Flavours of December
Seasonal Vegetables. The Root of the Perfect Christmas.
That magical time of the year is upon us again. And it’s a timely reminder of how the right soil is one of the most important factors for vegetables. We are so fortunate to have some of the best growing conditions anywhere in the world – and this translates into one thing. Flavour.
Every year, the sprout seems to be growing in stature and this pleases me greatly. It is no longer seen as the “humble” sprout as people have embraced it as a crucial and flavoursome part of seasonal celebrations.
At Wellocks, our search for the perfect ingredient takes us far and wide. Giving you the best of everything leads us to the Scottish borders and in particular Drysdales farm. The east coast, from Berwick up to Aberdeen is the perfect environment for sprouts. They thrive in dry, gravelly soil and there is less rainfall in these parts compared to the rest of the UK. The climate tends to be more stable and the ground temperature rarely slips below 0ºC. Being near the sea is also a natural barrier from harsh, bitter frosts. Contrary to popular belief, frosts actually make sprouts taste rather bitter.
At Drysdales they don’t just rely on what Mother Nature has provided, there’s a lot of hard work and ingenuity going on. You can see just how much goes into them, here:
Good soil is also vital for parsnips, swedes, carrots and onions. These too prefer light, sandy soil with good drainage so that they can grow straight down. We have a plentiful range of root vegetables this winter, from baby parsnips – wonderful when roasted in truffle honey – to red and brown onions the size of a golf ball, which are perfect for roasting whole. Every single one of these root vegetables is a must on Christmas menus and they are versatile enough to deliver amazing soups and stews on these cold, dark nights.
It’s true that Christmas dinner wouldn’t be Christmas dinner without turkey, but I would argue that the crowning glory comes in the shape of the classic roast potato. There are some fantastic varieties across the UK such as the Maris Piper, the Markie and Saguita which are mainly grown around the Lincoln area, which also has a wonderfully rich soil texture. These varieties all produce a crisp, golden fry. Head north to Scotland and you’ll find the Red Rooster. Not as crisp, but it does soak up more fat and will retain an incredible depth of flavour.
But for me, Northumberland is where the best roast potato action can be found. In particular, Carroll’s Heritage potatoes at Tiptoe Farm:
They have farmed here since the 1930s and began growing heritage potatoes in 2000. Their belief was that modern day potato farming was too focussed on high yields, regularity, uniform size and perfect shiny skins. For them, there was not enough focus on taste, colour and texture. Anthony Carroll and his family realised that if they didn’t keep growing the old varieties, we could lose them forever.
So the potatoes you find growing near the top of the soil mound are misshapen, wonky gems. All of the things that prevent them from flowing easily through a modern harvester. Which is one of the reasons why these deliciously flavoursome waxy potatoes are not grown en masse.
Today, they produce 17 different old potato varieties. But you have to go a long way to beat their Mayan Gold. It has a very, very dry floury texture which is the pinnacle of perfection when it comes to a roastie. The golden colour on the plate is everything you could possibly want.
Moving away from vegetables, the other great festive prompter is the wonderful aroma of oranges. Guaranteed to make anyone feel Christmassy! There is a fantastic selection making its way over from Spain and Italy: navel oranges, easy-peel clementines, vibrant, juicy blood oranges and stocking filler tangerines. All of the above are rich in vitamin C which will keep colds at bay as the festive season begins to take over.
From Italy, we have the spectacular leafy lemon – once again great for the immune system and brilliant for complementing other festive flavours. The leaves from these lemons, and from clementines, are beautiful and can be added to many dishes to really enhance flavour and taste.
Cranberries are of course a classic addition to the Christmas dinner, but it is surprising how well they work with red cabbage. Not only are the colours amazing, but the sharpness of the cranberry works perfectly with the natural sweetness of the cabbage and this is a real crowd pleasing side dish.
We will also have lychees, peaches and nectarines available throughout December. All rich in fibre and vitamins, these fruits add an exotic and fresh twist to your festive dishes – peaches and nectarines are wonderful when combined with Christmassy spices like cinnamon and nutmeg – and it’s surprising just how well lychees complement a chilled glass of Champagne!
Yes, I’ve saved the best till last. The Passe-Crassane is my all time favourite pear. It comes into season mid December and is grown throughout the Rouen region. They retain the most juice of any pear and the flavour is out of this world. As with all of our wonderful vegetables, location is everything and these pears are far superior to the ones found in the Alps, for example. They ripen over time and their stems are sealed with a bead of wax in order for them to continue ripening and they won’t dry out. This small, but seemingly insignificant move locks in the flavour and allows them to last all winter.
Wherever you find yourself over the festive season, I hope you will enjoy the abundance of tastes textures and flavours as much as I do. I wish you and all of your customers a peaceful and very happy Christmas.