November is the month in which we fight the encroaching dark with light: Guy Fawkes Night, Samhain, Diwali, all November festivals centred around light, sparks and fire. A drift of wood smoke and the occasional tang of sulphur is the scent of November. All of these festivals have a secondary focus on sweet treats – Bonfire Night parkin, cinder toffee and toffee apples; soul cakes at Samhain; Diwali sweets – as if our ancestors knew that the fire battles were all very well, but the true way to make it through winter is by comfort eating.
It is a month for finding warmth, and light, wherever you can find it
The old Anglo-Saxon name for the month was Blotmonath, blood month, as this was the traditional time to slaughter animals and preserve meat, to save the expense of having to keep animals alive through winter, and to make the most of a summer and autumn of fattening up. The slaughter also lent itself to hearty feasting, as those parts that could not be preserved were cooked up. This has always been a bountiful month, despite and because of the increasing cold.
It can also be a beautiful month, as the fiery final trees flame with colour in the pale sunlight, or it can be as bare as January if a big storm has blown all the last leaves away. After a storm we see the stems for the first time: purples, oranges, yellows and whites. Old man’s beard seed heads open now to reveal the fluffy insides that give them their name, and caught by low winter sunlight they look like strings of fairy lights hung out across the nearly bare hedgerows. It is a month for finding warmth, and light, wherever you can find it.
Constellation of the month – Taurus and the Pleiades
In November look for Taurus, the Bull, located by its brightest star Aldebaran, which begins the night low in the east, is high overhead at midnight, and moving to low in the western sky just before dawn. As night falls look straight up from Aldebaran and you should find the beautiful star cluster of the Pleiades, also in Taurus. The Pleiades is known as the Seven Sisters for the stars it contains, most of which are blue and highly luminous. It is one of the closest star clusters to earth and the one most visible to the naked eye. The return of the Pleiades to the northern sky in September heralded the beginning of autumn, but now it is at its most beautiful and visible. The two Taurid meteor showers can be seen this month, radiating from the constellation. This was originally one shower, which has been split into two by gravitational effects over time.
There are generally three types of November weather: the gloomy and grey, the stormy, and the occasional gloriously sunny, when you can stride around woodlands or arboretums enjoying the autumn colours before one of those stormy days comes along and blows it all away. Since the late 1800s the number of sunshine hours in each day in November has steadily increased, partly due to the decrease in smog-forming fuels in cities, but also because the pattern of November winds has slowly changed from a predominance of cloudy southerlies to increased clear and cold northerlies. And so we are now far more likely to have a few glorious autumnal days than we were a century ago.
Average temperatures (°c):
London 10, Glasgow 6 Average sunshine hours per day: London 2, Glasgow 2
Average days rainfall:
London 17, Glasgow 24 Average rainfall total (mm): London 63, Glasgow 100
During the course of November, day length decreases by:
1 hour and 36 minutes, to 8 hours and 13 minutes (London) 1 hour and 45 minutes, to 7 hours and 28 minutes (Glasgow)
Average sea temperature
Orkney: 10.9°c Scarborough: 10.6°c Blackpool: 12.3°c Brighton: 14.7°c Penzance: 13.2°c
Grey seal pupping
Grey seals all around the coastline give birth to their pups between November and January. Just under half the world’s population of this beautiful mammal live around our shores, and this is the only time that they come to shore for extended periods, and so is a good time to spot them. Keep your distance, and look at them through binoculars, and if you are lucky you will see a still-fluffy pup before it turns sleek and seaworthy, basking on a beach or rocky outcrop with its mother. Cornwall, Lincolnshire, Northumberland, Norfolk, Pembrokeshire, the Outer Hebrides and the Orkneys are prime areas.
Planting by the moon
3rd quarter to new moon: Prune. Harvest for storage. Fertilise and mulch the soil.
New moon to 1st quarter: Sow crops that develop below ground. Dig the soil.
1st quarter to full moon: Sow crops that develop above ground. Plant seedlings and young plants.
Full moon to 3rd quarter: Harvest crops for immediate eating. Harvest fruit.
Jobs in the garden
Feed the birds. There is still plenty of natural food in the hedgerows and gardens, but start feeding now so they know where to come in leaner times. Choose high-fat foods to help them through cold nights: peanuts, grated cheese and suet, fat balls.
Plant up a pot or a hanging basket with winter bedding: pack violas and pansies in close as they won’t grow much.
Buy little terracotta pot feet to lift your containers a couple centimetres or so from the ground and stop them getting waterlogged over winter.
Glut of the month – borlotti beans
Collect your borlotti beans, pop them out of their pods and dry them properly so that they will store well. Simmer fresh borlotti beans for 25–30 minutes. Once dried they need to be soaked overnight, then boiled hard in lots of water for 10 minutes, and then simmered for a further 1–2 hours, until they are completely soft.
• Alternatively you can boil dried borlottis just covered in water topped up with a generous glug or several of extra virgin olive oil, plenty of fresh sage, some cloves of garlic and a couple of tomatoes. Simmer long and slow until cooked through and you will just need to add a little seasoning and some vinegar and they are ready to eat.
• Pasta e fagioli is a classic Italian borlotti and pasta soup. Cook a diced onion, carrot and stalk of celery in 4 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil until they soften. Add 250 g uncooked soaked or fresh beans with enough water to cover the beans by 5 cm, plus a deseeded and chopped chilli and a sprig of rosemary. Cook until the beans are soft (up to 2 hours) then add 1 tbsp of tomato puree, salt and pepper to taste, and 150 g small pasta. The soup is ready when the pasta is ready.
• Make into a spread for bruschetta by blending cooked borlotti beans with a little plain yoghurt, plenty of grated Parmesan, basil leaves, salt and pepper and extra virgin olive oil.
Garden task – plant tulips
Tulips are wonderfully forgiving of the tardy gardener, as they need to be planted late in the year, well after all of the other bulbs. There is zero skill needed to create an amazing late-spring display with them: all the hard work in building up the bulb has been done for you by the bulb grower, and all you have to do is pop them into the ground. Plant tulip bulbs at three times their own depth, in pots or in the soil. Here are some ways to plant them.
• Alongside wallflowers. This is an old-fashioned combination but is a classic for a reason, as wallflowers are planted at the same time (find them as bare-root plants in garden centres now), flower at the same time, and create a fuzz of flowers for grandly tulips to rise up through.
• Dot them in among existing shrubs and perennials. This can work really beautifully, particularly where young plant growth is emerging, and where you have pretty and frothy spring plants such as forget-me-not and Alchemilla mollis.
• Mass them together in pots or – if you are feeling really flash – along pathway edges. You need to use plenty to do this approach justice: big and bold. The benefit with pots is that you can fling them into centre stage when they are looking perfect, then tuck them out of sight as they fade.
• Naturalise species types in grass for a jewelled lawn. Red Tulipa spengeri and yellow Tulipa sylvestris are the ones to try, in a patch of sunny grass.
We are down to the hardiest of garden vegetables now
We are down to the hardiest of garden vegetables now: Jerusalem artichokes, carrots, beetroot, leeks, parsnips, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, kale, winter cabbage, stored maincrop potatoes, borlotti beans and winter squash.
• Cranberries, satsumas, clementines and pomegranates are all arriving. There are still plenty of apples, pears and quince.
• Nuts are plentiful: hazelnuts, sweet chestnuts and walnuts have all recently ripened. • Lots of wild mushrooms are still around and white truffles are in season.
• Duck, goose, grouse, guinea fowl, partridge, pheasant, venison and wood pigeon are all in season.
• Winter cheeses such as Vacherin Mont d’Or and Pontl’Évêque become available, and Stilton is at its best.
• Brill, sardines, skate, clams, mussels and oysters are plentiful.
Ingredient of the month – bacon and sausages
Now we eat bacon all year round, but traditionally it was made in November, for eating through winter. Right up until the end of the Second World War it was normal for families to keep a pig in their backyard, or to be a part of a ‘pig club’ that raised pigs communally. Pigs would be fed up all year long, and then killed and their meat cured for storage, with Martinmas, the 12th November, being the traditional date for the first slaughter. The parts that would spoil quickly were eaten immediately, others made into brawn and sausages that would keep for a short time, and the belly and loin made into bacon that would be ready by Christmas. There are still smallholders that work with the seasons in this way. Track down those that supply mail order, as they will often have raised old breeds with greater amounts of fat and flavour.
Bridgwater carts and Guy Fawkes: the West Country winter carnivals
Some communities mark Guy Fawkes Night with particular gusto, and the towns and villages of Somerset and the West Country are among them. Bridgwater has celebrated Guy Fawkes Night since 1606, but its celebrations have evolved in entirely their own bizarre direction. The West Country winter carnival tradition comprises brightly lit floats known as carts, parading through the chilly night streets to crowds of up to 150,000 in Bridgwater itself, carnival epicentre.
Somerset’s historic embrace of Guy Fawkes Night holds clues to the nationwide endurance of this celebration of capture and torture. Crucially, the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Palace of Westminster and assassinate King James I was a plan by Catholic conspirators in reaction to Catholic persecution. Somerset was staunchly Protestant and anti-Catholic, and had its own Catholic bogeyman in the form of Robert Persons, born at Nether Stowey near Bridgwater. Persons was an influential Jesuit priest involved in attempts to put a Catholic back on the throne. His birthplace’s proximity may explain the glee with which the town came to celebrate the failure.
The Observance of 5th November Act was passed in January 1606, a day to celebrate the saving of the life of the king. In that year Bridgwater lit a bonfire, and over the years gangs began using farm carts to bring effigies of the villains to the fire, the ritualised mob lynching with which we are all familiar. This started the tradition of procession which evolved into ever bigger, brighter carts. Now almost no fire is involved and it is not unusual for a cart to cost upwards of £20,000 to create. It may have had a dark start, but the religious origins of the Bridgwater Carnival have been almost forgotten. It is now a chance to see The Great Gatsby recreated in light bulbs, complete with high-kicking girls in flapper dresses, with not a hint of anti-Catholic gloating.
Happily for us, dried beans and smoked meats make perfect partners, the beans soaking up all the meaty, smoky flavour as they gently cook, and bulking out the precious meat. This will feed and warm a Bonfire Night crowd.
400 g dried borlotti beans (or pinto or cannellini beans), soaked overnight
1 onion, chopped
2 tbsp bacon fat or vegetable oil
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 smoked ham hock
500 ml black coffee
1 bay leaf
1 whole jalapeño chilli
Salt and pepper
Put the beans in a large pot, covered in 2½ cm or so of water, and boil vigorously for 15 minutes. Drain them and reserve the cooking water. In a large, thick-based pot, gently sauté the onion in the fat until it is translucent. Add the garlic and cook for a few more minutes. Add the beans, the ham hock, the black coffee, the bay leaf, the jalapeño chilli and 500 ml of the cooking water, bring to the boil and simmer for up to 3 hours, adding more water if needed, until the beans are soft and the meat is falling away from the bone. Season with salt and pepper and serve in bowls with optional sour cream and grated cheese.
Parkin is a traditional oat-based cake of Yorkshire and Lancashire, always eaten on Bonfire Night. These were areas of the country where it was too cold and wet to grow wheat, and so oats were the predominant cereal; hence this is a cake of the north. It should be made up to a week before it is due to be eaten, as it only softens and becomes adequately sticky over time.
Makes 16 squares
220 g golden syrup
55 g black treacle
110 g butter
110 g dark brown soft sugar
225 g medium oatmeal
110 g self-raising flour
2 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp mixed ground spice
Pinch of salt
1 large egg, beaten
1 tbsp milk
Grease and line a 20 cm x 20 cm cake tin and preheat the oven to 140°c/285°f/gas mark 1. If you have electronic scales, place a small saucepan onto them, set to zero, and weigh in the golden syrup and black treacle. Add the butter and sugar and heat gently until all are melted together. Put the oatmeal, flour, ginger, spice and salt into a large bowl, then stir in the melted mixture, then the egg and then the milk. Pour into the tin and bake for around 1½ hours. When it is completely cold, store it in an airtight tin until Bonfire Night.
Look out for:
• Larch, beech and oak are among the last trees to colour up and lose their leaves.
• Tits and finches are the birds most likely to be seen in gardens, with occasional glimpses of tree creepers and nuthatches. Rooks and crows begin to dominate in the countryside, along with magpies.
• There are still lots of mushrooms and toadstools appearing in woodlands after damp spells.
• Atlantic salmon have left the sea and are migrating upstream to their place of birth, leaping up any obstacles that get in their way.
• Whooper and Bewick’s swans return from the Arctic for the winter.
• Many animals and insects are going into hibernation, or something like it, to see out the winter. Hedgehogs and dormice hibernate. Bats enter a state of reduced metabolism, but emerge on warm days. Ladybirds and peacock butterflies seek out nooks and crannies in sheds and lofts.
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