Sunday, 22 November 2015

Winter Comfort

Dear Nigel,

I am at the stove making your 'Butternut and red onion gratin' ( page 441) today. It needs to bake for 'a good hour and a half', so, with a little planning and forethought, it can be left to work its magic whilst I get on with other chores like cleaning the bathroom (my least favourite job). Even with a lovely new bathroom it is my least favourite job. I am sure it is an attitude of mind and if I can just persuade myself of the BENEFITS then I might make swifter progress. Perhaps if I give it a deadline of 20 minutes, or provide a small edible treat for myself on completion. It apparently works on dogs, so why not on humans?

The thing I love most about this dish is its comfort factor. There is nothing nicer than wandering through the kitchen and smelling the culinary alchemy taking place within the depths of the oven as the appetite within you builds. Winter food is all about comfort. There are knobbly balls of celeriac (which mash so well with potato and butter) and Jerusalem artichokes for sale in the wholesalers; vividly painted red cabbages like giant Christmas baubles tossed in feathers and sturdy rows of white leeks over by the counter.

I am in soup-making mode, making batches of soup to freeze for Christmas. I have just finished making one with sweet potato, butternut squash and smoked chilli, and have gathered ingredients together for a Leek and Stilton favourite. It is natural to be drawn to a warm stove at this time of year, stirring away the the darkness and driving thoughts of rain and fog back out into the cold as you gather the people you love around you, and the animals that are part of your world; wearing layer upon layer of warm jumpers and silly scarves and hats that tell the world that you "just don't care" when it comes to being warm inside. I recently bought a pair of sheepskin earmuffs which look simply ridiculous but, ohhh.., heaven on a pair of cold, red exposed ears when hats are not really my thing.

The season is finally changing to Winter and there are strings of Christmas lights going up in the towns and villages around us. We went to the annual switch on of the Christmas lights in the little village of Castleton on Saturday. The village was crowded along the main street with children on shoulders waiting for Father Christmas in his horse and cart; and Widow Twankey, heavy in make-up and bright silks, flicking the switch on the lights.

Strings of lights on full size trees lit up outside the little shops and cottages that line the twisting main street of the village. It was a suitably dark evening and there was hot chocolate and toasted tea cakes on offer in the cafe. Sophie and Molly did their Christmas shopping well into the evening as we trooped in and out of each of the little shops in turn. A huge Gingerbread house stood in the window of the Baker's shop decorated in sweets and jammy biscuits, and earrings twinkled in the windows of the gem shops. All the little shops had really made an effort with their decorations and the pubs were decked out and inviting as we gazed through the panes of yellowed glass and into the glow from the firelight and antique-style wall lights within.

Although many of the towns around us have bigger and grander switch-ons there is something personal and informal about the small village version: The compere on the tannoy, who fancies himself a bit of a comedian, cracking jokes and announcing all the coming events. A small village, famous for its caves and Blue John stone (which is unique to this place), Castleton also puts on some rather unique Christmas entertainment - Carol singing concerts deep within the caves in the hillside.

One Christmas I went along to one of these Carol concerts, and, standing or half-crouching in the kind of blackness where you can't even see your own hand in front of your face until it touches your nose, where voices around you echo with carols of old whose words (in all their verses) have become inscribed upon your consciousness over the years, seems instead to bring everything about you into sharper focus: There is cold, but stillness; a silence, but an echo of every tiny sound. It is something rich with which to savour.

The first snow of Winter fell over the landscape last night. We woke to a bright blue sky and a landscape of fondant icing as far as the eye could see. This first time always comes as a joy. The child inside is eager to get outside and find some excuse to crunch new footprints in the virgin snow before someone else gets there. I put on my snow boots and gloves and let the dog out to play in the snow. The cat is less sure she wants to stretch her legs in this unfamiliar scenery. She is soon back again, standing outside the backdoor and looking very sorry for herself. She is a fair-weather creature who would rather lie along the seam of the sofa like some miniature  version of a Trophy hunter's prize floor rug and soak up the heat from the fire.The purr she makes is like a car with its engine left running and her tabby stripes float out from a smile that John Tenniel would be proud of.

I take the giant snow shovel from the shed and clear a path out to the lane. We bring back a barrow of salt which the council kindly leave at the end of the lane in case it should freeze. There is no snow plough or gritter here - just me and my snow shovel and a long lane to clear. At the moment it is only two or three inches deep - nothing really - but when the snows get going then I usually park at the far end of the lane for even the landrover can get stuck snowed up to its axle, and digging it out is a lot less fun than it sounds...

We sit and eat our meal. It is lovely but incredibly rich. Jim and I both agree that it would make a better accompaniment to a loop of Cumberland sausage because we are unused to such richness on its own. The wholegrain mustard - a hefty dollop - gives a lovely tang to the cream and creme fraiche, but something to cut against this richness would be welcome. I mark it as such in my copy of your book -for there will most definitely be a next time.


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