Hunkering-Down: The Virtues of the Winter Larder
The garden is bare. Our attempts at growing winter vegetables have not been successful, thwarted by rain, zealous slugs the size of mice, and unexpected frosts (unexpected only because the last two winters here have been extremely mild). The leeks have been washed away, the kale capsized in the wind, and the chard has been stunted by the cold. There is also little foraging available around here at this time of year. The rosehips are beginning to blacken, the blackthorn is bare, and the haws have been devoured by feverishly hungry birds.
With the beak January weather – it rains most days, and the sky is a steely grey – and the national lockdown announcement made by the UK Government earlier this month, the lure of the warm, cosy fireside has rarely felt stronger. On days like this, there is hardly anything that will tempt me out of the house, so I seek solace in the store of jarred goodness I have laboured over in sunnier days to pull me through the winter months.
Here, in our larder, so many products of our summer gluts and foraging trips are preserved, ready to warm the harsh winter months. There are still a few meagre teaspoons of dried nettles for tea left over from late spring. I have always loved that magic moment when the dull green leaves are doused in hot water to be magically transform into their former selves once more: a moment of spring resurrected. Then there’s a sweet raspberry vinegar, as well as the rapidly decreasing supply of elderberry balsamic I made a few short months ago. It’s a very popular choice in this household. My recipe for it can be found here.
There are stacks of jars full of green tomato and apple chutney in one corner of the larder; this chutney – originally made to use the last of the apples – proved vital during the Christmas season as a steadfast accompaniment to cheese boards. I swear we were eating chutney and cheese on a daily basis, and yet it hasn’t made a dent in my stash, not to mention the remaining jars of quince mincemeat. Mince pie season may be over, but Sam is now trying to convince me to make Eccles cakes: I welcome any recipe recommendations!
My tomato ketchup, made from the last of the tomato glut, is an experienced veteran of the larder now, and it makes the best bacon butties in the whole world when made using homemade bread – I salivate now at the thought of it. There’s sloe gin, cherry brandy, and Nigel Slater’s Christmas Chronicles recipes for fig and aniseed infused white wine, and dried apricot and orange brandy: a plentiful selection of toddies for lazy Sunday nights. You can probably tell that we are not a household that goes-in for that dry-January business! It is with immense pride that I see my hard work stacked and piled high (to the point of tumbling in some instances): the time and effort spent to make all these things, bringing the flavours of summer into the depths of winter months, knowing that nothing in those gluts has gone to waste.
But it isn’t just the home-made delights that make hunkering down in the winter months bearable. Grains, pulses, pastas, cans and sweet delights: these are the ingredients we think of during these cold, dark days. If summer food is an abundance of fresh leafy-greens, the plucking of bright tomatoes and strawberries, and beets smelling sweetly of the earth, then winter food is tall glass containers with popping lids, filled like sweet jars with pastas all different shapes and sizes, lentils green and orange, and other pulses in shades of beige and ecru. Winter larder food is the sound of rice, grains or orzo pouring into steel saucepans, the feeling of split-peas in the palm of your hand, or the smell of hot tea and sweet winter biscuits after a long blustery winter walk.
Summer food is often quick to cook; the ingredients gracing your fridge, kitchen surfaces or cupboards briefly as each new vegetable or fruit is enjoyed soon after cutting or picking to make the most of its freshness and goodness. The hardy winter larder endures on the other hand: the bottles of dried thyme and rosemary, the cocoa and the vinegars all become familiar faces – winter friends - every time you open the larders wooden doors wide.
We eat more meat in the colder months, and relish slow-cooked meals where our store-cupboard staples are perfect additions to a rich spaghetti bolognaise or a winter ragu, as well as forming the body of many slow-cooked dishes, like the handful of pearled barley in a venison stew. The larder forms the backbone of our cooking, contributing to those meals that fill the house with the deep smell of red wine and spiced meats.
So, while it is true that I am looking forward to the warmer days – lunch on the patio, the vibrant colours of summer food – but while the wild winds blow and howl outside, and the outside world can look so daunting and frightening, I am content… no, more than content, I am happy to stay at home, hunkering down, and enjoying the comforts of my humble larder.