Today I woke up to autumn. The subtlest of seasons, autumn edges in indecisively. Before the tell-tale blaze of leaves lighting up the trees, there’s a subtle change in the texture of the air, a keening of the breeze. This October, we have already enjoyed a heat wave, endured gales of rain and even the threat of light snow. But finally, the grocer is stocking squashes and roots, you need a jacket when you go outside, field mice have invaded our living room and a Sunday isn’t Sunday without Downton Abbey. We are here, enjoying this last swell of life before the year dies.
Accordingly, what we eat will change with the mellowing temperature. Softer, fuller spices will creep their way into my cooking. Caraway and softened onions will mingle with white cabbage. Cinnamon pull-apart bread will be an afternoon project, filling my flat with the deep Christmassy smell which makes reading Coriolanus more bearable. A good portion of a library afternoon is to be spent trying to decide whether my unspecified food craving is for ossobuco or lamb’s liver.
Autumn is the season I really give myself over to food fantasy: at heart, I am the lovechild of Keith Floyd and Clarissa Dickenson Wright. Summer cookery doesn’t sit so readily with their butter-and-cream-heavy approach to food. For supper tonight, the autumnal chill in the air demands one-dish fare, but I’m not yet ready for the ragùs and casseroles of winter. Fish pie is the perfect transitional meal.
The effect of fish pie is much the same as a walk on West Sands under the clouds banked dense and purple, low over the beach, or a pint in a steamy pub at 5 o’clock on a winter’s evening: the combination of flushed cheeks and a cold nose. As with all pies, it is the combined textures, which make this dish so irresistible. Top heavy with fluffed mash, beneath the surface a delicately rich sauce cradles flakes of haddock, a stray prawn, maybe mussels, unshelled, and chunks of salmon blushing rosily against the béchamel.
A classic fish pie is always enjoyable, quartered boiled eggs lurking amidst a parsley-flecked sauce, yolks winking like chocolate coins in a Lucky Dip. But I routinely turn to one of two variations, which enliven this eternal dish. My grandmother melts spring onions and slivers of smoked bacon in the base of her sauce, omitting the eggs and parsley in favour of sweetcorn kernels and a topping of sweet and ordinary potatoes, whipped with sour cream.
A weekend’s hard work at the Dunhill was rewarded with a friend’s Caribbean variation. Again, sweet potato with nutmeg, allspice and a generous whack of butter, concealing a luscious creamed coconut filling, wilted spinach and fresh coriander peeping through the lime spiked sauce. A perfect end to a perfect autumnal day.