A balmy Indian summer afternoon draws me into the garden, to relax under the crabapple tree with a jar of cold cider spiced with cinnamon, cloves and star anise. With a wedge of sharp cheddar, a few pecans and a good book, you might even skip supper.
These are the golden days.
Blue skies, gentle sun, cool air. Late sunflowers, early pumpkins. Last astonishing apricot trumpet blossoms.
Ripe crabapples dangling in clusters from a gnarled tree. A few leaves turning crimson. Squirrels leaping from branch to branch…
After an oppressive summer, the irresistible urge to be outside all day. Reading, wandering in the garden, vaguely noting chores to be done, but only in my head. Doing nothing, really, and loving it.
I grew up calling this dreamy time of year Indian summer. It was our late September (or early October) reward for surviving the real summer, when it was so devastating there were days when you didn't want to step outside. During Indian summer, you could let go, bask in the soft warmth of the sun, feel light breezes ruffle your hair. Enjoy the pleasure of just being alive.
So I was surprised to find that the phrase has an entirely different meaning...
According to the infallible Wikipedia, Indian summer is a heat wave that occurs in autumn, “accompanied by dry and hazy conditions, usually after there has been a killing frost.”
After a killing frost? I always thought it was just summer fading into the chillier days of fall.
Plowing through the entry, I discovered that the “French American writer,” John Hector St. John de Crevecoeur, is the first person known to have used the term. While in upstate New York in 1778, he wrote, “Then a severe frost succeeds which prepares it to receive the voluminous coat of snow which is soon to follow: though it is often preceded by a short interval of smoke and mildness, called the Indian summer.”
And why is it called Indian summer? There are all sorts of theories, none completely compelling. The historian Daniel J. Boorstin “speculates that the term originated from raids on European colonies by American Indian war parties; these raids usually ended in late autumn (due to snow covered ground), hence summer-like weather in the late fall and mid winter was an Indian summer” when you could count on an attack. Maybe the smoke came from burning settlers' cabins. Go here to read other ideas.
Whatever you call it, this is a delicious time of year to take la pause outside. For me that means dragging the battered green garden chair and table to a spot under the crabapple tree which is so heavily laden with clusters of tiny ripening apples that the boughs bend under their weight.
In a week or two I’ll pick most of the fruit and try River Cottage’s recipe for crabapple jelly, adding a few spices to cut through their intensely sweet-tart flavor.
But for now, I‘ll prepare a tray with a glass of icy cold apple cider, a plate of sharp English cheddar and a handful of plump pecans, toasted since they’re last year’s crop. I’ll toss an old paisley shawl over the table and sit for an hour or maybe two, sipping the cider, nibbling the cheese and reading a book. Lately I've been mesmerized by From the Land of the Thunder Dragon: Textile Arts of Bhutan...
In truth it's a little early for good apple cider. The pale pressed Fuji juice I’ve been drinking is a bit thin: It lacks the richness and complexity of the best cider, and it’s not cold enough to leave it outside at night to turn hard and sparkling.
So I’ve been simmering this early cider with some of the whole spices that go into Chinese 5-spice powder, plus a few pieces of fresh ginger, to give it some bite. Refrigerate it overnight and drink it while it’s very, very cold.
You could be elegant and serve the cold spiced cider in a champagne flute, or you could drink it right out of the jar in which it was chilled. Why not take it easy now? After all, the killing frost is surely on its way.
Cold Apple Cider with Cinnamon, Cloves and Star Anise
Makes one or two servings
12 ounces cold pressed apple cider
A 1-inch piece of cinnamon
3 whole cloves
½ whole star anise
¼ teaspoon fennel seeds
6 whole black peppercorns
2 or 3 thick slices of fresh ginger, peeled
1. Put the whole spices in a mortar and lightly crush them with the pestle. Cut a double thickness of cheesecloth into a 6-inch square. Put the spices in the center and tie up the cheesecloth with piece of kitchen twine.
2. In a small pot, heat the cider until it simmers gently. Add the spice bag, cover, and simmer for 10 minutes. Do not allow the cider to boil.
3. Remove the pot from the heat and let the cider cool to room temperature. Pour it into a glass jar with the spice bag and refrigerate overnight.
4. When ready to serve, discard the spices. You can drink the cider out of a glass, but why not just stick a straw in the jar and enjoy?