Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Winter in the Kitchen

We live on a hilliside in Co Cork between the valleys of the Bride and the Blackwater and from our kitchen window there’s a panoramic view stretching from, on one side, a great deal of West Waterford and, on the other, a vista that extends towards Mallow and the Ballyhouras.

It’s not just the view that makes it a lovely place in which to live; we also have our own few acres of woodland, a mixture of ash, sycamore, beech and the odd Scots pine and occasional birch. The wood takes more maintenance than I’ve given in recent years: you need to keep ivy under control or trees become top-heavy and can snap in a high wind and the paths become overgrown with brambles very quickly if you don’t spend quite a lot of time out with the brushcutter. I also need to take out quite a few trees which are growing too close together or which lean the wrong way. If I get around to it we’ll have free firewood for several years,

There’s something rather wonderful about having your own firewood. Fallen branches provide about 50% of the fuel we need to keep our two stoves burning during the colder, wetter months. All we have to do is saw them into suitable lengths and let them dry out a bit.

In the centrally heated and poorly ventilated environment in which so many of us live these days, we often forget what winter is like. Last Sunday I spent in the wood dragging branches down towards the yard; hands numb, mud-spattered but happy.

After a few hours of such activity it was wonderful to come back to the kitchen, the heart of which is the Aga (oil-fired and hence an expensive luxury); to thaw out in that domestic glow as the smell of cooking – winter cooking – filled the room.

Thanks to the Aga which not just heats the kitchen and our hot water but also takes the chill off the rest of the house, and our stoves, and plenty of insulation we’re usually warm enough to want to eat salads in Winter but we keep returning to proper Winter food: casseroles and stews, slowly cooked, transforming the tougher parts of animals into something sublime.

It’s a time of year which I associate with flavours like thyme and garlic which might join together with some cheap red wine or a bottle of beer to accompany shin of beef on its slow journey to delicious, melting tenderness. It’s the season when Irish stew (with carrots and pearl barley) cooked with the spuds on top, all in one, comes into its own. It’s when fluffy mashed potato, enriched with plenty of butter and a little hot milk (never cold or even tepid) is an essential for moping up richly flavoured gravies.

It’s also a time when we return to our roots, as in carrots, beetroot, celeriac and the like. Plus, of course, tubers like maincrop potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes. Yes, by the time Spring comes around again we are gagging for fresh green things from the garden (or even from polytunnels in Spain) but for a while the heavier produce of Winter seems very apt.

Winter is also the season of spices. Not those new-fangled ones which we have all embraced so wholeheartedly in recent years: chilli, ginger, coriander and their ilk. But the ones with which many of us grew up: cloves and cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Put those together with raisins and sultanas and some candied peel and you have the aroma of Christmas.

When there’s frost outside there will be hot whiskey (with cloves and lemon and brown sugar) and hot chocolate with marshmallows on top. There will be slow-cookers working their simple magic while their owners go out to work, and an urgent, nururing need to pour hot soup tenderly into frozen children just returned from school.

Yes, it’s Winter in the kitchen and I’ll be thinking of this as I saw the next batch of logs. (ends)

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