of Victoria Wood’s story about the English couple who visited the Taj Mahal and said “It’s nice, but I think it would look better with a tax disc and some windscreen wipers.” I am craving a Yorkie bar. I am also thinking about pork pies.
Whenever I come back from LA, I am amazed by how easy it is to walk to the shops and buy things. How small and green it is here, how different. The space we occupy involves other people who you must always take into account. When you walk, you may be barring someone else. This happened as I was looking for the right luggage carousel at Heathrow and I heard my first muttered “tsk”. Not yet through Nothing to Declare and I had already got in the way. I think he also rolled his eyes as he overtook me, and then stood waiting for his suitcase, which failed to arrive. I left first.
Next to all these small places and quiet maneuverings, LA feels like a giant’s enclosure. Everyone seems very big over there now – too tall for proper eye contact. Maybe it’s the cars and the wide, scary freeways. I feel like a Lilliputian among my own people again.
Apples have been a worry in England. Too much rain has soaked the orchards and they have been slow to appear. But our local greengrocer has some fine-looking varieties. The tart and chunky Bramley, the ruddy Cox, and Russets, grey-green and alabaster smooth. For all the concern about the tardiness of this year’s crop, in almost every garden I passed I saw a tree laden with apples. Nice for me, at least.
Crumble (known as crisp in the US) is such an English staple that I thought it was the obvious choice: it’s warming, beautifully simple and not too sweet. I have used blackberries my mum and I picked while out on a walk, and a mixture of apples I ‘scrumped’ (stole). You could use the last of the season’s raspberries, and any apples that take your fancy. Quinces would need to be pre-cooked (a lot). Damsons are the ultimate in hedgerow treasure. They are a relation to the garden plum, wild, dark and dusky and brilliant in crumbles and cobblers. They also make a phenomenal jam.
Hedgerow crumble: blackberry and apple
Inspired by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, All Change, The Guardian
6-8 tart apples (around 750g)
2 tbs soft brown sugar
For the sweet shortcrust pastry (this is optional, but dresses it up a bit)
200g icing/powdered sugar
Pinch of salt
125g cold, unsalted butter, cubed
1 large egg yolk
50-75ml cold wtaer (or milk)
For the crumble (not optional)
100g plain flour
75g unsalted butter
50g light brown sugar
50g ground hazelnuts or almonds
To make the pastry, put the flour, sugar and salt in a food processor and blitz to combine. Add the butter and blitz again (or rub in with your fingertips) until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the egg yolk and enough milk or water to bring the mixture into clumps. Knead this into a ball and wrap in clingfilm/plastic wrap and chill for 30 minutes.
Heat the oven to 190C/375F. Roll out the pastry quite thinly, to fit a 24cm tart tin. Prick all over with a fork and chill for 10 minutes, then line the pastry with greaseproof paper or foil and baking beans, or rice, and bake blind for ten minutes. Remove the beans/rice and paper, and cook for about 10 more minutes, until lightly browned. Trim the edges if need be.
Quarter and core the apples, then slice thickly. Heat the butter in a large pan until foaming, then add the apples. Fry gently for five minutes, tossing them about until they start to soften. Sprinkle over the sugar and stir so it dissolves into the apples and the juices. Spread this mixture over the baked pastry case, and scatter over the blackberries.
For the crumble, sift the flour into a bowl and rub in the butter until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. Add the sugar and ground nuts, squeeze into lumps and then scatter over the tart to give it a rough topping. You can improvise here and add spices such as cinnamon or grated nutmeg and even finely chopped rosemary to the crumble topping. Bake the lot for 30 minutes until golden brown and bubbling. Serve warm with cream or ice cream.