Lynda Hallinan beats the winter blues with a golden citrus harvest, homemade tipples and a spot of tree hugging.
“The promise of good times in a glass appeals at a primal level.”
Anyone who has ever flown long-haul in economy class, limbs crammed in like an amateur contortionist, knows the sound of salvation. It’s not the captain speaking, nor the instruction for the crew to please take their seats in preparation for landing, but the rattle of the approaching drinks trolley.
I suspect the clinking of ice cubes on crystal – the promise of good times in a glass – appeals at a primal level. It’s one of the quintessential sounds of a Kiwi summer barbecue but, come winter, I put down my cocktail shaker and wrap my mitts around mugs of mulled wine, made in my slow-cooker with a jar of marmalade, or a sneaky shot of chilled limoncello.
What are your winter rituals? Do you take to bed in winceyette pyjamas or take your passport to Fiji? Do you throw snowballs or sickies? Do you linger in bed until Jack Frost’s icy grip has thawed, or face each day with optimism and an extra pair of polypropylene long johns?
In winter, I am more grizzly than a polar bear. I stay at home and hibernate. While fashionistas advise the art of layering like a Christmas trifle, I let my sartorial standards slip for the season. I’m of the view, though it’s not one shared by my husband, that UGG boots and tracksuits are perfectly acceptable attire for the school run, and there’s nothing wrong with wearing a dressing gown when putting the rubbish out at the end of the driveway, provided the neighbours don’t catch sight of you.
Scarf manufacturers, merino sheep farmers and firewood fellers must all smile when the mercury dips but, for the rest of us, the winter blues come in varying strengths. Some people get a bit tetchy when cooped up indoors by bad weather, while others need to seek treatment for Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), a depressive response to winter’s lower light levels.
Yet in pagan times, late winter was a time for pyromaniacs to party. From ancient Rome to Persia and Scandinavia, the passing of the shortest day was seen as a victory of light over darkness. Hence, the winter solstice was celebrated with burning bonfires, sunworshipping shenanigans and plenty of ceremonial hooch-fuelled hoopla.
It’s no coincidence that alcoholic concoctions laid down in late summer, from barrels of rough cider to bottles of damson plums drowned in gin, were brought out in late winter to lift the spirits ahead of the spring wassail.
Wassailing, which sounds rather painful but is actually jolly good fun, is a marvellous old English custom involving singing, dancing and drinking in orchards on frosty evenings. The word wassail comes from an Anglo-Saxon greeting meaning “be in good health” and the idea was that by giving your fruit
trees a friendly group hug, you’d be rewarded with an abundant harvest.
I have hundreds of fruit trees, which suggests that if I dance drunkenly around them all, this month is going to take its toll on my liver. Sadly, there’s other work to do, too – onion seed to sow, bluebell woods to weed, bareroot fruit trees to bed in and buckets of citrus to pick and preserve.
As well as making marmalade, clementine cordial and grapefruit curd, I like to bottle my own limoncello. I first tasted this Italian liqueur when my brother-in-law was playing professional rugby in Padova in the 1990s. Like all of the flavours I experienced for the first time in Italy, from polenta fries to fresh buffalo mozzarella, ricotta cannoli and amaretti gelato, my fond memories of limoncello have endured. However, I’m less nostalgic for Cynar, the bitter liqueur with globe artichokes on its label. I’ve long harboured a suspicion that its secret ingredient is actually nail polish remover.
There’s very little that can’t be infused in booze to make your own liqueurs. This year I’ve been experimenting with peach leaves (they lend a surprising almond flavour to clear spirits), bay leaves, cherry guavas, wild blackberries, grated quinces and damson plums in everything from tequila to rum.
(Speaking of which, if you bottled your own damson gin in February, the time has come to strain out the plums and decant the liqueur into bottles. Save the shrivelled plums for baking or coat them in melted chocolate to make tipsy truffles.)
Home-infused liqueurs are best kept in a dark cupboard rather than on the top shelf, as fruity colours tend to oxidise and, instead of maintaining their delicious shades of plum, honey and raspberry, turn a murky brown.
So if life hands you lemons this winter, make limoncello. Or, if life gets its citrus crops mixed up and hands you mandarins or grapefruit instead, make mandarinetto or pompelmocello using the same technique.
Note: After peeling, squeeze the nude fruit and gently simmer the juice in a saucepan on the stove with 1 cup water, 2-3 tablespoons manuka honey and your favourite warming spices, such as a cinnamon stick, a few whole cloves or a cardamon pod, to make cockle-warming hot toddies (add a nip of whisky) or “not toddies”
It’s easy to make your own limoncello with fresh lemons, good-quality vodka and a simple sugar syrup.