Season’s Eatings

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Deck your plates with the best produce that’s in season over Christmas

Where fresh, seasonal British produce is concerned there’s no such thing as a bleak midwinter.

December might seem less bountiful than the warmer months when berries fill bushes and tomatoes are ripe for the picking, but that is exactly its charm.

It is a time to discover the beauty of simple veg and make the most of its creativity-inducing versatility, to think outside the box when it comes to flavour combinations, and to celebrate the cosy comfort food recipes that our ingredients are perfect for.

There is no excuse for flying produce over from the other side of the world, and quite frankly would you want tomatoes with your turkey at Christmas?

Putting down roots

Root veg is the mainstay of a British winter and it would be wrong to overlook the possibilities of a humble parsnip or carrot. Our ancestors certainly didn’t — how do you think we ended up with carrot cake?

But while some root veg is available all year round, other less common roots need to be savoured while you can. Nutty Jerusalem artichokes — delicious eaten raw in salads or roasted as well as in soups and sauces — are a short-lived annual treat, while salsify, with a subtle
taste similar to oysters, is worth tracking down at a farmers’ market or on a restaurant menu.

Horseradish is another root which is in its element around Christmas time. When freshly grated, the fiery, mustardy vegetable is a world away from the jars of supermarket sauce.

The greens party

The brassica family, which includes cabbage and kale, is in its absolute element at this time of year, boasting deep green leaves packed with flavour. The Savoy cabbage, lightly cooked in a little butter, is a particular highlight — its bold, rounded leaves are every bit as impressive and majestic as the classic London hotel of the same name.

Then there’s a veg which is as synonymous with Christmas as a mince pie, though more divisive. 2016 may have been dominated by our relationship with Brussels, but as a nation we’ve always had a bit of a love/hate thing going on when it comes to sprouts.

Rather than boiling them to death like your mum does (sorry, mum) try roasting them until they go slightly crisp around the edges or stir-fry them with a little chilli or Five Spice. Seasonal doesn’t have to mean same-old.

Meat of the matter

Turkeys were only introduced to the UK from America around 500 years ago but they quickly became associated with Christmas and now many people would dream of eating nothing else on the big day. While much of this is to do with fashion, seasonality is also key. Birds born in
the spring will just have reached a ripe age and plump size by the time December comes around — perfect for us, perhaps less so for them.

Game birds are also in their prime at this time. Goose, partridge and pheasant are often served as alternatives to turkey, and are rich gutsy meats for winter days. Venison is also bang in season, ideal for wellingtons or pastry-topped pies.

Go nuts

What else would you roast on an open fire at this time of year but a chestnut or two? Well, you could give hazelnuts and walnuts a go too as they’re also in season right now. Use any of these nuts to add texture to your cooking: toss a few in with your greens, crumble them into a root vegetable mash, or add them to stuffing.

They can be used in pudding too, add chopped hazelnuts into the mix for the top of a late season apple crumble for added crunch and flavour. Seriously, go nuts — they’re a good addition to just about any dish.

The finer things

There’s no shortage of luxury at this time of year, either. If you happen to have a clever pig with a good sense of smell to hand, or are looking to splash out at the deli, then there is no better time to indulge in truffles — try them sliced into mash for a luxuriously posh potato dish. Oysters are at their best at this time of year, too.

Overseas additions

Finally, rules are always made to be broken and there is some room for food from further afield — but only in moderation. Across the Atlantic cranberries are at their plumptious best across America and Canada, while closer to home Spain is producing sensational satsumas and
clementines. Conveniently, both of these go rather well with our native produce: cranberry and turkey is as classic as it comes, and clementine zest will bring new found life to our winter veg. Just make sure you remember which is the star of the show.

Preparing my favourite dishes and going back to basics

Chefs in fine restaurants worldwide are ever more committed to keeping ingredients local, seasonal, and simple. Three to four well-prepared and carefully plated items are enough to please anyone’s palate and to provide an interesting variety of tastes and textures. Your restaurant should draw upon locally sourced produce picked at the peak of flavor and freshness; local or regional artisanal cheeses; beef, lamb, pork, and chicken (and eggs) from neighboring farms; and the freshest seasonal seafood. Strawberries, blackberries, raspberries, and blueberries are worth waiting for when picked and served in season, and there are many ways to serve them.

Diners themselves have driven this growing movement to fresh and local ingredients. Frozen and processed foods were restaurant staples until customers became more knowledgeable about the food they eat, what it contains (additives), and what it does not contain (nutritional value and flavor). The convenience of frozen food cannot be denied, especially when it may be stored for weeks, but the appearance and flavor of fresh ingredients challenge and inspire the chef you want for your restaurant. Properly handling fresh food in the kitchen requires expert organisation and preparation in order to produce a plate of simple foods with their complex and delicious textures and tastes intact or enhanced.

Preparation and presentation are crucial also. The simplest roast chicken may be paired with a fresh and flavorful vegetable; a local, artisanal cheese may be served with fresh seasonal fruit; lamb from a local farm needs no more than a salad of fresh greens and a vegetable. At Swan at Shakespeare’s Globe, for a fine example, you may choose Onion Tatin, with whipped goat curd and wild herb salad, or Herb Fed Chicken, with black and red quinoa, fennel, caper and wild fennel dressing — and select from a freshly prepared vegetable such as Roasted Heritage Carrots or Potatoes. What ingredients could be more fresh, more simple, and more local? How they are prepared is what makes them extraordinary. If your restaurant is known for its simple and excellent preparation of seasonal and fresh ingredients your customers will return for their personal favorite dishes and your reputation will grow.

For more information on our current dishes.

View our current menus at Swan London: http://www.swanlondon.co.uk/menus/
View our current menus at Swan in West Malling: http://www.theswanwestmalling.co.uk/menus

About Diccon Wright

Christopher Diccon Wright is a restaurateur and property specialist who has established and grown successful operations in the UK and Mediterranean. He has also worked on a consultancy and advisory basis for a wide range of food and property clients.