Aches and Kale

What’s a food writer to do in the face of such ridiculous weather? I was almost ready to write about little boiled artichokes and loose green mayonnaise, poached fish, fricassees of rabbit and peas – about spring, in other words, and beyond it the faint potential for wine and roses; then along came the snow. I suppose it’s fortunate given these circumstances that I’ve already written an entire book¬†about the possibilities of spring eating, or I would find myself quite frustrated. As it is, I’ve quite enjoyed the opportunity to reembrace thick soups, dark with brassicas and bitter herbs and dense with beans, black bread with tooth-marked butter, problematic Anglo-Saxon drinking, and all the other fond habits of winter.

It rarely gets cold enough in this country to properly appreciate, for example, potatoes covered thickly in oozy stinking cheese, or at least to do so entirely without guilt. We so often look to the Mediterranean for inspiration that it is quite refreshing to settle into the cushioning carbs of northern Europe. I have spent most of the last week with a powerful craving for dumplings of the Russian or Polish or Georgian varieties, which has yet to be sated, largely due to my own laziness. Although spring seems to be attempting a reboot, I’m hoping it might still be cold enough over the next few days to enjoy a dumpling or two. Whether free-standing and dough-wrapped or nakedly bobbing in stew or soup or sage butter, dumplings must be one of the great universal comforters, little pillows of softness in a cold hard world.

To Build A Fire

The first little brightnesses of winter are beginning to appear after the long mulch of autumn and December; the low sun is in a clear blue sky and soon restaurant plates everywhere will be lit up with flashes of Sicilian blood orange, dark-grown Yorkshire rhubarb, and pale green leaves speckled with mahogany. Everything will be bitter leaves and cured fish, as if January had no more need for comfort. These flavours are welcome, of course, as welcome as a walk around the sunny park when for a week the sky has been a uniform lead grey, like living in one of the grimmer Jack London stories; eating uncooked fish and sour-sweet fruit is almost always welcome, and it feels like you are being good to yourself in a very particular way, the way of brisk walks and bitter cordials and melancholy non-fiction. Sometimes that is the self-care you need, to feel fresh and clean or at least alive in the face of leaden greyness; sometimes you need to take the opposite path, and sit in your warm pyjamas drinking a deep amber wine, eating anchovies on hot buttered toast, half listening to the radio, and half writing this.

 

Death / Roe

I often wonder how much healthier, both physically and mentally, we would be as a country if the New Year started not in January, but in March, or perhaps May, and if resolutions therefore had to be kept not in the long death of winter but instead against a background of burgeoning spring as it made its way towards the green early summer. How anyone expects to keep, say, to a salad-based diet, or to lay off the booze – even a glass of good red wine of a long evening! – when the days are still short, when the temperature frequently drops below zero, when there is slush in every gutter and no leaves to be seen, except for endless, endless kale, I do not understand.

Having said that, I do enjoy a crisp winter’s day, and if I might wait until the wind is a little less vicious and the roads are not glinting with ice to get back on my bicycle, then I am willing to spend one eating food which is similarly crisp and cold, January being the time to eat raw celeriac with mustard and creme fraiche, or shredded radicchios and chicory enlivened with neat fillets of blood orange, or brassicas charred briefly over a hot flame, and then left to macerate in apple vinegar and miso. So-called clean eating is, of course, a nonsense, but there is a certain cleanliness of flavour, a sidestep away from the butter and spice which characterises a British Christmas, that is desirable at this time of year, especially if it marches in tandem with an enormous bowl of pasta or a good pot of ragu – one of those ones so slow-cooked that the vegetables have completely dissolved and all you have left is a kind of jam made from meat, so it has to be spread on toast or indeed stirred through that enormous bowl of pasta, rather than served, say, with mashed potato.

Raw celeriac, especially when cut into neat matchsticks and slightly overdressed with that creme fraiche and mustard, demands to be eaten with hot-smoked fish of some kind; in an ideal world, this would be eel, for which I have a great weakness, especially when hot-smoked and cut across the bone into little steaks and then grilled to loosen the rich buttery oils. Eels, however, with their deeply mysterious lives lived between the muddy Thames and the wide Sargasso Sea, are one of the least sustainable of fishes, as well as being, when smoked, quite enormously expensive, so you might have to make do with smoked mackerel; hardly making do, smoked mackerel being extremely delicious, especially if you buy the whole burnished fish wrapped neatly in brown paper, instead of sweaty vac-packed fillets. I don’t have any plans to smoke mackerel this year, as I’m keeping it all for canning, but I did get, the other day, two fat sacs of cod’s roe, one of which I smoked to be made into tarama salata and the other of which I will dry brick-hard and grate or shave over slick ribbons of pasta, a taste of distant seas in the landlocked depths of winter.

Bake Against The Dying Of The Light

10402798_10152785373432559_2727655711948833627_nI meant to write a post about autumn. Something about the wonderful, crackling transience of it, about the brief period of crisp, bright days, and, of course, about the food, fungi and wet nuts, the first of the year’s game, the last of the summer in hedgerow berries, orchard and stone fruits – the way it seems to be the most British of seasons, not having to borrow from other cuisines the way we do in summer, but able to fully express our ingredients and our heritage. Well, I missed autumn. It seems to have lasted about a week between Indian summer and early-onset winter.

The thing about our autumn is that it is really itself. We don’t really have an idealised autumn to hold it up against, the way we do with summer (Cornwall, the south of France, wherever) and winter (Christmas stories, the Alps). Is it dry and clear? Beautiful. Is it rainy? Good! All the better for splashing in the mud. Winter, on the other hand, rarely matches up to our desires. It’s never really that cold, and even decent snowfall soon turns into filthy slush. We want to sit huddled up with hot cocoa, scarves and mittens, and various arrangements of potato, meat and cheese, but that hardly seems justified when it’s 10 above freezing and drizzling.

As such, we don’t really have winter food as a distinct entity. We have the late autumn repetoire of soups and stews, and then we have the month-long tyranny of Christmas, which infects every meal in December. Even a quick supermarket sandwich becomes an opportunity to eat turkey, stuffing, and some cranberry-related concoction. There are two things wrong with this. Firstly, turkey and cranberry are vile, unless prepared very carefully indeed; secondly, Christmas is supposed to be a celebration, a feast. No wonder people complain about Christmas Day, about the endless tedium of the family meal – they’ve already experienced the most important part of it, watered down and adulterated, about 20 times, at drunken office parties, in petrol stations, pubs, Pret a Manger. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t celebrate at Christmas, but do we have to do it for so long?

What we need is a new winter festival, one that hasn’t been corrupted by Americanism, commercialism, and Pret a Manger, a new way to rage against the dying of the light and bring back the setting sun. For much of European peasant history, the big event of the winter has been the pig-killing festival, the whole village coming together to slaughter and to create, curing and salting and hanging meat to see them through the dark days. I appreciate that most people don’t have a pig to slaughter; still, perhaps we could nod to the toils of our ancestors, and make black pudding. Besides being delicious, it is ridiculously cheap, although you’ll need a couple of specialist ingredients. This recipe is adapted from the excellent Nose To Tail iteration, and makes a flat, Yorkshire-style loaf.

BLACK PUDDING

Buy dried blood off the internet (here is good); you’ll have to ask a butcher for back fat. I got mine free, but we’re good pals. It shouldn’t be expensive, anyway. I guess you could use fat snipped off back bacon? Mr Henderson suggests salted lardo if you can’t find raw fat.

Serves 8-10

1 spanish onion, finely chopped

6 cloves of garlic, finely chopped

A chunk of lard

A small bunch of sage, finely chopped

Half a nutmeg, grated

1 tsp allspice

150g dried pig blood

150g fine polenta

250g back fat, chopped into little cubes

salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to Gas Mark 3, and line a loaf tin with clingfilm.

Melt the lard in a big pan, then sweat the onion and garlic until soft and translucent. Meanwhile, whisk the dried blood into a litre of blood-temperature water. When the onion is done, tip in the sage and spices, cook out for a minute, then add the polenta and blood. Turn the heat right down, and cook, stirring, until it starts to congeal and thicken. Blood is very like eggs, so imagine a custard. You don’t want it to set yet. Taste (this is gross, more because of the raw polenta than the semi-cooked blood), and season appropriately. It wants a surprising amount of salt, and a free hand with the pepper.

Take off the heat and stir in the back fat – you want it evenly spread through the bloody porridge. Pour into your loaf tin, which you cover with foil and place, on a folded tea towel, in a good deep oven tray. Pour boiling water to just under the lip of the tin, then carefully slide into the oven. Back for about 1 and a half to 2 hours, until a knife comes out cleanish, then leave to set overnight.

To eat, slice appropriately, and fry or bake until hot and crispy. Serve, perhaps, with black badger peas and black kale, on the shortest day of the year.