Out in the boot room, a free range, organic bronze turkey nestles in a stock pot filled with a brine of salt and water, herbs and spices. It arrived headless and featherless, a no-name replacement for the three Norfolk black turkeys whose raucous affection has spared them the Thanksgiving table. Still, I feel apologetic as I sprinkle juniper berries into the salty soup. Dear God, forgive me for what I am about to pan-smoke over vine prunings and serve with giblet gravy.
Thanksgiving celebrates harvest and comes a couple of weeks after we finish our vendange. Bereft of grapes, the vines look tattered and forlorn against the backdrop of trees that shelter them, a slow-to-start carnival of reds and golds. This year, I discovered a quote from George Eliot: ‘Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.’ My feelings exactly as I return to the comfort and peace of my uniform: Brora cashmere sweater, Lands’ End cords, Old Town blue serge jacket, clogs. And I crave the comfort of autumn food: confits of duck with peppery lentils, pumpkin risottos with truffle oil, apple crumbles with oats and walnuts. Food for thought. Which is what Thanksgiving and harvest is: a time to think about what has been sown and what has been reaped.
For days now, I’ve been chewing over the Deloitte Farm Income Survey. I first heard it on the Today programme, and it stopped me in my tracks. It traces the fortunes of farms across lowland England, farms like ours, and its gist is this: in 2003-04, the average profit generated from all activities by farmers was £81 an acre. In 2004-05, it was down to £66. Deloittes predicts a drop to £62 in 2005-06, and they predict it will fall to just £48 in three years, dropping to £40 an acre for combinable crops: wheat, barley.
What does this mean? It means farmers will be producing food at a loss. It means milk from Poland, wheat from Hungary and a new, rich breed of landowner who sees the countryside as a ‘lifestyle opportunity’. It means that we want cheap foreign food more than we want a countryside.
‘You’re all right,’ says a friend with a herd of Jerseys, ‘you grow potatoes and sugar beet’. But ‘roots’ fluctuate wildly. In 2004-05, income from root crops plummeted to £65 an acre, down from £127 the year before.
As I watched the Ceremony of Remembrance on television, I studied the worn faces of the old soldiers. Lulled by the timeless Dimbleby voice, I watched the Queen place her wreath of poppies. Sheepishly, I stood during God Save the Queen. And then I thought: did these men and women fight for a country that is willingly surrendering that fundamental sovereignty-its ability to feed itself? A country where amber waves of grain and fields of sheep and cows will be nostalgic memory. Where the notion of ‘harvest’ will be as quaint as Morris dancing and the words ‘sown’ and ‘reaped’ will appear in the dictionary as ‘archaic’.
Our Thanksgiving guests of honour are Will Reed and his wife Emma. Will farms our land with care and intelligence and we are grateful. I will light the candles, fill our glasses with Wyken Bacchus and say grace: Dear God, Thank you for this good life, and forgive us if we do not love it enough.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on November 24, 2005.