Tuesday 15 October 2019

Seasonal tints and tasty tomatoes

Country matters

AUTUMNAL SIMILE: George Orwell wrote glowingly of the current season
AUTUMNAL SIMILE: George Orwell wrote glowingly of the current season

Joe Kennedy

That 'thought fox' - the tail-less animal that was sizing me up last week - proved to be, indeed, an omen.

On an aircraft out of Dublin, I was assigned what must have been the last seat on the plane at the tail-end window. This was a first for me.

I had honed my wits, having walked back upon myself (so it seemed) from one terminal to another. I wonder, will I ever discover what the Dublin Airport Authority is up to? I am not alone, among the thousands with such thoughts, milling around that vast bus station.

Autumnal shades are all around Europe and the great shedding progresses unobtrusively, regardless of air temperatures. In Portugal the heat has been intense at a tropical 30 degrees Celsius, but is now scaling back.

On the ground, there are large crinkly spatula-like flakes from the bases of palms, looking like dried seaweed among the maples and birches, still with a fading green tinge among the dead and dying leaves.

In a Caribbean-like heat, it is startling to see signs of autumn without any wind gusts scattering the copper-tinged, yellow-flecked markers of change. Of course, there is a symphony of coloured foliage swirling across the northern hemisphere regardless of temperatures. Trees have amassed a sugar surplus in their leaves; dropping them gets rid of moisture and built-up toxins.

Before the shedding sugars and nutrients go back into the trees for storage and what remains after the chlorophyll goes, are the natural antioxidants, yellow and orange carotenoids and tomato-red anthocyanin.

The seasonal colours are not really signs of deterioration but of detoxing and preparing for a new start next spring - trees keep their buds on high where there is light for new leaf life.

The renowned English naturalist Richard Mabey maintains that autumn is not about decay at all, but of preparing for a new beginning.

When the poet John Keats was dying in Rome, in 1819, he found some comfort in the "mellow fruitfulness" of the season, something uplifting and more warming than the "chilly green of spring". An American anthropologist, Loren Eiseley, asked if we could disintegrate like autumn leaves, would our attitude to death be different? "Suppose we saw ourselves burning like maples in a golden autumn," she suggested.

Orwell, even, produces an autumnal simile in Keep the Aspidistra Flying as a girl wading through fallen leaves exclaims "they're like gold". Her companion responds: "They're just the colour of tomato soup." But the ripening of tomatoes, fruits of the sun and source of protective antioxidants, may be analogous to what happens to leaves as the annual tints begin, led by beeches, sycamores and hazels.

Home garden tomatoes, in Portugal, are like irregular country folk in a Bruegel farmyard painting. They may be lumpy and rough-edged with none of the uniform roundness of supermarket produce, but they are full of the juices of earth with an almost forgotten taste of an Ireland of yesteryear.

Joe Kennedy reports occasionally from Portugal and Spain

Sunday Independent

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