Saturday, December 31, 2022

Brown Soup Days

We have reached the time of the year, I like to refer to as 'Brown Soup'. The weather has changed from deliciously, invigoratingly frosty to damp and sludgy with rain pouring down from skies that are hanging heavy and low over the landscape. A local saying around here suggests that when a particular hill is wearing its hat (i.e. cloud sitting on the top), the day will be wet. Well, dear reader, more than once recently, it hasn't been so much wearing a hat as burrowing itself under a cloud duvet. 

But these are the necessary rest days and the weather is doing nothing more than helping us slow down and take stock. They are the days where you can stay in the softest clothes you own, catching up on books, tv shows, music that you'd been meaning to all year, if only you had the time. Well, now you do. Say thank you to the weather. 

There are walks, but of the sort that make you scurry home faster than usual. There are gatherings but these have lost the frenetic energy that powers the pre-Christmas ones and we don't mind when someone inevitably dozes off in the corner. There is yoga of the sort that requires lying down rather than pushing through some kind of core workout. These are not the days to push through (unless you're in active labour), but to rest. 

These are also the days for clearing out. What no longer serves is being taken out of its habitual hiding place, shaken down and held up to the low winter light for inspection. We have donations for the charity shop, items listed on Freecycle and boxes of memories packed away for the attic: the postcards and birthday cards and ticket stubs and ephemera of life that will have no relevance to anyone but us, but still they remain and we can't quite bring ourselves to throw them out. 

Somehow, despite resolutely not buying anything of the kind, we find ourselves with boxes of mince pies, biscuits and chocolates. Not many, but more than we would normally buy in a year. Some have gone to the foodbank, but they appear to have reproduced in the way boxes of that sort do and are part and parcel of the feasting and gluttony we do to shore us up against the cold and bitter days to come. 

To counter all this sugar, I make brown soup from leftovers in the fridge. The rain is tapping gently at the window and I can see the thin branches of the acer whipping about in the wind. We haven't seen the fish since November as they've taken themselves down into the warmer depths of the pond. I have a large pan of stock coming to the boil on the stove top and Kirstie Young is talking about her desert island discs in the background. Above me, I can hear the bump-buzz-thunk of the hoover being pushed about the floor. 

On the chopping board, leftover roast potatoes, carrots, sprouts, swede and parsnips are neatly (ish - this is not a beauty competition, this is Brown Soup) cubed and waiting to be added to the stock. My phone pings with a message from an old, old friend saying they would be delighted to see us for japes and larks, or, more sensibly, scrabble. 

Cheered by the news, I reach back into the fridge for the leftover turkey, pigs in blankets and stuffing. Just a handful or 2, enough to add some protein and some of that gorgeous sagey flavour. The cat flap bangs and seconds later Mabel headbutts my leg vigorously, loudly demanding biscuits. Her fur is cold and damp, thick and fluffy in its winter condition. She's been patrolling her patch, defending the borders against the evil tabby, and her eyes are glowing green with triumph. I feed her. 

A quick step into the garden for some lemon thyme. Shake the rain from my hair and pull the leaves from the stems. 

Everything in the pot, I leave it all to simmer while I occupy myself watching the weather beat against the house. The black-eyed susans were finally forced into giving up flowering during the cold snap and now the stems that wound so vigorously around the jasmine during the autumn are hanging limply, like so many bored socialites, all limp and jaded greenness. Hanging from them are raindrops like glass beads and, in that delicious betwixt times kind of way, I let my thoughts drift while watching them drip. 

The smell of soup, and the silence of the hoover, brings me back to the now and I turn my attention to the tricky business of tipping the contents of the steaming pan into the blender: have I misjudged the amount of stock and it will all overflow? Have I misjudged the angle of the tilt-and-pour and am about to have a counter liberally covered? Luckily the answer is no. Blend, noisily, for 30 seconds. Tip the resulting liquid back into the saucepan and back onto the hob. 

Taste, season, add a glug of Worcestershire sauce - the proper stuff. My, this is a brown soup indeed. Thick and rib-sticking, it promises to cure all ills, to coat your bones in a comforting umami hug. It will win no beauty prizes, but it will see you right, cutting through the gluttony, the sugar highs and lows, the hangovers and the hang-unders. 

It brings both my boys to the table where we break bread and nourish together, facing the oncoming change of the year. 

A note on the image above: I can't find the name or reference for this, although I am getting a hint of Vanessa Bell, maybe? If you know, can you let me know so I can credit properly? 

Wednesday, December 21, 2022

Winter Joy

Like absolutely everyone down here, south of Birmingham, we were hit last week by a cold snap, and I could not have been happier. As a person whose temperatures naturally run high (maybe because I was born in the summer of 76?), I am at my absolute best when the ground outside is frosted and the air chill nips my ears red. Far from condemning the Snow Queen in Narnia, I have sympathy for her endless winters and the build up to Christmas being more exciting than Christmas itself. 

I'm less with her on the turning people into statues issue, but hey, who doesn't have a character flaw or two?

So you can probably imagine my joy each morning as I would peer through the blinds to see a sparkling world, dressing hurriedly, so I could get a walk in before having to switch on the laptop for work. Pacing slowly along the canal in my boots and layers, more wool than woman, stopping to capture the light. 

It was simply a delight to walk every morning, timing it so the school rush was over - or not yet begun - and the canal path was pretty much just me and a couple of hardy dog walkers. Joggers and cyclists moved to the main roads and left the space clear for us to wander at will, filling our eyes with the sparkle and snap of the morning. 

The moon was bright and glorious each time while the sun cast benevolent halos that made me blink. The rushes and reeds glinted, bejewelled by the frozen droplets that turned them into living chandeliers. Leaves were etched, their veins picked out in silver, while mosses retreated into their own tiny frozen worlds. 

I don't think I walked a straight line once, so dazed was I by how beautiful it was, by the patterns in the frozen canal, by the cloud of my breath spiralling up into the clear sky. 

Tiny Wee Mabel enjoyed trying to catch the snow during one of the handful of flurries we had. Just 8 miles down the road, they were shovelling it off driveways. Friends in Wales and the Cotswolds made me green with envy as they showed off their magical, sparkling gardens, made mysterious and slightly eerie by the snow-quiet and pale light. 

We are bunkered in for Yule now. Presents brought, wrapping still to be wrestled with. Food to be prepped (I'm making a magnificent trifle this time, after last year's pavlova affair). The day itself will be full of family; the day after just him and me, recovering from the previous day and letting our blood sugars slowly return back to normal. There will be large sandwiches full of turkey and stuffing and redcurrant sauce and, oh, all the trimmings, always so much better between 2 slices of thick bread the next day. 

This isn't a good season for everyone, I know. If you are still deciding which charity to make a seasonal donation too, I heartily recommend this one, which I've supported for a number of years. Or, seek out one nearer to you. 

Wherever you find yourselves and whatever you find yourselves doing, I hope this is a good season for you. May your trees be bright, your puddings fulsome and your lie-ins lengthy. 

Weather Advisory Service

On the way home from the train the other day, I took a shortcut through the dripping allotment grounds, the grass and earth squelching under...