Days like these, when it isn’t really summer but it’s not quite autumn either; we’re in that in between-season, the nomansland of the calendar. Did summer really go by in the blink of an eye? Is it really over? There are days when I am quite sure it will go on forever, our doors and windows are still open, the sun is still hot on our backs and the leaves have not yet started to fall. But when the wind picks up it has that slight chill; the mornings and evenings have turned a little cooler and the rain, absent for so many weeks, has made its return.
It’s also the month when Black Eyed Susans feature heavily along every fence-line beside the road, and they’re in our garden, too, a bright yellow splash of bold colour swaying in the breeze.
But black eyes are not only found in flowers. It seems to be a time when mosquitos make a last ditch effort to exert their authority over us poor humans. I woke in the middle of the night last Monday with that dreaded high-pitched buzzing sound around my face and I felt a little stinging around my eye and scratched tentatively, and then, still half-asleep scratched some more and more. It felt so good, but I was not fully aware of what I was doing and at some stage I fell back asleep. When our alarm went off and the real time to get up arrived, I could barely open the affected eye. Groggily I got out of bed and looked in the mirror to find that I had been stung several times on my eyebrow and eyelid, and the scratching had made it swell to epic proportions, turning the area a deep angry-looking red. It looked as if I had met a wall on a drunken night or squared up to an angry opponent; no one would have imagined it was a tiny little mosquito that could make quite such an impact. Thank goodness the sun was shining and everywhere I went I was able to wear dark glasses for a couple of days!
Despite the mosquitos, summer is such a happy time, with endless fresh produce from the garden, apricots and strawberries, long nights eating under the stars, laughing children around the pool and sand – endless sand everywhere in the house. It doesn’t matter how many times I vacuum or how often I sweep the floor it never seems to go away; it’s a constant reminder of the beach and those lazy summer days.
But there is a definite change in the air, autumn is knocking at the door, not quite ready to make an appearance but hovering in the wings with winter looking balefully over its shoulder.
The sunflowers have gone to seed
all that is left are occasional fields where tough little self-seeded specimens have pushed up through the soil and emerged triumphant, determined to make one last stand before they are ploughed in and forgotten. These are the ones we pick quite freely; no one wants them, and they have no use except to look pretty in a vase on our kitchen table. Each weekend the children and I cut huge bunches and fill the baskets on our bikes.
This is the season for evening walks, when it’s still warm enough that we don’t need a coat, but also cool enough that we are filled with energy, urging us to run with the dogs and skip in puddles.
We’re still overrun with tomatoes, they just keep on coming and there isn’t a day since June when we haven’t eaten a handful with every meal. Now our menu includes tomato soup, one more hint that autumn has taken another step towards crossing the threshold. The fruits are so sweet, there is no need to add anything more than a sautéed onion, some well-seasoned vegetable stock and a whole bowl full of tomatoes, skin, seeds – the lot. I simmer them for fifteen to twenty minutes and simply purée it all together; nothing could be easier. Add a baguette still warm from the boulangerie and there are six satisfied faces around the table!
Vineyards and grapes play a large part of life in the Charente Maritime, but here the fruit is mostly picked for the local tipple, Pineau des Charentes, a fortified wine made with a blend of lightly-fermented grape ‘must’ and cognac eau-de-vie. Right now the grapes are just about ready to be picked and are bursting with flavour.
It’s also fig season, and I’ll eat them anyway I can – fresh from the tree walking in the garden or sliced with some cheese; the two seem to go hand in hand.
There are days when the sun is so strong, the geraniums still so bright in their window boxes and the green so vibrant from the leaves that it seems hard to believe we are halfway through September.
When the sky is so blue,
and the water so inviting, one feels as if it might last forever.
These are some of the best days to take a holiday if you don’t have children and are not governed by school schedules. The roads are miraculously empty, seasonal restaurants are still open, brocantes still occur every weekend, and there is still plenty to do but without the crowds. A couple of weeks ago we ventured east into the Charente and embraced big rolling hills and enormous views that seemed to never end.
Back on home territory once more and surrounded by our salty marshlands we are reminded that September is a fickle month and there are days when the sky is heavy, the wind picks up sending the clouds scurrying across the sky and the rain begins to fall.
And that age-old question rears its head once more. When does autumn really start? The autumn equinox is nearly upon us, which is the official start of the season for astronomers, but in meteorological terms autumn begins on September 1st.
Seasons play a major role in the year here and for me the start of autumn is not really dictated by a set date but by natural events such as falling leaves, the appearance of seasonal produce and the state of the garden. Like the Sunflowers, the Hollyhocks have gone to seed, replaced by the Asters which along with the Black Eyed Susans take centre stage right now.
While autumn feels like it has begun this week, temperatures are set to rise again next week; perhaps the start of an Indian Summer? But the signs are here; children’s jackets are one again dumped on the back of kitchen chairs and conkers litter the ground. No one collects them here, no one plays with them. I remember those days at school when everyone gathered conkers; it was a huge competition to see who’s was the best, the biggest, the shiniest, and any spied on a walk were pounced upon by several eager kids, pushing each other aside to be the one who took possession. No one was polite, we just had to have ‘that conker’! But that’s a tradition that seems to have disappeared, certainly here anyway. I know that playing conkers attached to a string was banned in schools as it was deemed too dangerous, knuckles got hurt and they stung or bruised, maybe they even bled a little; but it never did us any harm! Bending to pick up a conker when I see one is still a habit. I spy a tree whilst walking and see a mass underfoot and eagerly stop and search for the best I can find and hand it to whichever child is with me, thinking they will grab it and thank me enormously, but instead they look, they smile, they touch it for a few minutes before dropping it back on the ground. You would think I would have learnt by now, they no longer spark any interest in the young. The child within me will never forget playing with conkers nor the pain they caused, but that was all just a part of autumn!