The January kitchen

Cooking seasonally is one of the joys of growing some of your own food and shopping locally. Every month has its own special ingredients. After the post-Christmas back-to-basics simplicity, I crave a burst of citrus and the colour of sunshine to sustain me through the cold and dark days of January. It’s usual at this time of year to leave for work and to return in pitch darkness so how about making a few jars of luminous, gloriously sticky, blood orange marmalade? A practically perfect way to while away an hour or two on a January weekend.

Seville oranges and blood oranges are readily available in the farm shops in January. They are also available in Lidl and Aldi, so don’t think I’m smug because of the discount we get as a result of the youngest’s weekend job. I used to think that marmalade-making was a bit of a faff but over the years I have experimented and this recipe works every time. Use about a kilo of sevilles to 500g of blood oranges, 2 lemons, 2 kilos of preserving sugar and 2.5 litres of water.

First remove the buttons from the oranges, halve them and juice them over a sieve into your jam pan. Do the same with the lemons. Scoop the middles out of the fruit and put all the pulp and pips into a muslin sack. Tie up and add to the pan. Slice the skins of the oranges to your preferred thickness with a sharp knife. I find the repetitive nature of the task remarkably soothing. (My mother would find this evolution in my character highly amusing. The harem-scarem girl I was would NEVER have had the patience.) Add these to the pan along with the water.

Bring to the boil and then simmer on a low heat for a couple of hours until the peel is tender. Do a spot of weeding in the garden, read a book, watch a film or mark a set of student exercise books, if you must. Remove from the heat and set the muslin bag aside in a bowl.

Once everything is cool, squeeze the muslin bag over the pan, scraping in any sticky liquid. Add the sugar and gently warm, giving it an occasional stir until it has dissolved. Turn up the heat and bring to a rolling boil for 20 minutes. Ensure you regulate the heat so that it doesn’t boil over. If it does, your sense of eudaemonia will be destroyed and you’ll spend the rest of the weekend scrubbing the sticky mess from the top of your hob.

Do the wrinkle test by dropping a little onto a frozen saucer, leaving it for a minute and then pressing with your finger. If it wrinkles, your marmalade is set. If it doesn’t, avoid being consumed by a creeping sense of your failure as a Nigella tribute act and continue boiling for another 5 minutes. Repeat the process. It could take up to half an hour to achieve a set. During this time you will doubtless panic about what to do if it doesn’t. This is normal. Hang on in there. It will work.

Once setting point has been achieved, skim off any scum, ladle into sterilised jam jars, seal and label. Stow away in the pantry until needed. If you’re lucky you’ll find a few jars next Christmas when you’re looking for home-made gifts for friends and neighbours.

Any leftover blood oranges can be redeployed to craft a scrummy blood orange poppy seed loaf. There are a few recipes online. Another opportunity to get creative and an excuse to get some exercise during the daylight hours, working off the calories. I’ll be gardening.

Plants in the classroom

Plants affect your mood. They lower anxiety and blood pressure, decrease stress levels and increase concentration. Perfect in a classroom, then. All of us have an innate tendency to seek connections with nature. Biophillia has been big news for many years. Some GPs have started to prescribed time in nature as a cure for stress; gardening is a well-recognized therapy for PTSD and depression; just putting your hands in the soil stirs up microbes in the soil and inhaling these microbes can produce serotonin which makes you feel relaxed and happier.

I am so lucky that my current classroom overlooks a city park. In my last school, it overlooked the science technician’s greenhouse and the approach to the playing fields. The seasons change in front of my eyes through the window from one term to the next. But I do love filling my classroom with plenty of indoor plants too.

At this time of year, when daylight hours are limited, it’s good to remind yourself that Spring is on the way. A few pots of bulbs are an effective aide memoire. If you’re uber-organised, you’ll have ordered bulbs in the summer, had them delivered in the Autumn, potted them up at weekly intervals and stored them in a cool, dark until the shoots appeared, brought them out into a bright spot and watched them grow. Less efficient individuals can pick them up for a few pounds ready – planted at a supermarket or garden centre.

Whichever option you choose, once they’ve bloomed, leave them in a corner somewhere to die back and you can pop them in the ground to enjoy again for many years to come. I like the idea that pupils at all the schools I have ever taught at have been able to enjoy bulbs I’ve planted, long after I’ve moved on.

Brighten the January days with some hyacinths, daffs or crocuses, perk up your mood and, if you’re a teacher, you’ll be helping your students to concentrate too.

Festival of the month: Twelfth Night and the Holly Man

I’ve never been one for the upscaling of festivals and a blatant disregard for seasonality. No strawberries in December, no birthday weeks and definitely no Christmas all year round. The beauty in being a Celt with a passion for the ancient festivals is that there is something new to celebrate every few weeks. It brings a rhythm to life which is grounding and healthy.

January may be dark and drear but it is an opportunity to bring an end to Christmas by celebrating Hen Galan or Twelfth Night, perhaps in Tudor style or in a more homespun fashion. You may even go wassailing. I’ve only recently discovered the Holly Man of Bankside, which combines many (or all) of the traditions of this time of year. Bedecked in greenery, the main man arrives over the Millennium Bridge in London to the accompaniment of  Wassailers and mummers who perform a traditional play featuring St George. After the play, cakes are given out and those who find the concealed bean and pea in their cakes are crowned King and Queen for the day; a procession then makes its way to the George Inn on Borough High Street for more dancing, mulled wine, the Kissing Wishing Tree and storytelling. What more could you want from a winter festival except for an orchard of your own, a recent snowfall and all your neighbours coming together to look forward to a good harvest later in the year?

All being well the Bankside festival should be tomorrow at 2pm. The festival is free and goes ahead whatever the weather, as festivals should. We’re not in London any more but I can definitely see the attraction. You might go if you’re in London and it’s safe to do so. In COVID times you might recreate your own festival in the garden, embrace the atavistic, bang a few pots, drink mulled cider, wave goodbye to Christmas and look forward to fruitful times ahead.

Plant of the month : January Snowdrops

I’ve decided to feature one plant from my garden every month this year. They’ll be easy-to-grow cottage garden plants, good for bees and other pollinators and often native to the British Isles. This month it’s the humble snowdrop. These beauties are popping up already. I remember them blooming more in February and March in my youth. Symbolic of innocence, purity and hope, they really are the perfect flower for January. When all the excess of Christmas has been cleared away, there’s an innate need to pare back and simplify. In current times it’s also good to reflect that something so delicate can tough out the coldest month of the year, adapt to freezing conditions by drooping their flowerheads down and opening up again when the temperature rises. It’s a lesson for us all.

They’re native European plants, although I think they were introduced to Britain by the Romans – along with ground elder. (I know which I prefer in my garden.) There’s folklore attached to the snowdrop too – formed after the fight between the Winter Witch and Lady Spring, symbolising Spring’s ultimate victory over Winter. The Victorians thought of them as a sign of death however – probably because they grow prolifically in churchyards – that they shouldn’t be cut and brought indoors, believing they brought bad luck to farmers, affecting cow’s milk and discolouring butter. I don’t tend to cut snowdrops for the vase. Maybe it’s the influence of my deep agricultural roots or just a feeling that these flowers are better featured when nodding their heads outdoors.

Plant them in partial shade or full sun, pointy side up in groups of 25, about 3 inches deep. Wear gloves, because the bulbs can irritate skin. I prefer to plant in the green in March, rather than from dry bulbs. When established, allow them to die back (letting the leaves go yellow) before cutting them back. When uber-established you can dig them up and divide them, spreading the love around your garden or giving them away to friends and neighbours. They do well under trees in our garden before the leaves form a canopy.

If you don’t have snowdrops in your garden this year, mark a place where they could go and order some to plant in the green in March. Then this time next year you’ll be watching them poke through the soil, a harbinger that the days are lengthening and spring is on its way.

Christmas 2021: On the threshold

One of the best New Year’s Eves ever. Low key – and all the better for it.

We pottered, went for an impromptu wedding anniversary lunch, saw the children off to spend the evening with various friends, watched a bit of telly, drank wine and read books by the fire. In bed tucked up by midnight, listening to the bangs and pops of garden fireworks nearby, I pondered a little on the threshold of a new year and the hopes, expectations, possibilities it holds; I gave thanks for 2021. Much has changed, a lot has remained constant. Above all however, my priorities and I have changed.

Perhaps the lesson of 2021 is that if you take pleasure in the small gifts life offers up and live in the moment, a sense of contentment will inevitably follow. Crossing the threshold this New Year’s Eve has been a gentle stroll on a misty day. When the mists clear I’ll follow the path that feels right.

Christmas 2021: In the Country

You can’t top a country Christmas. Somehow the values of the season – simple, slow living in the company of family and friends, hunkering down beside a crackling log fire, sharing hearty meals, long walks, good books and big skies are rooted in the country. Country folk are masters of upholding the family rituals of years gone by and the cost-effective creativity of homemade gifts at the expense of unrestrained commercialism.

I stumbled upon a series of programmes on catch-up – I suspect made by the Countryfile team – about Christmas in the country. It was a comforting watch in spite of the uber-styling. Nigella clad in a scarlet coat and pristine wellies walks an adorable dog through the woods then returns to her fairylight-festooned kitchen grotto. She quickly whips up chocolate and pistachio treats to be shared with impossibly attractive, jolly friends around the garden firepit as the snowflakes flutter down. My life is less styled, more homespun and mud-splattered and yet there have been a wealth of perfect country Christmas moments over the years.

Many of the pleasures of a country Christmas are in the preparations for the day itself of course: making a door wreath from foraged greenery; drying orange slices to hang on the tree or to adorn gifts; baking an enormous Christmas cake or popping a batch of mince pies in the oven to the strains of Carols from Kings; making chutneys, piccalilli, sloe gin or cherry brandy to give as presents. And whilst Christmas Day is a day for family, Christmas Eve and all the days between Boxing Day and Twelfth Night are full of delights to be had further afield. Some of my highlights over the years are documented here.

Nativity Plays Long before The Vicar of Dibley filmed the iconic pet service and the Netflix ‘Nativity’ loop existed, we held a nativity play in the stable of a local farm. Candle lanterns, straw and a range of farm animals are a health and safety nightmare obviously. Somehow we got away with it. This year’s nativity took place on the village green in the drizzle using the wooden shelter as a stable. Many children came dressed in their nativity costumes, joined in and it was all the better for it.

Carol singing – singing features significantly in any country Christmas. Whether standing around the tree on the green or wandering around the village with an accordion and charity buckets it’s good for the soul. A bag of Fisherman’s Friend lozenges to share is optional.

Candlelit Crib services and Midnight Mass – There’s something quite magical about little children singing Away in a Manger in candlelight on Christmas Eve, even if you are praying not for peace on earth but that your toddler doesn’t set light to the hair of the child next to them with their taper (hands protected by a cardboard square a few inches beneath the flame). As I recall this is the reason we have a large collection of sealed candle lanterns around the house. Gradually during the service the crib figures are set in place. I remember fondly the year when we were asked to deliver the baby Jesus to the crib as the parents of the youngest member of the regular church congregation. It proved a far more significant moment than many people would have realised as our infant son was much-longed for and arrived after a series of miscarriages that everyone we knew were completely oblivious to. Midnight Communion services also hold a special place in my heart. Heading to church after an evening of Monopoly to meet up with friends and neighbours and welcome in Christmas Day; then home to see if Santa has remembered where the contents of the childrens’ stockings have been secreted.

Boxing Day Boules – Whilst a sea swim is underway in my native Pembrokeshire, in our part of Wiltshire the village turns out for the annual boules tournament on the green. By 10am on 26th the green is marked up and cordoned off and teams of four challenge each other in a knock-out tournament. Gluwein flows, university students at home for the holidays reconnect, grandparents pass on tips to their grandchildren and teenagers take on their parents. Children are keen to show off new toys, bikes and scooters and then the whole village repairs to the pub for sausage rolls and a leisurely pint. Occasionally this lasts all day and includes choruses of Alouette led by one of the more merry village elders, perched atop a bar stool.

Morris men and mummers plays – the village morris men (and women) are always keen for an opportunity to jangle their bells energetically around the village on Boxing Day and work off the excesses of Christmas Day. There’s plenty of hospitality for them too from villagers who appear out of their houses with plates of Christmas cake, cheese straws and the odd nip of whisky to ward off the cold. This year there was a traditional mummers play too. I remember at least two village pantomimes after Christmas too and a vivid emerald green costume in which I created the role of Fairy Liquid. Happy Days!

New Year’s Eve safari suppers – a particular highlight for a number of years was the village safari supper on New Year’s Eve. Couples agreed to take on a starter, main course or pudding for six (four and themselves) and someone with more tact and organisational skill than me managed to achieve the impossible. The Russian roulette of not knowing either what you would be eating, where or with whom until minutes before was the perfect way to see out the old year and welcome in the new. Having spent the evening visiting a different house for each course by midnight we were all upstairs in the pub comparing culinary experiences, singing Auld Lang Syne and hugging each other. Of course there was the year when our main course hosts presented the first vegetarian option they’d ever cooked ( fish pie – no kidding!) with great ceremony and my co – conspirators produced Oscar-winning performances to keep our hosts out of the way whilst I fed my portion to the cat and the magical millennium eve when we’d just found out I was pregnant and couldn’t let on.

However you’ve spent Christmas this year, I hope you’ve been able to reflect on happy memories of years gone by and made a few new ones. This is our first year without any of our parents being alive and with three grown-up children in the house. Time moves on, ready for them to embrace some Christmas traditions of their own and what better place than the country?

Happy Twelve Days of Christmas.

Christmas 2021: In the City

We used to live in London.

From time to time I miss the buzz of Christmas in the city……ice skating at Somerset House, a wander through the Christmas market in Trafalgar Square, authentic pizza and gelato in a busy eatery in Covent Garden, the fair on the South bank, shopping (for books, smart boots and the odd sparkly party dress) and lights.

Lots of lights.

A few years ago we all took a trip on the London Eye between Christmas and New Year on a crisp, sunny day. This year the weather was grey but the lights were just as bright.

Christmas 2021: A Walk on Boxing Day

A Boxing Day walk is traditional; in more recent years around Stourhead. It’s here that we’ve walked off the Christmas excess of roast potatoes, our own bodyweight in cheese and, this year, a raspberry roulade that would have fed the entire avenue. We’ve been there on crisp, cold days with grandparents – now achingly no longer with us; with friends when the snow was melting; on grey days, just the five of us when clouds hung low and gloomy. We’ve completed reindeer trails with our three lively pre-school explorers and imbibed gluwein or hot chocolate beside the Christmas tree in the thatched cottage with them transformed into teenagers who raced ahead together, chatting or sporting headphones. There are dozens of happy memories woven into the fabric of the place. Rarely though has it felt less Christmassy than today.

Perhaps the Christmas spirit had been packed away carefully by the National Trust staff until the after-dark Christmas light event. It’s hard to sparkle all day long when the weather makes it feel more like October. Three cornus ‘Midwinter Fire’ (I have one in the garden) put on a brave show near the temple of Apollo however, as an aide memoire that we have just celebrated the Winter solstice and there was room for a mince pie or two in the cafe. Finding it difficult not to roll my eyes at the conversations taking place around us about how keen people were to dismantle Christmas “now that it’s over” I popped into the shop to pay for the last cornus in the plant section and carry it home. A celebration of Christmas 2021- still at its height in our house – and of those yet to come.

Driving back home in the late afternoon, the mists were beginning to weave and curl through ancient forest on either side of us, caressing the gnarled bark of ancient oak and ash. There’s still midwinter magic to be savoured if you open your eyes and your hearts to it.

Christmas 2021:Midwinter fire

I’d hoped to spend the evening at a village gathering, round a fire pit, drinking gluwein and singing Christmas carols but it didn’t work out. So I made my own fire to celebrate the solstice and the return of light in the form of a quick batch of delicious chilli jam.
A kilo of preserving sugar, the better part of a couple of bottles of cider vinegar, a dozen red chillies and a couple of pointy red peppers deseeded and chopped finely put on a rolling boil for 10 minutes and poured into sterilised jars when cool, setting and the scarlet flecks are evenly distributed and suspended in the jam.

So easy and uber delicious.

Christmas 2021: Homemade

Homemade presents are the best. I was all set to make a batch of chilli jam for friends when I stumbled upon a batch of marmalade I’d made (and forgotten to label) at the back of the pantry.

Fifteen minutes with the pinking shears and an offcut of starry material and these jars of jewelled loveliness are ready for delivery around the village tomorrow. We might even combine it with a jaunt around the advent windows and Carol singing with mulled wine and mince pies around the firepit at the outdoor village eatery.

Just the job to celebrate the Winter solstice.

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