Nigel Slater: ‘I love the crackle of winter’ | Life and magnificence


The icy prickle throughout your face as you stroll out into the freezing air. The piercing burn to your sinuses, like wasabi. Your eyes sparkle, your ears tingle. The rush of chilly to your head is stimulating, important, energising.

The arrival of the primary snap of chilly is invigorating, like leaping into an ice pool after the lengthy sauna of summer season. Winter looks like a renewal, no less than it does to me. I lengthy for that ice-bright gentle, skies of pale blue and comfortable gray gentle that’s without delay calm and mild, recent and crisp. Away from the stifling airlessness of summer season, I as soon as once more have extra power. Winter has arrived.

It is as if my total childhood was lived out within the chilly months, a decade spent togged up in duffel coats and mittens, wellingtons and woolly hats. To this present day, I’m by no means happier than when there’s frost on the roof and a fireplace within the fireplace. I’ve at all times most popular snow underfoot to sand between my toes.

I really like the crackle of winter. The snap of dry twigs underfoot, boots crunching on frozen grass, a fireplace spitting within the fireplace, ice thawing on a pond. The innate crispness of the season appeals to me, like newly fallen snow, frosted hedges, the primary recent web page of a brand new diary. Yes, there’s softness within the chilly months, too, the voluminous jumpers and woolly hats, the steam rising from soup served in a deep bowl, the sunshine from a single candle and the much-loved scarf that may really feel like a burden at another time of 12 months.

We all know winter. The mysterious whiff of jasmine or narcissus caught within the chilly air, the unhappiness of spent and blackened fireworks the morning after Bonfire Night, a row of pumpkins on a frosted allotment spied from a prepare window, the magical alchemy of frost and smoke. Winter is the scent of freshly lower ivy or yew and the infantile pleasure of discovering that first, crisp layer of tremendous ice on a puddle. It is a freckling of snow on cobbled pavements and the golden gentle from a window on a darkish night that glows like a Russian icon on a museum wall.

As the season slides into winter, there’s the return of chestnuts and candy potatoes, cream-fleshed parsnips, fats leeks

Winter meals is about each celebration and survival. It is about feasting and frugality. It is the meals of hope – lentil soup for good luck on New Year’s day, and the meals of affection – the mug of scorching, cardamom-spiced chocolate you make for a liked 1.

As the season slides into winter – you possibly can really feel the heavy, candy air of autumn turning crisp and clear with every passing daybreak – there’s the return of chestnuts and candy potatoes, almonds of their shells, cream-fleshed parsnips, fats leeks and muscat grapes with their scent of sugary wine and honey. There are squashes formed like acorns and others that resemble turbans to bake and stuff and beat into piles of fluffy mash; pomegranates – I like to see 1 or 2 lower in 1/2 on the show so we all know whether or not we’re shopping for jewels or pith – and correct big-as-your-hat apples for baking.

The recreation birds are lined up on the butcher, their featherless breasts stored heat by fatty bacon and a bay leaf. Partridges, pheasants and quail to roast; pigeons to convey to tenderness slowly with purple wine and onions, and quails to separate, skewer and grill till their pores and skin blackens and their bones crunch. As the winter wears on, we see the primary of the turkeys dressed for the feast, fats geese and hams able to boil, bake and slice.

1 November: A toast to the winter solstice

There are drinks I make particularly for a winter’s evening. A tiny glass of apricot brandy, glowing like a candle, the fruit steeping quietly for a month with orange zest and star anise. A liqueur made with dried figs and fennel seed, and one other of sticky prunes in candy amber wine. Served very chilly, in diminutive glasses, the drinks heat, soothe and delight. The different contenders are the new drinks – the mulled ciders and spiced mixtures. Drinks that can soften anyone’s frost.

A scorching apple drink for a chilly evening

Slice an apple in 1/2, then into quarters, discard the core and pips, then lower each bit of apple into 2 thick segments. Warm 3 tbsp of apple juice in a shallow pan, add 2 tbsp of brown sugar and decrease within the apples. Let them cook dinner till the apples are comfortable, stopping earlier than they disintegrate. Remove from the warmth.

In a deep, stainless-steel saucepan put 100ml of brandy, 400ml of cloudy apple juice, a clementine, 3 cloves, a stick of cinnamon, 3 allspice berries gently bashed with a heavy weight, and produce to the boil. Reduce the warmth, so the cooking continues at a delicate bubble for 15 minutes. Ladle into glasses, dropping a couple of of the cooked apple slices into every drink.

A welcoming drink, might I recommend, isn’t just about different individuals. Something good in a glass generally is a reasonably pretty technique to welcome our personal arrival dwelling. Finding a uncommon second of peace and quiet, there are certainly few better joys than pouring ourselves a drink as we curl up on the couch with a ebook after a protracted, laborious day. It may solely be a stolen couple of minutes, however I regard this time as deeply grounding. Something that, only for as soon as, is about nobody however ourselves.

The drinks that comply with are meant for any chilly evening. I additionally embrace makes use of for the fruits that stay after the liquor has been drunk. Fat, alcohol-soaked little fruits, every one pissed as a newt, that may be served as dessert.

Three dried-fruit drinks for winter: apricot, orange and anise

Golden nectar: three dried-fruit drinks.

Golden nectar: three dried-fruit drinks. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer

Deep, golden fruit notes here. Rather delightful after dinner, with crisp, dark chocolate thins.

Enough for 20 small glasses
dried apricots 500g
orange 1
star anise 4, whole
brandy 300ml
granulated sugar 150g
sweet white wine 300ml

Put the apricots into a stainless-steel saucepan. Using a vegetable peeler, slice thin strips of zest from the orange and drop them into the pan. Add the star anise, brandy and sugar and bring to the boil. Stir until the sugar has dissolved.

Spoon the apricots and star anise into a sterilised preserving jar, then pour in the liquor (breathing in at this point is highly recommended) and top up with the sweet white wine. Seal and place in a cool, dark place for a good fortnight (better still, a month) before pouring the amber-coloured liquor into glasses.

The fruit
Once the ravishing, honey-hued liqueur is finished you will no doubt want to use the plumped-up fruits for something. My first suggestion is to serve them, whole and fat with alcohol, in a beautiful glass with a jug of cream at their side. Even better, perhaps, is to serve a thick, strained yogurt with them and a scattering of toasted, flaked almonds.

Figs with maple syrup and anise

The remaining fruit – bundles of joy, soft as a pillow, juicy as a xiaolongbao dumpling – should not be wasted.

Enough for 20 small glasses
granulated sugar 250g
maple syrup 100ml
dry white wine 750ml
aniseed ½ tsp, dried
figs 500g, dried
vodka 250ml

Put the granulated sugar into a medium-sized stainless-steel saucepan and add the maple syrup, white wine and aniseed. Cut half the figs in two, then put them into the pan. Bring to the boil, then lower the heat and let the figs simmer for 20 minutes until soft and plump, and bloated with wine.

Spoon the figs into a sterilised storage jar, then pour over the liquor. Pour in the vodka, then seal and place in a cool, dry place for three or four weeks, or, better still, until Christmas.

The fruit
Later, once the liquid is gone, you would be wise to use the alcohol-laden figs for something. Two or three hidden in the depths of an apple crumble are fun, as they would be in an apple pie. (I often have a couple straight from the jar, as a treat when I have finished the ironing.) They also make a fine addition to a slice of plain cake, taken with coffee, mid-morning, and served as a dessert with a spoonful of deepest yellow, clotted cream. The thick sort you can cut with a knife.

Muscat prunes

You can most certainly drink the mahogany-coloured liquor here, but I really make these marinated fruits as a little extra, something to serve alongside chocolate mousse or milky panna cotta.

Serves 6
prunes 250g
golden sultanas 125g
muscat or moscatel 750ml

Put the prunes and sultanas into a sterilised jar, then pour over the muscat. Seal tightly and leave for a month before drinking.

A treat in store
Once you have poured the liquor into glasses, you are left, happily, with a jar full of delicious detritus. You could put the sultanas and prunes into an elegant glass and serve them with a spoonful of vanilla-scented whipped cream and a tiny silver spoon. Or you could spoon the fruit over vanilla ice cream, or frozen yogurt, letting its syrup trickle down the frozen ice. I wouldn’t exactly say no to finding a pile of these sodden fruits sharing a plate with some fluffy ricotta cakes hot from the frying pan on a Sunday morning.

We can get more adventurous, using them to shake up a dish of stewed apple for breakfast; serving them alongside a slice of sugar-crusted sponge cake or with home-made vanilla custard. The wine-drenched fruits can be tucked into the almond filling for a frangipane tart or used in a trifle of layered crumbled amaretti, custard and mascarpone.

Possibly the best idea of all came about quite by accident. After a long day of photography for this book, I sat down with a glass of the apricot and fig liqueurs, accompanied by the plumped-up fruits. On the table was some gorgonzola, though it could just as well have been stilton, stichelton or any of the other blues. The marrying of the blue cheese and the velvety, wine-filled fruits was simply gorgeous.

5 November: Fire and baked pears

In my part of London the fireworks start mid-afternoon. Barely visible against the milky grey sky, their startling beauty is wasted. At twilight, the cascades of pink, silver and green explode high above, sometimes to cheers of delight. I have never quite understood the draw of fireworks, but a bonfire is a different matter. The smell and crackle of dry twigs, the flames, smoke and glowing embers have always held a certain magic for me.

There is no party tonight, no fire lit in the garden, just the occasional glances at a particularly extravagant cascade of lights over the East End. Instead, we sit round the fire eating fat Italian sausages, creamed leeks and beans. And to follow, a bowl of ice cream and searingly hot marmalade pears, whose glowing bittersweet sauce tastes like cinder toffee.

Leeks, beans and Italian sausage

Take comfort: leeks, beans and Italian sausage.

Take comfort: leeks, beans and Italian sausage. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer

This is one of those good-natured recipes that can be multiplied successfully for large parties, or made earlier and reheated as necessary.

Serves 2
leeks 3, medium
butter 30g
water 100ml
olive oil 2 tbsp, or a little pork fat
sausages 4 (400g), plump ones
vegetable stock 250ml
cannellini or haricot beans 400g
parsley chopped, a handful

Cut the leeks into rounds about 1cm in length and wash them in plenty of cold water. Bring the butter and water to the boil in a wide pan with a lid, then add the leeks. Cover with a piece of greaseproof paper, or baking parchment, and a lid. The paper will encourage the leeks to steam rather than fry.

Warm the oil, or a little pork fat, in a frying pan and cook the sausages, slowly, over a moderate heat. Let them brown nicely on all sides.

Leave the leeks to cook for 8 or 9 minutes, until they are tender enough to take the point of a skewer with little pressure. Pour the vegetable stock into the pan and continue cooking for 2 minutes, then tip the leeks and their cooking liquor into a blender and process until almost smooth. (It is important not to fill the blender jug more than halfway. You may need to do this in more than one batch.)

Return the leeks to the pan, drain and rinse the beans and fold into the leeks. Heat briefly, stir in the parsley, and serve with sausages.

Marmalade pears with vanilla ice cream

Sticky situation: marmalade pears with vanilla ice cream.

Sticky situation: marmalade pears with vanilla ice cream. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer

The hot, translucent pears and the glossy apple and marmalade sauce are wonderful with vanilla ice cream. There is a point, after about 45 minutes, when you need to watch the progress of the sauce carefully, lest it turn to toffee. A nonstick roasting pan is essential.

Serves 4
pears 3, medium
apple juice 200ml
orange marmalade 150g
Marsala 1 tbsp, sweet or dry
honey 1 tbsp, heaped
vanilla ice cream to serve – 8 scoops

Set the oven at 190C/gas mark 5. Peel the pears (skin can be tough, but it is up to you) cut them in half, and scoop out their cores. Cut each half into 3, then place them in a nonstick roasting tin. In a small saucepan, bring the apple juice, marmalade, Marsala and honey to the boil, then remove from the heat and pour over the pears.

Bake the pears in the preheated oven for 20 minutes, then turn them over. At this point they will look decidedly uninteresting, but carry on anyway. Let the pears bake for a further 20 minutes, then watch them carefully. The sauce will be bubbling now, the colour of amber and rising up the pears. Test them for tenderness – a small knife should slide through them effortlessly. They should be translucent and soft as butter. If they aren’t quite ready or if the sauce isn’t syrupy, give them a further 5 minutes.

Let them rest for 5 minutes. Serve them with the vanilla ice cream.

12 November: A pot roast partridge

Partridge does it for me. Expensive without being prohibitive, neat, lean and sweet-fleshed, they have a sense of jollity to them that I suspect comes from the carol. (There are no songs about a guinea fowl.)

The clever trick and indeed the point behind pot roasting is the small amount of liquid added to the casserole. Under a tight lid, the moisture produces steam that keeps the flesh of the birds juicy. The roast partridge, by the way, is a neat little dinner for one. I eat them from early September until early February, often as a plain roast. Covered with bacon and smeared with dripping, they will roast to rose-tinted perfection in 25 minutes at 230C/gas mark 9.

I tend to remove the bacon after 10 minutes to give the breasts a chance to burnish. I throw in a chipolata or two if I’m feeling frivolous, or a slice or two of black pudding for the final 10 minutes of cooking. Cabbage is a splendid accompaniment. Green and bright as an emerald.

Pot-roast partridge with parsnips and smoked garlic

Pot of gold: roast partridge with parsnips and smoked garlic.

Pot of gold: roast partridge with parsnips and smoked garlic. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin for the Observer

Serves 2
banana shallots 3, or small onions
parsnips 2, medium
smoked garlic 4 cloves
olive oil 3 tbsp
partridges 2
chicken stock 250ml
thyme 6 sprigs
juniper berries 10
double cream 125ml

Set the oven at 180C/gas mark 4. Peel the shallots and slice them in half lengthways. Peel the parsnips and cut them into chunks the length of a wine cork. Peel the garlic. Warm the oil in a casserole with a lid, lightly brown the shallots, parsnips and garlic in the hot oil, then remove. Season the birds with black pepper, then brown lightly in the oil. Remove the birds, pour in the stock and bring to the boil, scraping at any delicious debris in the pan and stirring it into the stock.

Return the birds and vegetables to the pot, tuck in the sprigs of thyme, and season with a little salt. Lightly crush the juniper berries and add them, too. When everything returns to the boil, cover tightly with the lid and place in the oven for 40 minutes.

Remove the partridges, wrapping them in foil to keep them warm, then place the pot over a high heat and reduce the volume of liquid by half. It won’t thicken but will instead give you sweet, creamy juices. Stir in the cream, check the seasoning, then make sure all is thoroughly hot. Serve the birds in shallow bowls or deep plates, spooning over the vegetables and the juices. You will need a spoon as well as a knife and fork, and something with which to wipe your fingers.

The Christmas Chronicles by Nigel Slater (published by Fourth Estate, priced £26) is book of the month at the Guardian Bookshop. To order a copy for £17.99, go to or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders minimum p&p of £1.99

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