Let me tell you how my mother makes crumble. She ushers in seasonal fruit from the hedgerows that line the roads. Some say the vehicle fumes alter the taste of the fruit and instead pick theirs from the bushes set aback from the road. Consequently, there is an abundance of fruit beside it. My mother picks from these bushes. She takes as many containers as she can carry and fills them with fruit. Imagine these containers when they get home, imagine the piles and piles of fruit, imagine the top with the intact berries and the bottoms squashed from their own weight. Imagine the juices that collect at the bottom that drip from the containers and stain your hands and clothes. Imagine the kitchen with its piles of containers, with fruit being frozen in bags, fruit bubbling into jam, fruit in jars, fruit in pots, fruit in bowls, fruit in cupboards, on tables, in all the nooks and crannies and crevices and in every vessel to be found. It is a fairytale quantity of fruit. For three whole months my lips are stained red and my fingers are stained red.
Once the fruit has been picked, my mother ushers in the sage. She grows this in many bushes outside the kitchen. To pick so much sage requires many, many weeks and a whole village and while this may seem excessive, I assure you it is quite necessary. Imagine many bushes, now imagine all the leaves on each bush. Each leaf has to be picked and people only tend to have two hands, so it is helpful to gather as many as possible. With the village involved the garden is a hive of activity, with leaves flying into baskets.
One year there was a lad whose basket looked mysteriously empty and his pockets suspiciously full. My mother took him into the kitchen and turned him upside down, sure enough, leaves rained onto the kitchen floor; he’d managed to fit an entire bush in his pockets! What a terrible rage my mother was in after that; she threw him out of the window and stomped and stormed about the place for several days, she let out that special anger she reserves only for wintry gales. We no longer let young lads pick the sage anymore, and to be on the safe side we don’t let older lads help either, or even grown men; they often try to disrupt the coming of seasons and the making of crumbles.
Cooking the fruit is another, monumental undertaking. Some years my mother has spent weeks building a massive pot suspended over an outdoor fire which meant she could cook the fruit all at once. Other years there have been several pots bubbling away at once, a mission that continues for several months.
My father is the one who collects the sugar, it’s the only thing he’s trusted with. Once a year he shuffles off and a month or so later he shuffles back, dragging several sacks of sugar behind him. When the sugar is dropped in the kitchen he shuffles off again, to wherever he likes to spend his time. It’s always a puzzle that my father can manage to handle so many sacks, he’s not a strong looking person, in fact he looks rather frail. My mother suspects he enlists someone’s help, and then hurries them away once they reach our path, so he can arrive
the hero. She’s quite convinced that this is the case, but she never brings it up as it’s nice for him to tell his own little story.
Lifting the sugar can be difficult, but my mother is very strong, and into the pan goes the sugar and the sage and the fruit so they can bubble together over the fire for several weeks. My mother always says that the topping is the most important part to a crumble and it’s the part she keeps most secretive. For several weeks the kitchen doors are locked and the windows covered with newspaper. I have tried peering through the windows, but my mother is very careful and she covers every gap. At the dead of night, I can see moving shadows through a glow of light, but the shapes are too abstract for me to see what is going on. If I press my ear to the pane, I can hear small whispers but nothing more.
The only clue I’m given happens in the early hours of the morning, when my mother steals away from the kitchen and runs to the pond. She chips away at the top layer of ice and carries large sheets back into the kitchen. You see, after the many months of picking fruit and sage and the many months of cooking sage and fruit, spring, summer and autumn have already come and gone and my mother has already ushered in winter’s frost for her crumble preparations. All the seasons are required for the making of crumble. The seasons come and the seasons go, and all the while my mother is making crumble. She needs something sweet
to feed her children with, lest they ever grow bitter.