I’m gazing out at a barrage of rain with a cold swirling wind. Inside the heating is on and there’s not even a yellow toffee as a reminder of Christmas past.
I fear we still have the worst of the weather to come with February freezes and the madness of March. Yet, despite the gloom, it could just be the perfect time for a vegetable grower. It would be insane to dig in this weather but what better moment to order the seeds for the new season and plan not only the beds but also the fabulous dishes those seeds will grow into? That’s the thing with growing, there’s always something to look forward to. For me looking at a seed catalogue is like perusing a wonderful menu. Every beautifully photographed packet heralds a new variety, spawning a plethora of culinary possibilities. It requires a discipline I lack. Every year I make the mistake of browsing the catalogues on an empty stomach and consequently any sense of logic or practicality is drowned in a meze of possibility.
I know I’m not alone. It’s the addiction that all veg growers cannot escape- just one more packet. In defence, it doesn’t pay to be too organized or structured about things. Growing fruit and veg is at the very least a game to play with nature. Some less laid back gardeners might see it as a battle but I have mellowed over the years to realise that whatever nature throws at me from storms, frosts, droughts floods to aphids, birds, weeds and slugs, I will always have something to satisfy my taste buds. So rather than a scientific approach, I let my hungry mind wander. Inevitably I order far too many varieties and in the height of summer, struggle to find homes for all the veg. This is the time when optimistic gardener must become creative cook. When you have raised a plant from seed and see it flourish to the point where it bears fruit, there is no way on this earth that the gardener will allow any of it to go to waste. It was this determination that fuelled my love of cooking and ultimately my book.
The plot is not all gloom this time of year and there’s still a bounty of delicious meals waiting to be harvested. It’s just not the glamorous spring summer and autumn plants. Most things this time of year are either invisibly buried beneath the soil or dark green and fairly ravaged by the elements. They are hardy. It’s not a word that sits comfortably with ‘gourmet’ but its important not judge these rugged tomes by their rather wrinkly, slug eaten covers. The very fact a plant has lasted through the darkest of months, with its hurricanes, floods and hailstorms should at least allow it to flourish at the table.
For me winter veg have an intensity of flavour and a distinctiveness that ensures I enjoy them every bit as much as their summer cousins. A celeriac mash soaking up a rich pork and apple gravy; kale crisps sprinkled on steamed cod and braised leek; a spicy parsnip soup or an indulgent cauliflower cheese make the effort of going outside to the plot more than worth it. I certainly won’t be forgetting the winter veg as I make this year’s order- they more than earn their place in the basket.