I enjoy winter. There’s sometimes a moment when you feel the days could be longer but, on the whole, it’s a time to light the fire and have a dram. The British seasons are precise and short and marvellous: nature writes the menu for you. Winter’s limitations should be enjoyed — when something is in season, eat lots of it, because it’ll be out of season again soon, till next year.
This is the right time for pies, stews, braises, steak and kidney pudding, oxtail… stickiness is always good when it’s chilly. Dishes like these are a bit like a winter wardrobe. I’d happily eat oxtail all year round, but it does lend itself to cold, dark days. As does suet: little dumplings with boiled beef (salted brisket, brine it yourself then boil it with carrot and onions), served with horseradish and pickled walnuts. If you can get everything on one forkful, it’ll be a pretty mighty one. We’re coming to the end of the game season, which is slightly sad. But good food is still falling out of the sky. Game birds have a fantastic way of being the perfect size for lunch: nature’s portions.
If it’s cold outside, you’ll want to spend more time in your kitchen. There’s something very comforting about the smell of a hare braising. People are funny about time: they say they don’t have enough of it to cook. But you can pop a hare in the oven with a little wine, and those three hours become better time than they would have been otherwise. Some might say that’s three hours cooking, but you can have a martini or read or have a bath.
The British midwinter means sprout tops, cabbage and spring greens. You know those pictures of dinosaurs (stegosauri). Eating sprout tops has a dinosaur quality. I eat them buttery, by the bowlful. Delicate sea kale starts surprisingly early – steam it and, again, eat with melted butter.
And what could be more steadying than mashed potatoes, in fact all root vegetables? If you know Florence train station, you may know that it has a beautiful alabaster roof. Well, you can make a swede cake, with layers of swede, olive oil, garlic, pepper and salt, which has the same slight translucency. And to cook parsnips, I like to mix duck fat and Dijon mustard. The sweetness of the parsnip and the ‘nyeh!’ of the mustard go perfectly together. Remember to be excited by vegetables and cabbage.
It might be a bit stormy out there to rely on a good catch, but fish pie is calmness itself. I’m a big fan of making it with just smoked haddock. Other vital constituents are a good white sauce, made with the milk you poached your haddock in, and boiled eggs, not too hard. You must have frozen peas on the side — fish pie without peas is sad. Oysters, of course, have a place on the winter table: it’s the perfect time for them. I prefer no 3 natives. The joy of a native is that little tease of sea.
Lunch is fundamental. It gives structure to my day. Without it, disaster might ensue, who knows? I also have this theory about elevenses. I think they should be compulsory. You’ve had time to wake up and touch your extremities — what’s better than a slice of seed cake and a glass of Fernet-Branca? There’s a comfort there: it’s a warming, steadying moment.
Comfort is a theme with winter food — I don’t know why we should need so much comforting. Food should be steadying, but it should also be uplifting. Toast, straightaway, has a steadying quality. But devilled kidneys on toast can be uplifting. Kidneys have a resistance and squeak, which I find stimulating.
Tripe and onions will sort you out. Tripe sounds cold and slippery but, in fact, is most soothing and strokes you. In Lancashire they cook it with onions and milk. In Wiltshire, where I go to see my folks, we might eat game birds, boiled beef, oxtail… and good homemade chutneys and pickles. We seem to have lost our inclination to fill jars. There’s nothing like having a jar of chutney up your sleeve for turning yesterday’s chunk of ham into a feast.
Don’t underestimate soup. For years I was wary of it, but now I have great respect. It’s a January thing. We’ve had the festive season — now it’s time for soothing potato soup. In terms of hefty bowlfuls, if you eat oxtail on Saturday, you can have the leftover broth on Sunday with dumplings. For the best vegetable soup, cook your vegetables in butter, with a ham bone if you like, cook them right down, add some gunge — aioli, green sauce — and your humble potage becomes a bowl of winter joy. It’s best if there’s another element. You shouldn’t think of soup as just a bowl of damp. It’s a springboard for… garlicky toast, or angel wings of ox tongue, thin slivers you can slip into the bowl.
I’m a big fan of puds, and a little chill in the air probably helps to stimulate the appetite for things like jam roly-poly, with jam you made in the summer, and lots of custard (suet pastry has need of lubrication). Or Sussex Pond Pudding, which should only be eaten during the winter months, or you might do yourself in. A quince is a fabulous thing — if you imagine what a winter fruit should taste like, it would probably be quince. They go this wonderful colour when cooked, or you can pickle them. Pickled quince is fantastic with cold meats. Or you can make quince cheese (membrillo as the Spanish call it), stewed quince, quince crumble, quince a-go-go!
Pulses are a good winter thing: there’s not as much of an English tradition of growing and drying beans, but we do have pease pudding. At St John we make it to serve with partridge or faggots. In one of GK Chesterton’s Father Brown books, two characters go into an inn and cry out, ‘Landlord, bring us beans and bacon and a bottle of your finest Burgundy.’ That, to me, sums up our gastronomic inclinations when it’s cold outside and warm inside. Make sure your cupboards are full and tuck in.
For St John Bar and Restaurant, contact stjohnrestaurant.co.uk. Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail Eating (£16.99) and Beyond Nose to Tail (17.99, both Bloomsbury) are out now.