The Almanac connects you with the months and seasons via seasonal eating, stargazing and gardening. Here's November's entry...
November is the month in which we fight the encroaching dark with light: Guy Fawkes Night, Samhain, Diwali, all November festivals centred around light, sparks and fire. A drift of wood smoke and the occasional tang of sulphur is the scent of November. All of these festivals have a secondary focus on sweet treats – Bonfire Night parkin, cinder toffee and toffee apples; soul cakes at Samhain; Diwali sweets – as if our ancestors knew that the fire battles were all very well, but the true way to make it through winter is by comfort eating.
The old Anglo-Saxon name for the month was Blotmonath, blood month, as this was the traditional time to slaughter animals and preserve meat, to save the expense of having to keep animals alive through winter, and to make the most of a summer and autumn of fattening up. The slaughter also lent itself to hearty feasting, as those parts that could not be preserved were cooked up. This has always been a bountiful month, despite and because of the increasing cold.
It can also be a beautiful month, as the fiery final trees flame with colour in the pale sunlight, or it can be as bare as January if a big storm has blown all the last leaves away. After a storm we see the stems for the first time: purples, oranges, yellows and whites. Old man’s beard seed heads open now to reveal the fluffy insides that give them their name, and caught by low winter sunlight they look like strings of fairy lights hung out across the nearly bare hedgerows. It is a month for finding warmth, and light, wherever you can find it.
We are down to the hardiest of garden vegetables now: Jerusalem artichokes, carrots, beetroot, leeks, parsnips, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, winter cabbage, stored maincrop potatoes, borlotti beans and winter squash.
• Cranberries, satsumas, clementines and pomegranates are all arriving. There are still plenty of apples, pears and quince.
• Nuts are plentiful: hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and walnuts have all recently ripened.
• Lots of wild mushrooms are still around and white truffles are in season.
• Duck, goose, grouse, guinea fowl, partridge, pheasant, venison and wood pigeon are all in season.
• Winter cheeses such as Vacherin Mont d’Or and Pont-l’Évêque become available, and Stilton is at its best.
• Brill, sardines, skate, clams, mussels and oysters are plentiful.
Ingredient of the month – bacon and sausages
Now we eat bacon all year round, but traditionally it was made in November, for eating through winter. Right up until the end of the Second World War it was normal for families to keep a pig in their backyard, or to be a part of a ‘pig club’ that raised pigs communally. Pigs would be fed up all year long, and then killed and their meat cured for storage, with Martinmas, the 12th November, being the traditional date for the first slaughter. The parts that would spoil quickly were eaten immediately, others made into brawn and sausages that would keep for a short time, and the belly and loin made into bacon that would be ready by Christmas. There are still smallholders that work with the seasons in this way. Track down those that supply mail order, as they will often have raised old breeds with greater amounts of fat and flavour.
Happily for us, dried beans and smoked meats make perfect partners, the beans soaking up all the meaty, smoky flavour as they gently cook, and bulking out the precious meat. This will feed and warm a Bonfire Night crowd.
400 g dried borlotti beans (or pinto or cannellini beans), soaked overnight
1 onion, chopped
2 tbsp bacon fat or vegetable oil
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 smoked ham hock
500 ml black coffee
1 bay leaf
1 whole jalapeño chilli
Salt and pepper
Put the beans in a large pot, covered in 2½ cm or so of water, and boil vigorously for 15 minutes. Drain them and reserve the cooking water. In a large, thick-based pot, gently sauté the onion in the fat until it is translucent. Add the garlic and cook for a few more minutes. Add the beans, the ham hock, the black coffee, the bay leaf, the jalapeño chilli and 500 ml of the cooking water, bring to the boil and simmer for up to 3 hours, adding more water if needed, until the beans are soft and the meat is falling away from the bone. Season with salt and pepper and serve in bowls with optional sour cream and grated cheese.
Parkin is a traditional oat-based cake of Yorkshire and Lancashire, always eaten on Bonfire Night. These were areas of the country where it was too cold and wet to grow wheat, and so oats were the predominant cereal; hence this is a cake of the north. It should be made up to a week before it is due to be eaten, as it only softens and becomes adequately sticky over time.
Makes 16 squares
220 g golden syrup
55 g black treacle
110 g butter
110 g dark brown soft sugar
225 g medium oatmeal
110 g self-raising flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp mixed ground spice
Pinch of salt
1 large egg, beaten
1 tbsp milk
Grease and line a 20 cm x 20 cm cake tin and preheat the oven to 140°c/285°f/gas mark 1. If you have electronic scales, place a small saucepan onto them, set to zero, and weigh in the golden syrup and black treacle. Add the butter and sugar and heat gently until all are melted together. Put the oatmeal, flour, ginger, spice and salt into a large bowl, then stir in the melted mixture, then the egg and then the milk. Pour into the tin and bake for around 1½ hours. When it is completely cold, store it in an airtight tin until Bonfire Night.
Look out for:
• Larch, beech and oak are among the last trees to colour up and lose their leaves.
• Tits and finches are the birds most likely to be seen in gardens, with occasional glimpses of tree creepers and nuthatches. Rooks and crows begin to dominate in the countryside, along with magpies.
• There are still lots of mushrooms and toadstools appearing in woodlands after damp spells.
• Atlantic salmon have left the sea and are migrating upstream to their place of birth, leaping up any obstacles that get in their way.
• Whooper and Bewick’s swans return from the Arctic for the winter.
• Many animals and insects are going into hibernation, or something like it, to see out the winter. Hedgehogs and dormice hibernate. Bats enter a state of reduced metabolism, but emerge on warm days. Ladybirds and peacock butterflies seek out nooks and crannies in sheds and lofts.
More about the author
The Almanac revives the tradition of the rural almanac, connecting you with the months and seasons via moon-gazing, foraging, feast days, seasonal eating, meteor-spotting and gardening. Award-winning gardener and food writer Lia Leendertz shares the tools and inspiration you need to celebrate, mark and appreciate each moment of the year.