WHAT DO WE NEED TO KNOW?
Marking the downfall of the year, October isn't the most of attractive months. It can be dull, blustery and wet, although get a bit of sunshine and the colourful leaves of the trees are lit up into a kaleidoscope of colours. However, even when it is dull outside, there's a fair bit of decent fruit and veg on the table inside!
With the moving back of the clocks, the darker nights and the first frosts, October in ancient times actually marked the end of the year, with the advent of Halloween. People would prepare for the winter, bringing in livestock to be overwintered, slaughtering that which was earmarked as food, and food preserved. In modern times, it's a busy time of year - fields are being ploughed, winter wheat sown, and potatoes and other root crops such as carrots harvested.
October is a great time for seasonal food though - apples for one are at their seasonal peak. Squashes and pumpkins are ready for harvesting and decorating for Halloween, and there's a faint glimmer of the seasonal vegetables that are going to sustain us through the winter.
Our climate is excellent suited to growing apples. They need a cold period in the winter to stimulate bud production, but our climate warms up just quickly enough to (usually) prevent killing off the tender bloom. We have a good balance of rainfall and sun to promote good fruit growth, and the season lasts just long enough to ripen the fruits properly.
Since apples store so well, when picked off the tree if a mix of varieties is carefully chosen they can usually be stored long enough to last almost all year round. In times gone past, there has been counted well over 2,000 varieties of apples, 2,300 of which are maintained at the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent.
Then why, so disappointingly, at the height of the British apple season, is the average supermarket selling about 3 varieties of English apple at a maximum? The majority of our apples are imported from overseas, many from France. Unfortunately, many traditional English varieties do not have the cosmetic perfection required by supermarkets, although if attempted, they would suit commercial production if anyone could be bothered.
Traditional varieties such as Discovery, and Cox's Orange Pippin have nutritional benefits too - they have anything between two to five times the vitamin C content of the supermarket mainstays of Golden Delicious and Red Dessert.
In October, the British apple season is peaking; there are more varieties available now than other months, they're readily available from farmers markets and some greengrocers, and there are lots of events on around the country, including usually Apple Week or Apple Day in late October.
As for use - let's not kid ourselves - we want to eat them! Eating apples fresh, out of hand must be the single best use, although many of them, most noticeably Bramley's Seedling, are ideal for baking into pies.
Another rarity, cardoon is coming to harvest in October. A close relative of the globe artichoke, we rarely see cardoon available in shops so the best and often only way to get it is to grow it yourself.
Unlike globe artichokes however, it is the fleshy stems, somewhat similar to celery, that are eaten instead of the unformed flower heads. But hold on a minute - don't just go and pick the stems of your flowering cardoon in the garden! They must be blanched in early Autumn by surrounding them with cardboard or something similar, to block out the light, and make them tender enough for eating. After blanching, the stalks can be eaten raw, boiled, or braised.
If you are planning to grow cardoon to eat - beware. They are a rampant plant at best, and spread like a weed.
More commonly associated with Christmas, or even fireworks night in November, Chestnuts start appearing fresh in October, often falling off the trees without any effort on your part. Commercial cultivation mostly happens in Europe, and the ones you find in this country will commonly be smaller.
Sweet chestnuts should not be confused with horse chestnuts; horse chestnuts are found in green shells with large hard spikes, and the leaves of the tree are globed and round, almost pear shaped. Sweet chestnuts on the other hand, have almost feathery spikes surrounding the nut, and the leaves are spear shaped and serrated. Sweet chestnuts themselves tend to have a flat top and spiky bottom, whereas horse chestnuts are generally round in shape.
In Britain, chestnuts are seen as a seasonal snack or treat, whereas in Europe, particularly Southern Europe, they are used far more widely; the nut has a high starch content, and can be turned into bread, cakes, or even porridge. However, processing of the nut to be used in this manner is hard work and costly, so chestnut flour is not something commonly come across.
SQUASHES AND PUMPKINS
Members of the cucurbit family, along with cucumbers, squashes and pumpkins don't have much of a history in Britain, being imported from America only recently. Americans place great value on particularly pumpkins, especially for thanksgiving and Halloween celebrations. Smaller varieties do taste better than larger varieties, but its' difficult to know just what you're eating unless you decide to grow named varieties in your own garden - but beware, it's more effort than it looks! Pumpkins and squashes take a lot of space and water. They have a very sprawling habit, and grow very quickly.
They tend to concentrate most of their energy into the seeds, and these are worth roasting, but the rest of the fruit does not have much nutritional value. They do store for months on end however, and particularly squashes, when roasted, add flavor to seasonal dishes.
Brussel sprouts, cauliflower, mushrooms, medlars, pears, quince, sloes