The trees are casting off their summer garb at an alarming rate. We’re nearly at the Equinox and the days are already getting shorter. I’ll be looking out the little clip-on flashing lights which our pugs Bertie and Bindi sport on their collars when we’re out walking in the dark. We have no streetlights here (lovely, we can see the stars), but it’s hard to find the dogs in the pitch black.
I’m still tidying up the Kitchen Garden but everything is now harvested. Chillies are drying in the airing cupboard, as are a very large tray of shelled Borlotti Beans. The garlic is plaited (not very neatly) and hanging in the kitchen, about 150 heads in all. That should keep me going until next year. Last week I planted the cloves of next summer’s garlic crop, it’s wonderful that the single cloves of garlic should, over the winter, into spring and then summer, grow and divide into wonderful big heads of garlic that would not look out of place in a Provencal vegetable market. I get my garlic from the Garlic Farm on the Isle of Wight, they have so many varieties of heat-treated garlic cloves, ready to plant and grow. I use ‘Vallelado’, it’s supposed to be tolerant of cold, wet soils, so just the job for my Cumbrian garden.
We had a bumper year with the white onions. A lot of the red ones bolted but I’ve used them all up now as the ‘bolters’ don’t keep very well. Much making of chutney. The white onions, however, were perfect, they’re lined up in serried ranks on the gravel floor of my cold frames, dozens and dozens of them. They will keep through the winter.
As the days get shorter and colder, comfort food takes centre stage. I love making soup and with all those onions to hand, I’m going to make my simple version of the classic French Onion Soup. Mine has the addition of sherry and instead of going to all the trouble of making the saffron ‘rouille’ for the toasts to float on top, I use a simple topping of grated Comté cheese. I get my Comté from The Chopping Block in Penrith, they do a lovely one. It’s a bit like Gruyère, sweet and nutty but harder and with a herby note to it, the cows graze the high pastures and the grass is full of wild flowers and herbs.
So, here is the recipe:
25g unsalted butter
3 large white onions, peeled and finely sliced (save time and do them in the food processor using the slicing blade)
2 fresh bay leaves
1 tsp Marmite (sounds odd, but it works!)
1 tablespoon plain flour
250ml white wine
1 litre good chicken stock
4 tablespoons dry sherry (I use Tio Pepe but any Fino sherry will do)
Sea salt and black pepper
120g Comté cheese, finely grated
12 small slices ciabatta bread, thinly sliced
Melt the butter in a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, a cast-iron pot is best. Add the sliced onions and sweat them on a medium heat until they are really soft and starting to caramelise. This can take up to half an hour. Add the two bay leaves. Stir in the flour, cook for about five minutes, add the Marmite then slowly add the wine, stirring as you go. Add the stock. Bring to the boil and season with sea salt and black pepper. Add the sherry and simmer for about ten minutes.
Toast the bread lightly, carefully heap on the grated cheese.
Check the soup for seasoning. Remove the bay leaves and ladle the soup into warmed bowls, float three of the toasts on each bowl. Place the bowls under the grill for a minute or two until the cheese bubbles then pop the bowls on dinner plates and serve, warn your guests that ‘the bowls are very hot, and so is the soup’.