FIGS WITH MAPLE SYRUP AND ANISE MUS­CAT MUSCA PRUNES Fire and baked pears

The Observer Magazine - - WE LOVE... - Pho­tographs JONATHAN LOVEKIN

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.

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 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 and 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.

Win­ter food is about both cel­e­bra­tion and sur­vival. It is about feast­ing and fru­gal­ity. 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.

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-asy­our-hat ap­ples for bak­ing.

The game birds are lined up at the butcher, 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 un­til 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. 1 Novem­ber A toast to the win­ter sol­stice There are drinks I make es­pe­cially for a win­ter’s night. 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 another of sticky prunes in sweet am­ber wine. Served very cold, in diminu­tive glasses, the drinks warm, soothe and de­light. The other con­tenders are the hot drinks – the mulled ciders and spiced mix­tures. Drinks that will melt any­body’s frost. A HOT AP­PLE DRINK FOR A COLD NIGHT Slice an ap­ple in half, then into quar­ters, dis­card the core and pips, then cut each piece of ap­ple into 2 thick seg­ments. Warm 3 tbsp of ap­ple juice in a shal­low pan, add 2 tbsp of brown sugar and lower in the ap­ples. Let them cook un­til the ap­ples are soft, stop­ping be­fore they fall apart. Re­move from the heat. 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 bring to the boil. Re­duce the heat, so the cook­ing con­tin­ues at a gen­tle bub­ble for 15 min­utes. La­dle into glasses, drop­ping a few of the cooked ap­ple slices into each drink.

A wel­com­ing drink, may I sug­gest, is not just about other peo­ple. Some­thing good in a glass can be a rather lovely way to wel­come our own ar­rival home. Find­ing a rare mo­ment of peace and quiet, there are surely few greater joys than pour­ing our­selves a drink as we curl up on the sofa with a book af­ter a long, hard day. It might only be a stolen few min­utes, but I re­gard this time as deeply ground­ing. Some­thing that, just for once, is about no one but our­selves.

The drinks that fol­low are meant for any cold night. I also in­clude uses for the fruits that re­main af­ter the liquor has been drunk. Fat, al­co­hol-soaked lit­tle fruits, each one pissed as a newt, that can be served as dessert. THREE DRIED-FRUIT DRINKS FOR WIN­TER: APRI­COT, OR­ANGE AND ANISE 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 Direc­tions 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. 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 Direc­tions 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 al­co­hol­laden 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. 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 prune­sprun 250g gold­engo sul­tanas 125g mus­catm or mosca­tel 750ml Direc­tions 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 vanil­las­cented 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, wine­filled fruits was sim­ply gor­geous. 5 Novem­ber 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

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