I grew up in Vermont. I am used to cold snowy winters, sticky hot summers, mosquitoes through three seasons, and mud for the rest of the time. I am used to laconic speakers, world-wary (yes, wary) farmers, free-thinkers and honest politicians. I am used to four-wheel drives, and steering out of a skid in the snow. I am used to hills, lakes, and rushing mountain streams. I am used to being independent, surrounded by beauty, and always a little bit chilly. But one thing I will never get used to, or tire of, is autumn in Vermont.
Blink and you might miss it. Autumn in Vermont is the standard three months, but autumn colour in Vermont is ephemeral, and the time you spend waiting for it to arrive does not equal the time it is there. Or at least, not the peak time. In Vermont, everyone talks about “peak foliage”, the most colourful display of the changing maple leaves; the colour starts in the north and moves southward at a steady clip. By the time Bennington (at the southern edge of the state) has peak foliage, Richford (about a mile from the Canadian border) can be denuded and grey. But in the time –– a few days, really –– that the foliage is peak in your town, it (almost) makes up for the winter that is about to descend.
Because I’m no longer in Vermont, I can only see the peak foliage through others’ eyes. Right now my Facebook feed is littered with photos of peak foliage, and they are very striking, but the photos do not do justice to the real thing. The only way I can describe this indescribable beauty is to say that it is truly a visceral experience: more than once, I have walked along to work or to a class or to a shop only to be surprised by the sun coming through the leaves of a red or golden maple tree, and it has literally made me stop and gasp –– and sometimes actually cry. It is that beautiful.
Autumn in Devon is also very beautiful, but it is a totally different experience (and it has never made me cry). Still, I do love the mists, and the bounty in the hedgerows, and the lingering greens of the trees, moss and ferns. The autumn here feels gentle. There is no blazing colour, no sharp cold snap that signals the summer is over, just a gradually increasing coolness accompanied by ever shorter days and longer, cosy nights.
By the end of October, all of the foliage in Vermont will be past. The conifers in the Green Mountains will help the state live up to its moniker, but everywhere else, the trees will be bare and grey. If there is a hard frost, even the grass will have turned brown. Here in Devon, we will still have some leaves on the trees, moss on the stone walls, and ivy climbing wherever it can get a hold. Unlike Vermont, we won’t have had that incredible last gasp of beauty before the bleak midwinter, but we will have in common the turning inward, the communal spirit of preparing for the dark of winter and then for the ultimate lengthening of the light.
Corn and Butternut Squash with Marjoram
Autumn is also a time of bounty. Right now at the college, the harvest has been overwhelming. A small but significant amount of sweetcorn has just been brought in from the field, along with kilos and kilos of butternut, kabochas and red kuri squash. The squash, with proper storage, will last through December, but the sweetcorn is something to be used straightaway. This dish was invented to stretch the amount of corn we had to feed 90 people. It was a hit, so I also made it for my family, but with the non-vegan twist of added bacon*. Either way, it’s a perfect welcome to a season of good hearty food.
- 4 ears of corn (you could use frozen corn – about 4 cups, I’d say)
- 1 small butternut squash
- 1 large handful of marjoram leaves, chopped
- salt and pepper
Preheat the oven to190C (375F) . Peel the squash, deseed it, and cut it into small cubes. Toss with olive oil, salt and pepper, and lay flat on a roasting tin. Bake it for about 20 minutes, turning it over halfway through. When it is done, the squash should be lightly caramelised on the outside and tender on the inside. Remove from the oven and set aside.
While the squash is roasting, take the leaves off the corn and discard them. Using a sharp paring knife, cut all the kernels off of each cob, cutting as close to the cob as you can. (If you are lucky enough to have very fresh corn, you may want to do this step in a large bowl, so you can catch any of the “milk” that will drip out. If your corn is a little bit older, I’m afraid you won’t get this extra treat.) Discard the cobs.
Put all the kernels in frying pan or skillet, and add water to just below the surface of the corn. Bring the corn to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the corn kernels are tender, about 5-15 minutes, depending on the age of your corn.
Remove about 1/3 of the corn and liquid and puree it in a food processor or with a stick blender. When it is as smooth as you can get it, put it back in the skillet with the unblended corn. (If the mixture seems too stodgy, you could add a little water or stock to loosen it slightly.) Add the marjoram, mix well, and season to taste. Just before serving, stir the squash through the corn.
*To make the version with bacon, simply chop up 3 or 4 rashers of bacon and sauté them until they are as crisp as you like them. Add the cooked bacon to the corn at the same time as you add the squash.