Krystian Morgan takes us on a meander through winter eating, seasonality and diet designs. As new year resolutions wane, he makes the case for choosing a diet of happiness this winter.
Wrapped in heavy woollens, the under-seat heating firing up beneath our tuchis, we set off equipped with eager appetites to my parents’ house for dinner. It’s New Year’s Day, and we’ve been making the best of these cold, sunless evenings by seeing family as much as we (and they) can bear and filling our stomachs to capacity with rich, comforting food.
In these cold months, I crave only hot food. And food, even more so than usual, occupies a sizable quota of my daily thoughts. I’ve decided it’s something redolent of the past, a sense-memory, a human-animal instinct, rather than my being a glutton. It’s this conclusion that rallies me through the day-long eating marathons of the holidays; we’re capable of incredible feats with a bit of resolve, and a little self-delusion doesn’t hurt, either. Time slows down – or at least appears to – and wills us to slow down along with it. Winter has refrigerated the flora, the bounty of our native crops have come and gone, and the hedgehogs and other small creatures become recumbent in makeshift holdings.
I look out the car window and, in our short four-mile jaunt, spot no fewer than seven joggers wincing in the damp, frigid air. These newly resolute (most at least) have togged-up in packet-fresh running attire. One, I’ll single out, has stuffed himself into a lycra all-in-one and is hugged by a slim backpack from which a tube protrudes, extending around his body and into his mouth. He doesn’t look real; he seems more like a 70s Bond henchman or a rejected character design from Michael Bay’s horrid Ninja Turtles reboot. The joggers elicit mixed feelings in me. A part of me admires them keeping their promises to do things better this year. But, a more cynical side questions their longevity beyond this surge. I think it’s their faces, which already appear laden with regret. We’ve all done it before, resigned ourselves to intense regimens once the new year is upon us, bought a FitBit with hopes to no longer be a fat-git, only to immediately rebel when faced with the punishing self-inflicted reality. It’s a fallacy of our future selves: we believe that whilst the prospect of reinvention is not possible today, our future self (that sucker) will somehow be able to shoulder the burden we levee upon him/her. Not only do we expect our shiny future selves to be disproportionately more active, we often expect they’ll happily chow down on spartan salads and other puritanical provisions.
Now, I’m not suggesting we abandon all plans for self-improvement and dive blindly into wanton hedonism, but rather that we don’t overload ourselves. That we should consider making lesser leaps and incremental changes that are more likely to become habitual – that we shouldn’t vilify ourselves if we struggle to live up to rigid expectations. It is also the lousiest season to start any outdoor activity. Although we all acknowledge it’s a new year, the earth carries on nonplussed to the significance we attach to the turns of a clock dial. Yes, it’s a reset, a blank canvas in many ways, but despite that, it’s also oppressively cold and languid; the landscape will not match your verve with new growth and warmth for a few months, and there are still colder days ahead. The mere idea makes me sink further into the toasty car seat and turn to thoughts of my parents’ log-burner imbuing their home with musky warmth and the steak that awaits me there: this, I feel, is a perfect start to my year.
In a time before supermarkets imported foodstuffs from around the globe, we’d sustain ourselves through this hibernal season with hardy root vegetables, bolshy brassicas and prudent preserves made from the abundant harvests of the summer/autumn months. These still feature on our plates and feel intrinsically right – especially when slathered in thick gravy alongside a choice of roast meats and tangy vinegared sauces. Whilst there’s an apparent convenience in acquiring ingredients all year long, no matter how alarmingly out of season they are for this country, it is too somewhat surreal seeing the likes of strawberries lining the shelves in January. Who eats fresh strawberries in January? It’s absurd. They appear amongst the fruit aisle like a mirage – the converse of seeing ice in the desert. I’m puzzled why they’re made available at this time of year because, clearly, it’s not for their taste. Is it done for the mere audacity? Have you ever picked a punnet’s worth of ripe berries in summer and the next day, after consigning them to the fridge, spotted how limp and bruised they’ve become overnight, like the cheeses, ketchup bottles, and broccoli all conspired to give them a good hiding? And those just came from the pick-your-own down the road, whilst the ones at Tesco’s made it here all the way from Egypt! It’s miraculous, really, but also confounding . . . why?
Seasonal eating is something food writers like to bang on about endlessly. Chances are a good portion of your cookbooks at home open with a heartfelt manifesto extolling the many virtues of this kind of temporal larder and divide their recipes between spring, summer, autumn and winter. It’s also a key criterion Michelin inspectors expect to see when evaluating our best restaurants. The underlying rationale is often sensible, convincing: when you eat food sourced locally and grown under their natural, intended conditions, you are getting them at their flavoursome best; the processes applied to make perishable food travel hemispheres intact hamper their taste and quality. In fact, from the moment fruit and veg are picked, they rapidly lose nutrients. The longer time passes between when it was plucked from the soil, branch or vine and makes it to your mouth, the less exceptional the eating experience becomes. Anyone who has bought and devoured veg picked that same day from a local farm store or pulled from their family allotment, or garden plot can attest to the difference.
Whilst these are all worthy reasons to follow a more harmonious existence with what our landscape provides us, for me, there is a more compelling reason to take heed. It is that seasonality makes food into an event. You look forward to their arrival, and their limited sojourn prompts you to make the most of them whilst they’re here. In late April, when lines of asparagus spears have sprung into life and made it into the shops, I cannot eat enough of them. Dressed simply with some oil, salt and pepper before a brief but fierce burnish over hot coals, they are spritzed with fresh lemon juice and eaten hot alongside barbecued skewers of peppers, vine-ripened cherry tomatoes and halloumi: heaven. When the prolific courgettes appear in July, they do so like that mythical Greek beast, The Hydra, because whenever you cut off a young marrow, two more seem to grow back in its place. These find their way into a myriad of dishes: rustic ratatouilles, leek and courgette risottos, raw (if baby-sized) in salads and no end of pasta dishes. There are broad beans in May, gooseberries, and of course, the best strawberries in June, but Winter, I must confess, is the season my appetite covets the most. Swathes of happy-looking squash are roasted until golden or blitzed into soup. Celeriac and Jerusalem artichokes make marvellous alternatives to roast spuds in their own right but are also a surprising treat in a mash. I’m even an unabashed sprout fancier, and whilst not everyone in my household shares my affinity for this maligned veg, they’ve consumed ample helpings disguised in cabbage and similar greens. Winter is also a time for homemade pies: crisp, buttery pastry encasing all-manner of uplifting fillings. It’s for bountiful stews and braises simmered-long for utmost tenderness. At their best, winter dishes are like a warm hug, and they are precisely the substantial, filling, and nourishing foods our bodies require to keep us solvent through these solemn months.
Now, we’re nearing the end of January, and everyone’s settled back into old routines. There are fewer joggers seen tottering along the pavements. And, although it’s easy to feel remorse for letting resolutions slip with the rigours of our daily life, try not to let it get you down. New Year’s Day may already seem distant in the rearview, but I hope you make the best of this year and listen to all those who wished you a happy one.