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Village Food & Drink

Fire and feast

Posted on November 29 2013 at 1:57:20 0 comments

Hawthorn berries

Mary Green celebrates the turn of the year with traditional treats.

This is the time for celebrations of the plenty of the year, stoking up for the harsh realities of January and February.

Long before Christian times there were midwinter festivals in northern countries. Common elements were feasting, fire and the rebirth of the year.

People made as much warmth, noise and food as possible to fight off winter dark and rekindle the spark of new life. Even in our modern times we follow a lot of these practices.

And there has been bounty this year! I learned a new word – it has been a “mast year”. This is a year where trees and shrubs have had an exceptional crop of nuts, fruit and berries: the word “mast” is still used for the fruit of the beech tree.

You could see it around this autumn: the ground thick with acorns under the oaks, edible sweet chestnuts, glossy conkers, hawthorns and apples trees laden with fruit.

This kind of year comes rarely, a combination of weather factors. It will be a good year for holly berries.

The turn of the leaf was very late, but my ash trees had a spectacular few days before the autumn storms got them. Oaks stayed green well into November.

I find I am thinking nearly every year that autumn leaf colour comes later. I heard a scientist saying recently that this is true: climate change means earlier springs and later autumns.

Even though some of our springs don’t come so early because of our immediate weather conditions, autumn is almost always later now than it was 50 years ago.

When we look at celebratory winter food, there are two obvious themes. One is meat, especially game, beef, pork and poultry. The other is sugar and all things sweet, including imported fruit.

These are of course things that were usually unavailable in winter for ordinary people, so were part of special feasting. They also fit with how people lived.

Meat and poultry killed in autumn meant animals didn’t have to be fed through the winter. Game was killed out of its breeding season. Sugar preserved fruits after the end of their season, and imported oranges and raisins filled the gap when your fruit crop had finished.

Unfortunately neither sugar nor meat is a special treat these days. Imported oranges and dried fruits aren’t anything unusual.

The winter spread can often seem like an even less healthy diet than normal. But the urge still seems to be there to make mincemeat, roast potatoes in goose fat, and warm sweet mulled wine.

If we are going for something special, we can try one of the older breeds of turkey, reared free range, a properly hung piece of mature beef or rare-breed pork, or a good free-range goose or duck.

The flavour is worth the extra expense. Last Christmas I had a rib of Withybed longhorn beef so big it would hardly fit in the oven!

I understand there will be some locally reared meat from Soay sheep, an ancient Hebridean breed, on sale in December at Cooper’s Farm. This will be hogget: too old for lamb and too young for mutton.

Eating young lamb is a bit like eating baby sweetcorn: a kind of foolish conspicuous consumption. Let the lamb grow and you can feed more people off it, and it tastes better.

There won’t be much left to forage when you get this, but you may still find sweet chestnuts. There are trees around here, and I have had some good roast ones already this year.

The last time I remember finding enough to be worth eating was 2006, but they are worth the wait! They are great savoury with poultry and game or in vegetarian roasts, or can be part of a sweet – nice with apples.

They’ve been around a long time, having been introduced by the Romans, much longer ago than the more familiar horse chestnut. If you want to see some really fine ancient chestnut trees, go to Piper’s Hill Wood between Bromsgrove and Hanbury. They have beautiful ridged, twisty bark. But don’t forage there – it’s a nature reserve.

One of the best winter treats, which is not expensive or fatty, is red cabbage with chestnuts. Finely slice red cabbage and add sliced onions, garlic and apples. Turn in some hot rapeseed oil for a few minutes with spices – pepper, cloves, maybe juniper – and add red wine and chestnuts.

Slow cook and let the aroma fill the kitchen! Somehow the red colour adds to its festiveness. And of course, buttery, garlicky sprouts and chestnuts can even convert non-sprout-eaters.

You should find other nuts this year: I have seen English walnuts and cobnuts on sale. Nuts are another traditional Christmas food. They are very good as a source of protein, and do well both in stuffing for poultry and in vegetarian nut-roasts (a much-mocked food which can be delicious.)

They complement grains and beans to provide the whole range of protein needed if you don’t eat animal products. Any nuts just lightly roasted in a dry pan are delicious, or dress them with a little tamari soy sauce or salt and pepper for a savoury, or spices and honey for a sweet treat.

We don’t preserve food in the ways we used to, now that we have freezing and chilling. Now, English apples and pears can be kept as they are all through the winter. They are kept in strict conditions without air or warmth. This way they need no preservatives.

The ability to keep apples through the winter has reinvigorated the English apple industry. You shouldn’t need to buy imported apples until well into the spring.

Previously the main ways of keeping fruit were using sugar, or alcohol, combined with the exclusion of air, or drying. My mother used to bottle apples and pears in sugar syrup (as well as storing them raw in the attic as long as possible). Now we all fill the freezer compartments!

Drying has gone a bit out of fashion, but is very effective. You can dry apple rings or pear slices, slicing them finely and putting them overnight in a very low oven.

Or you can make fruit “leathers” from pureed damsons or plums, again slowly dried to a thick strap-like consistency. These will both keep well. Although you don’t add sugar, they are very high in natural fruit sugars, so not reliable as one of your healthy five a day!

Sloe gin is the best known of our alcoholic preserves: you should have made it by now if you want to drink it at Christmas. This year I have made damson gin from my bountiful trees: you can do it without sugar as the alcohol is sufficient preservative.

You can of course experiment with other fruit and other alcohol: blackberry gin or plum vodka for example.

Mincemeat is a fine old tradition. It was originally made with meat, together with apples, dried fruit and spices. This sort of sweet/savoury mixture was a strong feature of medieval English cooking, and was the origin of Christmas pudding too.

Sugar, spices and alcohol helped to preserve meat. Nowadays only the suet remains from the meat, and that is often not real suet these days. But mince pies were luxurious enough to be banned by the Puritans when they wanted to get rid of the more licentious elements of Christmas celebrations.

To make traditional mince pies, use minced mutton, available at farmers’ markets, or if you can’t get that use hogget or lamb. I usually quickly sear the mutton in a frying pan with a little salt, so I can drain off some of the fat, leaving just enough to hold the mixture together.

Add grated apple, plenty of any dried fruit (try including some chopped apricots), chopped fresh lemon and orange peel, and all the wintry spices. These are nutmeg and cinnamon, possibly cloves or allspice and ginger.

There’s no need to add sugar – the dried fruit is full of it – and the mutton fat replaces the suet. Stir it all up briefly and add some brandy or whatever alcohol you like. It’ll keep a few days in the fridge, or you can freeze it for later.

Make the pies with ready-made pastry if you like, or make your own with wholemeal spelt flour for an extra special treat. It would be in keeping with the season to use butter in the pastry, or you can use English rapeseed oil.

The only problem with real mince pies is how to fit them into our modern diet. We’re so tied to savoury followed by sweet that we don’t know what to do with something that’s both. So have them on their own with some mulled wine or fruit juice – perfect Christmas Eve food.

Mulled wine is much better if you make it yourself: the ready-made kind is usually far too sweet. If you add some fruit juice to the wine you don’t really need sugar. Try cider or beer instead of wine too: both can be spiced and warmed.

If you have any left over berries in your freezer – blackberries or elderberries – blitz these into juice and strain them into wine with some spices – lovely! The same spices, of course: ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves. Don’t overheat it or you will lose all the alcohol.

The wassail is the traditional forerunner of our mulled wine. Usually it was mulled cider or beer. Wassail is the Old English “waes hael” – “may you be healthy” – and the drink was named after this toast.

The drink was ceremonial and celebratory. It was done at Yule (Christmas and New Year) and also at other times to bring good fortune to the cider harvest.

Cider or ale, or sometimes mead, was mulled with cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg and topped with slices of toast. So, you could literally drink a toast. Sometimes fruit was added. Shakespeare wrote about “When roasted crabs hiss in the bowl” – crabs being crab apples.

The wassail was sometimes taken round the orchards and the pieces of soaked toast hung on the branches as a blessing. It was also provided for visiting mummers who came round to big houses enacting plays at Christmas (described by Thomas Hardy in The Return of the Native) and later to “waits” or carol singers.

It was customary for the players and singers to ask for the wassail and in return to bless the household with good luck for the year. Mummers plays are still carried out, including our New Year’s one from the Alvechurch Morris.

I hear that the St Jude’s storm in October may have destroyed one of England’s most ancient cider orchards in Somerset, so I guess they didn’t wassail enough. At least we have now all heard of St Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

All these midwinter traditions have in common the turning of the year: the death of the old and the birth of the new. Christianity intensified them with the story of Christ’s birth becoming attached to this time of year.

The fires and hot drinks and feasting, and red holly berries, are all ways of banishing the darkness of winter and lighting the spark of new life.

Christmas food also reminds us of our links with the rest of the world – the spices, oranges and raisins coming from afar. I hope you have a chance to relax and enjoy the earth’s bounty this Christmas.

When the St Jude’s storm passed us by, I dug out this poem that I wrote in 1987 just after the great storm. I had just got a new job which was to change my life.

Lucky

Light my paper and stand clear
trees rain markets crashing
I ride the storm on my new broom
spelling my way forward

Head for the full moon
gunpowder in my nostrils

Can alter the clocks

Oh I would be a beech or an oak
shaped like humanity
such wild colour at my passing

Every year I burn

Put on a new cloak of gold
how I become it


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