Note about the type
About the Book
About the Author
Also by Nigel Slater
About the Publisher
The icy prickle across your face as you walk out into the freezing air. The piercing burn to your sinuses, like wasabi. Your eyes sparkle, your ears tingle. The rush of cold to your head is stimulating, vital, energising.
The arrival of the first snap of cold is invigorating, like jumping into an ice pool after the long sauna of summer. Winter feels like a renewal, at least it does to me. I long for that ice-bright light, skies of pale blue and soft grey light that is at once calm and gentle, fresh and crisp. Away from the stifling airlessness of summer, I once again have more energy. Winter has arrived. I can breathe again.
My childhood memories of summer are few and precious. Picking blackcurrants for pocket money. A vanilla ice cream, held between two wafers, eaten on the seafront with my mum, seagulls overhead. Sitting in a meadow, buttercups tickling my bare legs, eating ham sandwiches and drinking dandelion and burdock. Pleading with my parents to stop the car so I could get out and pick scarlet poppies, with petals like butterflies’ wings that wilted before I could get them home. These are virtually the only recollections I have of those early summers. It is the winters that stay in my memory, carved deep as a fjord, as long and clear as an icicle.
It is as if my entire childhood was lived out in the cold months, a decade spent togged up in duffel coats and mittens, wellingtons and woolly hats. To this day, I am never happier than when there is frost on the roof and a fire in the hearth. I have always preferred snow underfoot to sand between my toes.
I love the crackle of winter. The snap of dry twigs underfoot, boots crunching on frozen grass, a fire spitting in the hearth, ice thawing on a pond, the sound of unwrapping a Christmas present from its paper. The innate crispness of the season appeals to me, like newly fallen snow, frosted hedges, the first fresh page of a new diary. Yes, there is softness in the cold months, too, the voluminous jumpers and woolly hats, the steam rising from soup served in a deep bowl, the light from a single candle and the much-loved scarf that would feel like a burden at any other time of year.
We all know winter. The mysterious whiff of jasmine or narcissus caught in the cold air; the sadness of spent, blackened fireworks the morning after Bonfire Night; a row of pumpkins on a frosted allotment spied from a train window; the magical alchemy of frost and smoke. Winter is the smell of freshly cut ivy or yew and the childish excitement of finding that first, crisp layer of fine ice on a puddle. It is a freckling of snow on cobbled pavements and the golden light from a window on a dark evening that glows like a Russian icon on a museum wall. But for each midwinter sunset, there is another side to this season. Like the one of 1962–3, when farmers, unable to negotiate deep snowdrifts, wept as their animals froze to death in the fields; the snap of frail bones as an elderly neighbour slips on the ice; the grim catalogue of deaths of the homeless from hypothermia. Winter is as deadly as she is beautiful.
A walk through the snow
It started with berries. Holly, rowan, rosehips. A project to record the plants, edible and poisonous, that we spotted on our walk to school. Two miles, in my case, of hedgerows to inspect daily. Hardly a project for me; I knew those hedgerows intimately, each tree and ditch, every lichen-covered gate. I knew which had wild sweet peas – Lathyrus odoratus – or primroses hidden by twigs and where to find a bullfinch’s nest. When you walk the same route every day on your own, you get to know these things. A tree you must duck to avoid a soaking if it has rained during the night; the progress of a slowly decomposing tree stump among the grass; a bush that delights with a froth of white blossom in spring that by autumn is a mass of purple-black berries. You get to know the site of the sweetest blackberries and the exact location of the wild violets, white and piercing purple, that twinkle like stars in dark holloways.
Even then I knew that hedgerows were sacred, the homes of birds’ nests and voles, hedgehogs and haws. I knew that the long, slim rosehips came from the single wild roses that are to this day one of my favourite flowers, along with the hawthorn. I knew too that my father’s name for hawthorn was ‘bread and cheese’, an ancient reference to the usefulness of its leaves and berries in winter. I also understood that the scarlet berries of yew and holly were never, ever, for consumption.
It was the berries left behind in the winter that held a special fascination for me. The darkening rosehips and hawthorn berries seen against a tapestry of frosty leaves; the solemn beauty of ivy and hypericum berries against a grey wall; a rosehip trapped in ice. Walking was part of my country childhood. A solitary one, but by no means lonely. Not that there was any choice. My father drove back to the Black Country during the week. We had just four buses, two on a Wednesday – one there, one back – and two on Saturday. A bike, you say? Not up the steep hills that surrounded Knightwick, with a gym bag and a leather satchel full of books. There were always books. We lived on the border of two counties. Home and school were in Worcestershire, the nearest shops in Herefordshire. The walks were wretched in summer, sweaty and hateful, full of stinging nettles and sunburn, but in autumn and winter each day was an adventure. I rarely got home before darkness fell. There was a moment, a patch of barely half an hour, when the sun would burn fiercely in the winter sky, just before it slid away, that I regarded as unmissable. Something I had to be outside for.
It was the walk to school that started everything. A life lived with the rhythm of the seasons. Not purely the food (miles from a supermarket or a greengrocer, we ate more seasonally than most), but the outdoors too, the landscape, the garden and the market. The sounds and smells that mark one season as different from another.
By the way, I kept that school project, neatly written in fountain pen, its berry-studded exercise books covered in dried leaves and curls of ‘old man’s beard’, for almost twenty years. Like pretty much everything I owned, it was destroyed in a house fire shortly after I moved to London.
Getting to grips with the season
Winter is caused by the movement of the Earth, the dark winter months appearing when the Earth’s axis is at its furthest point from the Sun. For all its bare twigs and pale, watery sunshine, winter is very much alive. Underneath the fallen leaves things are happening at a rate of knots; new life burgeons. Bulbs are sprouting, buds are bursting through grey bark, new shoots push their way to the surface. Many plants require vernalisation, a prolonged patch of low temperatures, in order to grow. Tulips, freesias, crocus and snowdrops, for instance. (I sometimes feel I do, too.) A secret world quietly doing what it does each year. A study in renewal, rebirth, new life.
Winter officially starts in Britain on December 21, the winter solstice, which is the shortest day. I feel this is slightly odd. You would expect the shortest day to be in the middle of winter, not the start, but it gets more complicated when you learn that the date varies from country to country. Sweden and Ireland, for instance, consider the start of winter as November 1, All Hallows’ Day. Agriculturally, it is Martinmas, November 11, that is considered to be the beginning. Some cultures also measure winter by temperature rather than by the calendar. Others ecologically or astrologically. In the northern hemisphere we generally consider winter to mean the months of December, January and February. Just to throw a further wooden spoon into the works, this book includes much of November.
The winter light. Stars and shadows
The winter sky has a clarity and gentleness that I find more pleasing than the harsh, screaming colours of summer. Softer tones, those clean, arctic blues, the whisper-soft greys and pin-sharp paper whites, are the skies I want to live under.
The night sky is clearer in cold weather too, the stars infinitely more visible. During the months of December, January and February we are no longer facing directly into the heart of the Milky Way, whose brightness has the effect of making our view of the stars hazy and blurred. In winter, with the planet facing the galaxy at a different angle, we see fewer stars, which is why they seem clearer on a cold frosty night. A clear case of less is more. Standing in the garden, even in London, it is easier to read the sky on a frosty night.
Shadows are more interesting in winter too. More fuel for the imagination. As the Earth tilts away from the sun, the shadows become longer. This is why, perhaps, the walk home is more scary on a winter’s night, because generally, shadows are seen as ghostly, eerie, even sinister. That said, it is true that most horror films and ghost stories are set on winter nights (if there is a summer ghost story, it has escaped my attention), where long shadows lend a suitably mysterious, spine-tingling atmosphere. I see them differently, thinking of shadows mostly as benign and fascinating. I often move lamps, furniture and plants in order to get a clearer, longer, more intriguing shadow.
The stillness of winter. Snow on a twig. A berry imprisoned in ice. The quietness of a frozen lake. The bareness of the winter landscape allows us to get a better view of the world we inhabit. No long grass and canopy of green leaves to confuse the eye. No fluff of blossom to deceive us (their blossom gone, cherry trees surely get the prize for the most boring trees on the planet), just the clean lines of a winter landscape. The architecture is clear and crisp. The shape of a tree, the path of a river, the outline of a barn, as clear as if they were drawn on a map.
I was brought up with the mother of all ‘views’, which as an eleven-year-old I somewhat took for granted. From our back door, an undulating landscape of meadows, woodlands, rivers, against a backdrop of the Cotswolds and the Malvern Hills. Snowfall would stay untouched for days, sullied only by the footprints of birds, rabbits, squirrels and foxes. (As a child I imagined wolves and bears too.) Walking in the plantation of Christmas trees that backed on to our long, thin garden was like a trip to see Mr Tumnus. No lamplight, but we had the moon to illuminate the frost-like glitter on a Christmas card. The joy of the little forest of fir trees in the dell was that they stayed cool in the hottest of summers too. A place for a child to hide and play.
The move to the city has brought an altogether different winter into my life. Shorter (city snow is gone in a heartbeat); frosted pavements trashed by pedestrians and the warmth from buildings; snow in London is as rare as hens’ teeth. I have lived in the city for thirty years now and have seen all too few proper winters. By proper, I mean those winters with snow deep enough to shovel. The bare trees, however, remain majestic.
I’m not sure you really know a tree until you have seen it without its leaves. Naked, so to speak. They are often at their most peaceful and romantic in winter, like watching a loved one asleep.
Without the diversion of leaves, deciduous trees take on a sculptural quality; we get the opportunity to see their bark more clearly, the dance and flow of their branches, their character and form. Large trees are bare for only four months before new leaf buds emerge, first as freckles, then as tiny, opening leaves. This is when I take them into the house; as large twigs break off the horse chestnuts in the street, I gather them up and stuff them, however large, into one of two capacious vases. The branches I value most are those that have a good horizontal, fluid form, large enough to leave a shadow across the table. As the season moves into spring, their leaves will often open, slightly ahead of those out in the cold. A gift.
Being out in the cold
Those who work outdoors probably have a different view of the winter landscape from someone like me, who simply plays in it. Fishermen, shepherds, road sweepers, farm workers, professional gardeners and those whose working life is spent mostly in the open air may have an altogether less rosy take on the season. Fair enough. Working in the fields, for instance, your fingers can soon become numb, your face raw.
Being outside in the cold is invigorating but we do need to keep moving. The body doesn’t like being cold and still, which in extreme cases can result in hypothermia. It wants to maintain a steady temperature. We shiver simply because the brain is sending a message to the nerves all over our body to move quickly to generate heat. We should listen to it.
I am rarely happier than when working outside. Digging, sweeping, walking, all do it for me. I find manual work in the cold as energising and life-affirming as much as I find it (deliciously) exhausting. Short trips around the garden punctuate my day. I walk rather than use public transport to go shopping. Each morning, I will usually saunter around the garden, coffee in hand, rain or shine, frost or snow. I live in hope of that last one.
Coming in from the cold
It is just as good to come in. You stamp to shake the snow from your boots. The flakes of snow on your coat melt instantly. Your glasses steam up. You close the door and thank God you remembered to put the hall light on a timer.
You hang up your coat, tug off your boots and light the fire. You will probably put the kettle on or pour yourself a drink. Not so much as a way to get warm, more to welcome yourself home. Home means more to us in cold weather. Making ourselves comfortable is a duty. Making friends and family comfortable is an art.
‘Come in.’ Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You’ll be safe here, toasty and well fed. ‘Come in.’ They are two of the loveliest words to say and to hear.
Having suggested someone might like to enter, then it is up to us to make them feel welcome. The words alone aren’t enough. And that is where the art comes in. There is almost nothing I enjoy more than welcoming visitors into my home. (Full disclosure, I quite like it when they go too.) But in between ‘in’ and ‘out’ I want them to feel wanted, comfortable (cosy even) and happy. Yes, warm, even in my rather chilly house, but also fed, watered and generally made to feel that all is well with the world. And yes, I know the world is a shit-storm at the moment, but we all need a safe harbour.
A welcome will invariably involve food, and never more so than at this time of year. No, I don’t have a tray of warm mince pies waiting. I don’t really live that sort of life, but I do like to have a cake of some sort in the house. Gingerbread in the biscuit tin (Lebkuchen if it’s remotely near Christmas), or a fruit cake. I am one of those people who, even in the twenty-first century, still makes fruit cake. Guests only get something savoury if they arrive in the evening, when I’m eating anyway. This house is always in a state of flux, being an office, photography studio and workspace all in one. But it is first and foremost a home, and I have always been a bit of home-maker. (The only thing I ever made in woodwork lessons at school was a coffee table, because I hoped it would make my unhappy adolescent home more hospitable.)
Our lives cannot always be about other people, love them as we do. We need some time for ourselves. I am never, ever without a book, but I do read differently in the winter. My feet curled underneath me, a blanket over my legs. I will always put another layer of clothes on rather than turn the heating up. I dislike, intensely, an overheated room.
But I am getting ahead of myself. It is the months prior to the arrival of the winter solstice – on December 21 – that I look forward to as much as anything. That first nudge that the summer is finally exhausted and we are slowly sliding into the golden days of another autumn. The slide is often protracted, but last year I distinctly remember the moment. We had eaten lunch in the garden, the last in a long, good summer of eating outside; the dahlias were collapsing into the flower beds in a tangle of burgundy and brown; the leaves on the medlar tree had turned as yellow as a ripe quince; dinner had been, at the last moment, bolstered by a dish of roast potatoes. Suddenly, from nowhere, the smell of drifting woodsmoke, and yet not a garden fire in sight, followed in a heartbeat by the urgent need for a jumper, another glass of wine. The season had, in the space of an afternoon, turned.
You either ‘get’ the cheer of winter, or you don’t. Some are rarely happy in fresh air. They only want to eat outside when the air is heavy and hot. But the mood is changing. We are, at last, seeing cafés hanging blankets and woollen throws over their outdoor seats for us to wrap ourselves in, as they do in Scandinavia. (Sadly, too many are often accompanied by the dreaded outdoor heaters.) I have happy memories of flasks of hot drinks on cold walks, of winter picnics of sugar-encrusted cardamom buns and hot coffee. And yet we have a long way to go before we see the cold the way some of our neighbours do.
The negative vocabulary of winter is well used. ‘It’s so cold’ is almost always said in a negative sense. ‘Yes,’ I usually say, ‘invigorating, isn’t it?’ A sentiment often met with a look of bafflement. We talk about ‘fighting the cold’, ‘battling the elements’, and ‘cold comfort’. The dead are ‘cold’ and we give people the ‘cold shoulder’. You can argue that statistically more people take their own life in cold countries. Yet those same countries, with their long winters and fewest hours of daylight, continually come out top in quality of life surveys. Go figure.
Eating winter – The food of fairy tales
Gingerbread biscuits with icing like melting snow; steaming glasses of ‘glow-wine’; savoury puddings of bread and cheese and a goose with golden skin and a puddle of apple sauce. There are stews of game birds with twigs of thyme and rosemary; fish soups the colour of rust and baked apples frothing at the brim. Winter is the time for marzipan-filled stollen, thick with powdered sugar, pork chops as thick as a plank, and rings of Cumberland sausage sweet with dates and bacon.
The flavours of winter come at us like paper-wrapped presents in a Christmas stocking. Ginger, aniseed, cardamom, juniper and cloves. The caramel notes of maple syrup, treacle, butterscotch and the damp muscovado sugars. Fruits dried on the vine, and preserved in sugar. Ingredients too that hold the essence of the cold months: red cabbage, russet apples, walnuts, smoked garlic, chestnuts, parsnips and cranberries. Winter cooking is clouds of mashed potato flecked with dark green cabbage, roasted onions glistening like brass bedknobs and parsnips that crisp and stick molasses-like to the roasting tin. The food of the cold months is fatty cuts of meat, the flanks, shins and cheeks that we can leave to braise unhindered in a slow oven, with onions and thyme, wine and woody herbs, plodding silently towards tenderness. Meat you could cut with a spoon. Winter cooking is ham with a quince paste crust; game birds with redcurrant jelly; treacle sponge and Lebkuchen, mince pies and marmalade tarts.
Winter food is about both celebration and survival. It is about feasting – roast turkey, plum pudding and fruit cake; frugality – bean soups and mugs of miso broth; it is the food of hope – lentil soup for good luck on New Year’s day and the food of love – the mug of hot, cardamom-spiced chocolate you make for a loved one on a freezing day.
There is a gleeful abundance to late autumn and winter shopping, and a feeling of urgency to gather up things while we can. The last of the late-fruiting raspberries and damsons well on their way to jam; the late white peaches and crisp-as-ice local pippins and russets; walnuts in their shells and green figs with their soft, powdery scent. Late on an autumn evening, as I turn the corner to do my vegetable shopping, the heavy, sweet ripeness of the season hangs in the air, the glowing melons and late plums, the pumpkins and the last of the runner beans. Tomatoes, green and orange, red and gold. This is as good as food shopping gets.
As the season slides into winter – you can feel the heavy, sweet air of autumn turning crisp and clean with each passing dawn – there is the return of chestnuts and sweet potatoes, almonds in their shells, cream-fleshed parsnips, fat leeks and muscat grapes with their scent of sugary wine and honey. There are squashes shaped like acorns and others that resemble turbans to bake and stuff and beat into piles of fluffy mash; pomegranates – I love to see one or two cut in half on the display so we know whether we are buying jewels or pith – and proper big-as-your-hat apples for baking.
The game birds are lined up at the butchers, their featherless breasts kept warm by fatty bacon and a bay leaf. Partridges, pheasants and quail to roast, pigeons to bring to tenderness slowly with red wine and onions, and quails to split, skewer and grill till their skin blackens and their bones crunch. As the winter wears on, we see the first of the turkeys dressed for the feast, fat ducks and hams ready to boil, bake and slice.
That said, I don’t go wholly along with the idea of winter food as a source of comfort and cossetting, solace and warmth. I still want a crackling fresh salad, a plate of fruit to finish my meal, food that refreshes. I don’t drop my need for a daily bowl of leaves and herbs lightly dressed just because there is frost on the ground and woodsmoke in the air. It is all here, by the way, in these pages.
Drinking winter – raising a glass
Nothing changes quite so dramatically with the seasons as what I drink. Gone the glasses of rosé in the garden as the evening light falls, the artisan gin, cucumber and tonic. Gone too the lemon verbena tea glistening like absinthe in its fragile glass pot. Winter brings a whole new type of refreshment. Hot cider in a thick glass, frothy cocoa in a mug, buckwheat tea smelling of toast and warm rice. The drinks of winter smell different, of cloves and cinnamon, honey and fruit, rice and smoke, damson and cardamom.
I make my favourite winter drink in early autumn, so it is ready for Christmas. Damsons, squirrelled away in a bottle of gin, as happy as a fruit could ever be. (The recipe, by the way, is in Tender, Volume II.) I make cocoa thick and creamy, beaten to a froth with a little whisk, and serve it in deep mugs to keep it hot right to the end. It is part of the ritual of drinking cocoa that the first sip scalds your lips. Cardamom seeds, crushed beneath the weight of a pestle and mortar, have much to offer to a mug of hot, dark chocolate.
Apple drinks abound. Hot juice, mulled with cinnamon sticks and cloves; steaming cider with orange peel; cider brandy, sugar and cream. For the feast there are frivolous, sparkly things, sometimes flushed with pomegranate or blood orange and, occasionally, a hot toddy in a glass dotted with condensation. Even tea changes with the weather. The light green teas I drink in summer, welcome at any time of year, take a step back while the roasted teas, full of smoky notes and the humble cosy notes of toasted rice, take their place.
The alcohol level rises as the temperature dips. It is the only time of year the eaux-de-vie come out, the fruit liqueurs whose potency hides under a cloak of fruit and syrup.
My winters start with sight of the first damsons in the shops, the first bonfire lit. They end in late March when I take off to the coldest place I can find. And then, in an attempt to hold on to it all, I end up in Japan, Iceland or Finland. I eat a cup of crab soup in a hut on the harbour in Reykjavik or a thoughtful, foraged meal at one of my favourite restaurants in Helsinki, where each meal is peppered with Douglas fir or shoots of young green spruce, rowan berries picked from a tree in the churchyard, or an ice cream made from the young, green berries of juniper. Chef’s cooking, full of imagination and playfulness, and a world away from the simpler fodder I make at home. And then, full of the last tastes of winter, I step out into the cold for the last time.
The coldest winters
Some people remember summers. A holiday in Tuscany; a lunch outdoors that turned into dinner and ran long into the darkness; a picnic on the beach or the summer afternoon they lost their virginity.
I remember winters. I can trace my love of the cold months to one particular day. The winter of 1962–3, to be precise. Late afternoon, just as the sun went down and the sky slipped from apricot to scarlet to lavender. I was playing outside, a huge lump of snow that we had rolled down the silent street, getting larger and larger until we could roll it no further and which I then flattened to form a counter. I was playing shop, in duffel coat and mittens, with the food fashioned out of snow. A vast truckle of cheese from which I cut wedges to sell, a cake (of course) and snow sweets the size of pebbles. (There is a little shopkeeping in the family’s blood: in Victorian times we had a dairy in Birmingham.) My friends bought the snow cakes and then hurled them at one another as snowballs. I remember my mother bringing me in when she realised that every other kid had gone in for tea and I was still there, tending my snow shop.
The winter of 1962–3 was the coldest since 1895. I was six. It had been a particularly foggy late autumn and snow first arrived on December 12. The heaviest snow came on Boxing Day and by the 29th had drifted in some places to twenty feet deep. We had eighteen inches in Staffordshire. Villages were without power, people were stranded in their cars, the sea froze in parts of Kent and temperatures as low as –19°C were recorded. The lowest since 1814. I can’t ever remember having such fun as I did that winter, leaping into snowdrifts on my walk to school; building a snowman (carrot nose, lumps of coal for eyes) with my brother in the back garden; coming home soaked and freezing from having lost another snowball fight. It is no wonder that modern winters are something of a disappointment.
In truth Britain has had very few truly cold winters, especially in the south of the country. The coldest on record was 1684, the year the Thames froze over for two months and a fair was held on its frozen waters. The coldest of the last century have been 1940, 1947, 1963 and 1979.
Daily meteorological records began in the seventeenth century. Britain’s coldest include 1739–40, when snow started on Christmas Day and lasted to February 17, with temperatures as low as –9°C. London, usually one of the least snowy areas of the country, recorded thirty-nine days of snow. Two full months where the average temperature was less than 0°C were recorded.
1836 was one of the coldest but also a winter of floods, avalanches and stranded rail passengers. 1927–8 was a white Christmas, and with one of the heaviest snowfalls of the twentieth century. In 1933, forty-eight hours of continual snowfall were recorded.
The north, which takes the brunt of winter weather, did so especially in 1940, and was particularly cold. Four feet of snow fell in Sheffield, and the Thames froze for the first time since 1880. An ice storm hit the south on January 28.
The long winter of 1947 began in late January and lasted until mid-March. Many villages around the country were snowed in and thousands were cut off for days. Not especially cold, but a good one for snow, with not a single area of the country that didn’t record snowfall from January 22 to March 17. Many snowfalls measured 60cm or more, with Scotland recording drifts of seven metres. At one point the armed forces were brought in to rescue people.
1952–3 saw the highest winter loss of life this country has ever known during peacetime. The smog in London accounted for 12,000 deaths. 1962–3 is still the coldest I remember, and the coldest weather for 200 years. The sea froze in some parts of the country, and villages were cut off. Animals froze in their fields because farmers couldn’t gain access. A temperature of –22°C was recorded in Braemar in Scotland. The mean maximum temperature in January was –2°C, making it the coldest month since the 1800s. The Guardian reported that a farm in Dartmoor was cut off by snowdrifts for sixty-six days, and the owners had to be rescued by troops. It wasn’t until March that the temperatures climbed above –5°C. Glasgow recorded its first white Christmas since the 30s.
The scent of winter
Scent always seems particularly intense to me in winter. The smell of a toasted crumpet on a frosty morning. The sap from a branch, snapped in the garden, or of lemon zest grated in the kitchen, all seem especially vivid, heightened at this time of year. The cold air seems to illuminate scent.
Well, yes, and no. The cold actually reduces our ability to detect smells. Our body’s capacity to pick up the scent of something reduces on cold days partly because our odour receptors, all three to four hundred of them, protect themselves against freezing by burying themselves deeper in the nose. They snuggle down and are less ‘receptive’. It is like they can’t be bothered to get out of bed.
There is also less to smell in the winter, because odour molecules, denser in the cold, move more slowly in the air in the cool weather. So we actually smell fewer things. This may explain why the smells we do notice, the smoke from burning leaves or of roasting nuts, of a pot of marmalade bubbling on the hob or the Christmas tree being brought into the house, is more pronounced. Our nose is less confused with other smells.
Some things actually smell cold. Snow, obviously, but also peppermint, cucumber, yoghurt, ginger and juniper. They make us feel cool. But there are also smells that don’t actually smell of winter, but simply make us think of it, things that we connect with this season alone. A tray of mince pies in the oven; an orange studded with cloves; dumplings swelling in the damp wood of a Chinese steamer; or a shallow dish of potato Dauphinoise, calm and creamy, baking. There are the winter herbs, of course, bay, rosemary and thyme, the aromatics that weave their magic in stock or meat juices over time rather than the instant hit of torn basil or coriander. The comforting ‘sugar smells’ of warm treacle, toffee, butterscotch and liquorice. Of marmalade and caramel.
I don’t like the smell of mulled wine, it reminds me of cheap pot-pourri. But the zest of an orange mingled with the warmth of cloves is certainly a part of any catalogue of winter scents. All the more when it comes in the form of a Seville orange. The lumpy, bitter sort needed for classic duck à l’orange and for marmalade. More pleasing, I think, is that of orange blossom, preferably caught on a breeze rather than from a bottle. (Too much, it reminds me of Savlon, and childhood grazes and cuts.) If ever you are in Sorrento in Italy in the winter, head for the nearest lemon tree, often overhanging the path, and its white, star-like blossom. There is an olfactory treat in store.
One of the loveliest things anyone has said about my home is that it always smells nice. I hardly ever notice it, to be honest, but thinking about it they are probably right. In winter there will almost certainly be woodsmoke and beeswax polish.
Most of the things designed to make our houses smell festive are uniformly nauseous. They are the very essence of the fake Christmas. Those ‘Yule-scented’ candles, usually red, that smell of cinnamon and orange, or plug-in room fragrances that smell like cheap air-freshener. Hideous. A real Christmas will smell of itself without us trying to evoke it.
The tree, of course. The scent of the tree will vary according to the variety. The smell comes from a cocktail of compounds, including a-pinene and ß-pinene, in which conifers are particularly abundant, and bornyl acetate, known as the heart of pine. Balsam, Douglas and Nordmann firs are particularly high in the balsamic and camphor compounds. The reason the tree smells so strongly when you first bring it into the house is because the sap continues to rise in a freshly-cut tree. As the cut tree ages, the sap stops moving and the smell fades.
There is a difference between the smell of winter and winter smells. The latter tend to be induced by us – the smell of a potato baking, of logs burning or of hot chocolate. But winter has its own smell: step outside on a frosty morning and you are smelling the cold. That scent of smoke we detect despite the lack of a fire nearby is due to the fact that smoke doesn’t rise as well in cold air, so any there is will stay closer to the ground.
Evergreens, freshly cut, give subtle seasonal notes. Holly, mistletoe and laurels all work. Eucalyptus will make your home smell like granddad’s chest rub. I would have to add the sweet, Barbara Cartland fragrance from a bowl of hyacinths too, though really only from a nostalgia point of view. My father always insisting on having a bowl of them ready in time for Christmas. He would force them in a dark cupboard under the stairs, then in the airing cupboard. He usually managed to get them to perform on cue.
Fire has always been at the heart of it all. The place where everyone gathered, for warmth and for safety. Flames to warm us from the cold, but also to ward off danger. Flames to keep wild animals at bay. Flames to sit round and read, a place for conversation. Now a real fire is a rare and wonderful thing. It is hard work: the carrying of logs, the lighting of kindling and taking the ashes out, but nothing can match it.
A fire is a magical thing. There are those who worship them, literally. Zoroastrians, some Vedic branches of Hindu religion, the Romans and the Greeks have all at some time worshipped the fire or the hearth. The purity of the fire, its ability to render food from the inedible to the edible and the protection it affords, are all worthy of worship.
I have two fires burning at home. On a winter’s night, the room changes the instant they are lit. Bricks and mortar transcend from house to home. The fire lit, the mood of the room changes too. Shoes are removed, feet are put up on sofas, we tuck ourselves up. In truth, after a day’s work, we sleep too. Friends joke that within ten minutes of me lighting the fire, they are asleep. Cosy.
There is much to watch in the flames. We say they ‘dance’. And with good reason. The flames flicker and wave, float and soar as the mood takes them. Sometimes the embers are even more beautiful than the flames. I could watch them for hours.
We shouldn’t ignore the ashes. You can use a small amount of them on the garden. But they should be ashes from wood, not coal, and shouldn’t be used near blueberries, azaleas or potatoes, which don’t like a high pH. Burned wood doesn’t contain nitrogen, but it is a source of potassium, phosphorus and calcium. Useful for raising the pH of the soil if it is low, by which I mean below pH 6.
There is a little Japanese onsen I visit. It takes a while to get there, as there is no rail connection. The wooden building is hidden in the hills, and is probably my favourite place on Earth. It is undeniably beautiful, with its lovingly polished wooden floors and moss-covered garden. What sets it firmly as the place where I want my ashes scattered is the constant scent of smoke. It filters through the house but also through the gardens – little trails of blue-grey cross your path as you walk along the stone paths, or warm the wooden arbours where you sit and read.
What we burn affects the smell of the fire and also the heat it gives. My parents burned coal and logs. I have never liked the smell of a coal fire, preferring to use logs. You need kindling to light a fire – thin, crisp sticks of wood that are, crucially, dry. A few sheets of newspaper rolled into loose balls tucked among them, and then some larger logs to burn slowly. The reason most fires go out is because the logs are too large, or there is not enough air. A loose arrangement of scrunched paper, kindling and small logs, no thicker than your arm, is a good start. Newspaper lights more easily than the paper from glossy magazines. (My stepmother used to roll up newspaper, then tie a loose knot in each roll. Worked a treat.) A taper, if you have such a thing, is better, safer, than a match or a lighter.
Although my parents and grandmother kept a fire going, almost constantly, in the hearth, the idea is not a practical one for most of us. A wood-burning stove is one answer. The flames hidden behind glass, they can be left burning safely while you are out. They are clean and easy to deal with. They are the heart of many a Scandinavian and Japanese home, and are becoming popular in Britain too. A wood-burner has a constant glow, the low golden flame that greets and warms and toasts us. It is my next project.
Fire has always been precious, particularly when it was the only form of heating or cooking. Therefore taxable. In 1662, on May 19, a hearth tax was introduced, where householders had to pay two shillings for each hearth. Payment was twice a year, once at Michaelmas and again at Lady Day, March 25. The poor and charitable institutions were exempt. The tax was abolished by William III in 1689. Good for him.
For me the cold months are the best of times. And at the heart of those months lies Christmas.
Christmas is celebrated by Christians and non-Christians alike. It is a cultural event as much as a religious one, and its history is confused. Many of the festival’s observances date from pre-Christian times, and those who celebrate it as a purely religious event might be surprised to find how much of the festivities hails from pagan times. We celebrated winter long before we celebrated Christmas. (Saturnalia was the Roman festival in honour of the God Saturn, with feasting lasting from December 17 to the 23rd.) Happily atheist, I celebrate Christmas as much as anyone, with food and gifts and, yes, carols, but I fully accept that much of my own celebration has a religious history.
I go along with the religious details of Christmas because they have become interwoven with the cultural side of the festivities. The Nativity is as much a part of Christmas as Santa Claus and the pagan habit of bringing holly and mistletoe into the house. It is almost impossible to separate the pagan from the pious, and why would I want to anyway when December 25 was chosen simply because it landed in the middle of what was already a pagan festival?
Christmas is a vast steaming pudding of Christianity, folklore, paganism, tradition and commerce. Those of us who are part of a tolerant, open-minded and intelligent society can make our Christmas whatever we want it to be. To put it another way, we can have our cake and eat it.
The best of Christmases, the worst of Christmases
We tend to remember Christmases with exemplary clarity. Something unusual that happens over these twelve days at the heart of winter is unlikely ever to be forgotten. Even the most innocent event is almost guaranteed to be re-lived with a certain annual glee. My own catalogue of unlikely Yuletide events has involved a Christmas Eve where I forgot to tell the family I was coming home, only to find they had left for the week (I was taken in, waif-like, by generous neighbours). The year the cake sat half-iced because I had run out of icing sugar. The Christmas morning I realised the goose was too long for the oven and had to be cut in half. Then there was the time the cats pulled the ten-foot tree on to the floor, smashing my much-loved collection of decorations (and frightening the life out of themselves into the bargain). Then there was the Christmas Mum died.
For me Christmas is the heart and soul of the cold months, the jewel in the crown of midwinter, a time to feast and to give. But it is, after all is said and done, just a few days that sit at the heart of the season. Three months of our year in which to offer warmth, welcome and something good to eat to all.