Sunday morning is allotment time, but I didn’t go this week. I’ve been feeling a bit fractious with the kids, getting upset easily, worrying that all I do is bark orders at them, wanting to play but never finding time or energy. My husband – sensing a woman on the verge – took the kids up to the plot and I stayed at home. That maybe doesn’t sound too significant but it is. It wouldn’t have happened a year ago. Slowly but (we hope, we hope) surely, he is recovering from a two-year illness and able to take on more. There is a little more sharing, taking turns, a little breathing space. I got almost four peaceful hours to myself and spent much of it standing in the sunny kitchen making ice cream. Stirring, stirring. A good thing to do when you are not trying to do fifteen other things at the same time.
I got my ice cream maker a few months ago and love it. I bought it to make use of the fruit gluts we get at the allotment through the summer, but was a little late for this year, so have become slightly obsessed with the idea of winter ice creams, using wintery fruits and hints of spices: grown up ice creams. (Look out for one I made for the grow-your-own Christmas food feature in the December issue of Gardens Illustrated: orange and cardamom with rosehip ripple. Proper lush.) Yesterday’s was quince and star anise.
I have a great source of quince in my mum and step-dad’s tree. I get their windfalls, but only if I’m quick enough (their neighbours are all keen too) and I had a big container of pulped quince in the freezer from last year’s big crop (I broke my golden rule: never freeze produce for it shall sit in the bottom of the freezer for at least a year. And so it came to pass). I’ve baked quince with star anise before and liked them together. The aniseed of star anise keeps things perky but there’s mellow spiciness to it as well. So with time miraculously on my hands I thought I’d try it in ice cream form.
First I warmed a pint of milk with a couple of pieces of star anise in it, then switched it off and let it sit for a good half an hour. Then I rewarmed the defrosted quince, pushed it through a sieve and added sugar, warming it again. Then the custard. I love making the custard. Six egg yolks and 125g sugar are whisked together. Sieve the now cooled milk into the same bowl and whisk, then return all to a clean pan. Warm gently for about ten minutes with – and this really is the important bit – a basin full of ice cold water ready poured in the sink. At the first sign of curdling (and this has happened to me every time so don’t think it wont happen to you) lift the pan off the heat and plunge its base into the water, whisking furiously. It brings it back from the scrambled edge. Combine fruit and custard and, when cool, add a pot of mascarpone. You can go for whipped cream here but for my money mascarpone is a classier way to get fat. Cool, churn and freeze.
During churning – feeling inspired – I went online and bought a dwarf quince tree from Blackmoor Nursery. I saw these at Hampton Court and they were so beautiful I promised myself one. All the fuzziness and sculptural grace of the trees but reaching just a couple of metres in height. Too perfect to resist so I didn’t. No more competing with mum’s neighbours. Then I folded clothes and made lunch and cleaned the cooker and later on, when everyone was back and the jobs were done, I danced with the kids for a full half an hour with the music turned up high, played ludo with them and fed them weird and wonderful ice cream.
We went to Dorset at half term, and spent our days dodging showers and searching for ammonites and our evenings trying to work out how to play Mahjong in front of the log burner. On the way back home we called in on my nana. Nana is a natural performer: she sang for the troops during the second world war and still goes about singing to the ‘old people’ in homes. It means she has the ability to make my children sit still and listen to her. So when she told them this story – body and face entirely animated, voice full of drama – they sat, fascinated and silent:
‘Once some thieves went to a beautiful big house and stole all the family silver. They ran into the woods to try to hide the loot in the branches but all the trees shook their branches so that the thieves couldnt climb up. All except the poplar. The thieves climbed up the poplar and hid the silver in the branches and ran away. Soon the police ran into the woods looking for the silver. They couldn’t find it, and so they ordered all the trees to put their branches up into the air. Knives and forks and spoons came clattering down from the poplar’s branches, and landed on the ground below. The poplar’s punishment was to hold its arms up in the air for ever more. That is why they grow that way to this day, and why they are known as silver poplars.’
I suspect my kids will recognise silver poplars.