After a hectic summer of gardening, and preserving fruit and vegetables, autumn is our reward. Life slows down a bit. The weather is cooler. The days are shorter. The nights are cold enough to throw another blanket on the beds. We are reminded that winter is coming. The garden has peaked and now is abating, but until mid October there will be green beans, tomatoes and fall lettuce. Our raspberries will continue to ripen till frost. We cover the picked berries with powder sugar and put them in the freezer. Our freezer is full of corn, green beans, peas, mushrooms, apples, apricots and berries. The remainder of green beans will be packed in jars and preserved for winter salads. We keep a close eye on the thermometer in the garden. Each week the temperature is a degree or two lower at night than the week before. Jack Frost could come for a visit in October. We gamble with our tomatoes, leaving them on the vine until the very last minute, hoping for a few more to ripen in the autumn sun. When frost threatens we bring all the tomatoes in the house. The large green ones are spread out on news papers in the kitchen to ripen. The smaller ones are made into green tomato chutney. The pumpkins are brought in and set on the window sills in the living room for fall decorations. Later they will be slipped under the bed for winter storage. By the end of September, the fruit from our trees have been picked. Jams, jellies and preserves have been made and packed away in the cellar. Potatoes, onions and beets have been dug and stored in barrels and flats. The barrel for the potatoes is prepared with a bucket of moist sand then lined with straw. The beets are put in a barrel then covered with moist sand. The beets will be cooked and pickled later when I have time. The onions are dried for a couple of weeks in our barn then laid out in wooden flats, to be stored on a shelf in the cellar. The garlic that has been hanging in the barn is brought into the house and hung beside the dill in the pantry near the kitchen. Sauerkraut is prepared in a big crock and set in the cellar to cure. Apples are put in flats and stored to be eaten later or dried. On windy nights walnuts fall from the trees sounding like hail storms beating on the roof tiles. We pick up buckets and buckets of walnuts spreading them on the floor of our guest house to dry. Later we will put the nuts in sacks to be taken to family and friends. The nuts we keep will be used for strudel and Christmas cakes as well as in savory dishes with mushrooms or cheese. Small demijohns of new grape wine clutter our kitchen counter. Larger demijohns of apple wine sit on blocks on the floor along the wall. The perfume of fermenting fruit juice permeates the house. By autumn the cherry and plum wine are bottled and stored in the cellar. The grape and apple wine will be put away before Christmas.
The leaves begin to color on the hill sides around our village in October. We go for walks through the forest in our free time. The forest continues to yield wild mushrooms if we are lucky enough to get rain. Chestnut burs carpet the ground under chestnut trees. Special care must be taken while gathering the nuts. Heavy leather gloves are recommended. We gather baskets of chestnuts to roast in winter. After each foray we enjoy a pan of roasted nuts. The rest are portioned in plastic bags and put in the freezer. Chestnuts are very moist and mold quickly if not processed or frozen.
As the weather cools, we like soups made with vegetables, lintels or beans flavored with smoked pork or sausages. Pesto is made from basil leaves, garlic and walnuts to be served with pasta or gnocchi. Meats are flavored with wild mushrooms, walnuts and cream. Apple strudel, fruit pies and cakes appear on the kitchen table. Homemade breads, pastries and pizza are prepared in the oven. The heat of the oven takes the chill off the house. The warm bread served with butter and jam or a bowl of soup takes the chill off us. When the heaters are turned on in October, racks of sliced apples and mushrooms are placed above the radiators to dry. Later the racks are used to dry beef jerky.
Harvest festivals appear in many towns to celebrate the end of hard work and the bounty of our labor. Farmer markets are overflowing with food and fall flowers. The stalls are full of colorful fruit, vegetables and flowers. This is the time for cabbages, cauliflower and broccoli, apples and pears, zucchini, tomatoes, green peppers and garlic.
Autumn mums make their first appearance in the markets while pansies come back for an encore performance. Squares of purple, pink and white heather make checker board patterns on the cobbles tone pavement. Sacks of potatoes are piled in large heaps. Nuts are in bins. The last flats of lettuces seedlings are ready for greenhouses. While bare root trees lean up against lorries ready to be planted before the first snow.
Autumn is also the time of vinobrani – the wine harvest festival – and everywhere the air is enlivened with cries of “Burcak!” Signs for Burcak are posted in restaurants and bars as well as every wine shop in the country. Burcak begins to flow from bottle to glass after the first grapes have been crushed. After the grapes are crushed, there is a sweet most or juice extracted that is full of pulp. This cloudy mixture of juice and pulp begins to ferment becoming burcak for a short time. As the alcohol increases the pulp settles to the bottom of the fermentation vats, the juice becomes rezak. The rezak is then raked off the lees and placed in secondary fermentation vats. The rezak stage continues until it becomes a full wine. Drinking the sweet slightly fermented burcak kicks off the wine season.
By autumn hunting season is in full swing. Game is plentiful here. Hunting and shooting is quite popular in the Czech Republic. The Czech Hunters’ Union has almost 100,000 members, all of them have to take active part in forest management. The Czech hunters take game management very seriously, caring for and feeding the animals throughout the year. Hunting has a very long tradition here. Rites and rituals accompany every hunt. While in some countries, hunting is a sport of the privileged classes, in the Czech Republic it is a hobby of the common man. During the hunting season restaurants host special hunter’s feast days. The restaurant owners buy the game from the hunters then prepares traditional dishes for all to enjoy.
November 2, the Day of the Dead or All Souls Day, is connected with the remembrance of relatives and friends that are deceased. Graves are adorned with flowers, wreaths and candles in memory of the dead. Entire families travel to cemeteries of their love ones. Adults leading young children through the cemetery talk of their family members and friends who are no longer with them. By nightfall the cemeteries are awash with candle light.
The first snow usually comes in November. When the temperature start hovering around the freezing point, it is time to kill pigs. Many villagers still raise and slaughter pigs in the Czech Republic. Pig killings take place when the weather is cool. Preparations for the event extend over a number of days. Family and friends gather for the occasion. Each person is assigned a job.
Duty and celebration are mixed into one event. The slaughter starts in the early morning and goes on till all is done. Men usually are in charge of the slaughter and cutting of the meat while the women wrap and pack the meat. Soup is made from the blood, sausages are prepared and kettles of water are put on an open fire to boil meat for dinner. Hams are salted and hung in the attic to cure. Sausages are made to be eaten fresh or aged in the cellar for later consumption.
The Advent season starts at the end of November. Wreaths of spruce and evergreens with 4 candles are sold on the square. Large Christmas trees are stood on the squares of every city and town to mark the beginning of the Christmas season. Christmas markets pop up on every town square. Traditional Christmas ornaments and gifts are offered. Hot spiced wine is sold to keep you warm. At home, ladies begin to make elaborate assortment of Christmas cookies for their families and friends. On December 5 arrives Saint Mikulas ( St. Nicolas) Day. Saint Mikulas, an angel and a devil visits young children to see if they have been good. The children recite poems or sing songs. The children are then rewarded with sweets or a present.
By the end of the season we are all looking forward to Christmas and the winter ski season.