Fall has always been a favourite of mine. The colours are bright against an expansive backdrop of dry, brown fields. The smells are rich of cinnamon, dried herbs, and sometimes wood smoke. Often, the air is just cool enough to require the comfort of a tuque.
In our home, a chill in the air means a fire in the woodstove and family gathering around to share our favourite parts of the day. It means the bedroom floors are cool, so we’ll be spending more time together in the centre of our home where it’s warmest. It means there is less daylight, so I’ll notice dust bunnies less, spend less time cleaning and more time completing other more valuable and fulfilling tasks.
Autumn is also, traditionally, a time of great purpose. It’s a time to reap the rewards of the past months of work. Our garden is, hopefully, abundant and there is plenty to be done. Baskets of especially small tomatoes sit on the counter waiting to be made into sauce and there are cucumbers, larger than we’d like, to be sliced, packed into jars with just the right ingredients, and made into grandma’s famous pickles. Because as we know, a winter without homemade pickles is a winter without late-night snacks.
Crates of apples are stacked in the path to the fridge and the fruit flies hovering around them have given me enough motivation to summon the kids. After all, food preparation is work for the whole family, since food eating is enjoyment that everyone shares.
Our apple peeler is being put to good use. It’s not his favourite job, but our teenage son is contributing his share of effort. Around and around the coreless apples spin as the long thin peel is skinned from each, one end still attached to the apple’s flesh and the other in the mouth of our four-year-old. Apple chips are being made in the dehydrator and that cinnamon scent, redolent of fall, is wafting around us.
The screen door slams and our daughter, 7, returns to the kitchen with her skirts clutched in her hands. I peer into the basket she has fashioned out of her clothing to find some New England asters and oat straw. I know she’s gathered these from the eastern field, while the peppermint she’s munching has been discovered in our garden.
The asters will be packed into jars and soaked in honey for those scratchy coughs we hope to avoid in late winter. The oat straw I’ll bundle to hang in the woodshed. Once it’s dry, it will be used in our winter tea. I thank my daughter for her hard work and diligence. I also convince her to hand over the remainder of the mint she’s playfully hiding in her pockets. In our house, there’s nothing like a cup of mint tea to soothe an achy tummy. After telling her tale of a faery sighting under the cedars, she turns on her heel and scampers out the door to continue her work.
Historically, the Gaelic harvested plants until Samhain, a festival at the end of October marking the finish of the harvest season. After this time, all roots remaining in the earth would be left as offerings to the gods. Although I have a more practical approach, the repetitiveness of this cyclical work feeds my spirit. Harvesting the leaves above the ground until the cold wilts and withers them, sending the plants’ energy stores to their roots. That’s when the plant life below the earth contains the most vital nutrients. Much of the fall will be spent digging, cleaning, and drying those nutritious plant roots.
This year, chicory root is one we’re gathering. It’s popular around our place, and it’s a nice addition to our collection of herb teas. We’ll also be digging up some mallow root because we’ve discovered that it makes an effective hair detangler, something that is always useful in our home since only the dog has short hair.
Both the Echinacea and the lettuce have performed particularly well this season, thanks to excessive moisture, while the mullein is stunted in its growth along with the peppers, tomatoes and other heat-loving crops. But we’ll take what we can get; so sunny-yellow mullein blossoms are dried in case of earaches that never show up, and the Echinacea will be used for tea. The lettuce will be tucked into plastic bags in the fridge with a puff of air blown into them for preservation. (Don’t worry; I won’t be serving this to guests.)
If time permits, Griz (otherwise known daddy) is found on a ladder, up higher than I’d like him to be precariously perched. Against the east side of the barn, he plants himself where you’ll find the most abundant collection of wild grapes you’ve ever seen, with vines so wide we could chop them to add to the kindling. Snipping away ambitiously, he collects enough grapes for both jelly and wine, although the winemaking is his venture, rather than mine. “Don’t forget the grape leaves!” our daughter shouts to him. Ah the grape leaves, the secret to the crunchiest pickles ever. Enjoy!
Great Grandma Hay’s Famous Recipe
Soak whole, scrubbed cucumbers overnight in cold water.
Next day fill sterilized jars with:
2 fresh dill heads
2 cloves of garlic (or more depending on your taste)
1 small sweet red pepper (I don’t personally do this)
and top with one wild grape leaf to encourage crunchiness
Pour over brine made with:
1 quart of white vinegar
3 quarts water
1 cup pickling salt
Seal with hot lids.
Its better if you wait at least 6 week before eating.
Although our family delights in foraging, we are in no way certified to make any claims, health or otherwise. We encourage each of you to pursue your own research, check with your health care provider, and learn about plants. Never harvest anything unless you are certain of its identification. To learn more about wild plants and their many benefits, you can contact herbalist Amber Westfall at www.thewildgarden.ca. Please harvest responsibly and sustainably.
Jacquelyn Toupin and her partner Tyler live with their family on a farm that’s been in her family for four generations. You can read about their adventures on her blog, Makin Hays at www.whilethesunsshine.com, and follow their Facebook page, Element Studios, for updates on creative workshops and dance classes.