Sunday, 2 December 2012

What's in Season... December

The weeks have been whizzing by since the end of the autumn; the temperature has dropped dramatically, and the early evenings are suddenly at their darkest and dullest. December must be here. Time to look forward to Christmas dinners and fine seasonal fare to brighten up the cold dark days and festive tipples and desserts to cheer up the gloomy evenings. In Seasonal Food Paul Waddington once again gives hope to the seasonal gourmet stating that, in December, rich, warm, comforting food abounds...

With Christmas approaching thoughts turn, of course, to the "seasonal" turkey - the cream of the crop being bred especially for Christmas orders, so a good time to enjoy a high-quality bird. Pheasant is also at the peak of its season (which runs usually from October to February) and makes a nice change from the often bland flavours associated with the Christmas turkey. After buying three pheasants from Radwinter Wild Game Company at the Mill Road Winter Fair this weekend, I'm busy hatching plans for pot roasts, casseroles and delicious pairings of seasonal flavours. Waddington suggests braising pheasants with celery and adding port to the roasting tin to create a rich jus.

Another seasonal treat firmly associated with Christmas is the versatile and tasty parsnip. Good for roasting, making fancy chips, or adding to mashed potatoes and soups, the root vegetable is a sweet treat, at its best when crispy and caramelised on the outside and soft and fluffy inside. Waddington advises matching the parsnip to a roasted joint of beef, serving with white fish, and even using to make wine! Lucky for us in Cambridge, East Anglia's soils and climate produce the perfect parsnip so there'll be plenty to go round for experimenting with. 

Two of my favourite, but often overlooked, vegetables come into season this month: celeriac and celery. Mild and sweet with a very slight hint of herby, aniseed flavours, the celeriac tastes fantastic roasted and served alongside a simple meat or game dish. I still remember the first time I tried the winter vegetable: it was served roasted in cubes, simply seasoned, alongside a rump steak with a generous helping of stilton sauce. More recently I enjoyed raw celeriac, in a classic rémoulade of finely grated celeriac in mustard-flavoured mayonnaise and created my own take on the dish using fennel and scallops. Here in East Anglia we should certainly be celebrating the celery season, too. The vegetable, according to Waddington, was traditionally grown in the rich black soils of the Fens and has already been spotted on fruit and veg stalls all over Cambridge this winter. The Fenland celery is an essential partner to rich Christmas cheeses and a very flavourful addition to the inevitable Bloody Mary.

Which brings me to the highlight of the British food calendar, eating British cheeses Stilton and blue Wensleydale at their true seasonal peak. Most cheeses are now available all year round and, I must admit, the seasons have never stopped me enjoying a varied cheese board whenever I feel like it! In Seasonal Food, Waddington's chapter on December goodies includes an interesting explanation of why the rich, luxurious cheeses traditionally come out at Christmas. In short, the gallons of milk required to make cheeses like Stilton and blue Wensleydale will, by Christmas, be coming from cows eating winter fodder rather than fresh grass, giving an extra richness to the cheese that merits a special place on the Christmas dessert table. Now educated on the production process, I'll be seeking out a big block of Stilton from a Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Nottinghamshire farm and asking what the cows have been eating before I buy!

What's your favourite seasonal food to enjoy at Christmas?

Enjoy! :-)