Winter Rations

Christmas is over but the lights are still on the tree and holly and ivy garlands still adorn the inglenook. The 'fridge is almost bare now and husband Dave has implemented his annual austerity regime which means that we eat a lot of rollmops and sauerkraut and things made with capers at this time of year because that is virtually all there is left in the fridge. Oh, and lentils. We've got lots of them. He gets a devilish glint in his eye when he cooks with an odd-ball array of ingredients whilst banging on about eeking out the rations for January. Luckily for me, he's a rather good cook and seems to take great pleasure in stirring up his evening concoctions, whilst I pour us a glass of wine (the last of the Christmas supplies) and manage the ambience...candles, music and making sure the dogs are settled nicely in front of the fire.

This morning I am up in my little room in the attic, gazing out over the bare branches of the shuddering field oaks. The wind is blowing, the rain lashing as Storm Eleanor flounces by, whipping up a fury of leaves and winter detritus in her sunless wake. I have no desire to step outside or go shopping for food on a day like this. Husband Dave and the Younglings (our four grown up children) can't stand this time of year. It is so dark, so gloomy. Dave says why would anyone in their right mind like the sound of rushing wind and the ensuing crash of destruction as tiles fly off the roofs, greenhouse glass shatters and garden chairs are tossed willy-nilly across the lawn? The days are lengthening now, I tell him. There's so much to look forward to, but he just looks at me balefully, shakes his head and says. "You're mad."

But I like the dark and the shadowless grey days which force you slow down and be a bit more contemplative and let ideas form for the coming year. I am thinking of food, of planning my vegetable garden as I do every year at this time. I look forward to Seedy Sunday in Brighton on the first Sunday in February to swap seeds or buy organic and open-pollinated varieties which I prefer to do. I also like to go to Tablehurst Farm in Forest Row to pick up some biodynamic potatoes for chitting so that I can plant them out when the ground warms up in late spring. I am merely a trier in the garden. I approach the venture with enthusiasm but no expectation of success, year after year. This year I grew one measly courgette. The slugs had the rest. A couple of years ago you could almost hear the courgettes squealing with growth, for weeks on end they appeared in droves with quite alarming taking-over-the world speed.

But for now, there's still food in the garden to add to our winter rations; a few leeks, sprouts, celeriac and kale (which is now sprouting kalettes up the stalks of the plants - these are just little new kale leaves which I noticed are selling as a rather expensive delicacy in some of the more up-market supermarkets). We've got plenty of hardy herbs too such as rosemary, bay, sage, thyme and parsley. The vegetable garden is looking a bit shabby by this time of the year, but we won't go hungry and to be honest, although I firmly believe in not making new year's resolutions (because I fail at them instantly and thus fall into a slough of despond), I quite like a bit of rationing after the Christmas feasting.

For me, January is the time to indulge in envisaging delicious summer meals created with food freshly picked from the garden, from the first broad beans and rhubarb of late spring to the abundance of hips and haws, pumpkins, tomatoes, roots and fruits of autumn. I love the thought of planting, of the continual harvesting as soon as things begin to ripen, and especially cooking on the hoof with whatever we've gathered that day.

From fork

When I cook I'm inspired by the seasonal ingredients to come up with a meal, rather than following complicated recipes and trawling the shops to find fancy ingredients. If you come to stay with us we hope you'll enjoy the food, and you can be certain that you won't be on rations. If you choose to have an evening meal you can be sure that it will be freshly cooked on the day and that it will always have fresh ingredients from the garden.

Now then, what to do with all those lentils?

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