Bloody January Again
Written by Giles MacDonogh
Posted: 1st February 2022
January breaks and my in-box fills up with messages from PR companies expounding the virtues of a meat-free month. It augurs ill. For traditional Christians, January sits like the proverbial meat in the sandwich between a meat-fRee Advent and a meat-free Lent. Now, I admit there aren’t that many traditional Christians left, but January is a hell of a bad month to choose to give up meat (or fish, or eggs or cheese). Let us just look at the state of vegetables (or fruit).
In the old days you could just about make it through the month on root vegetables and potatoes and some useful imported items such as tomatoes, plus (depending on the strength of your digestion) a few pulses; but fruit and veg brought in from the southern hemisphere was and remains unreliable. It will have been frozen. Now with the Continent part-blockaded at Dover, anything that comes in from the Mainland is likely to have been frozen too for at least part of the journey. In practical terms this means that it will appear to be healthy the moment you snap it up from stall or supermarket shelf, but it will very soon decide to turn up its toes and rot.
Let me give you a concrete example. January is the month in which we make marmalade from Seville oranges. The quality of the marmalade depends on the thickness of the skins and the lip-puckering acidity of the juice. I saw some decent-looking Seville oranges for £1.76 a kg (there’s a lot of avoirdupois about these days) from Sally the Stall and bought 3kg. Their secret didn’t take long to reveal itself: they had been frozen. By the time I got round to making the marmalade the skins had softened to the degree that my fingers went through them, which made peeling them a nightmare. A week later after rigorous selection I bought another 2kg of the hardest and horniest and quickly processed them. Now we now have 27 pots to sustain us, but man may not live by marmalade alone, and overpriced bad vegetables are a poor substitute for meat. Veggie January might be feasible in Australia or California, but it is a recipe for misery here. If you want to eat vegetables and fruit, do it in July or August when they are more appetising.
January starts with two nice little traditions before it goes flat: there is the wassail of the Twelfth Night (which we forgot to celebrate) and the Twelfth Cake on the Feast of the Epiphany the next day. As we went on a day trip to Cambridge on the 5th, the puff pastry for our galette des rois had to be made the day before and the frangipane on the 6th itself. It was a triumph for all that, and slipped down very nicely at teatime with a half bottle of 1995 Lenz Moser Prestige Beerenauslese.
We were able to have a little fun from time to time. Before my son returned to university I made an ancient Sumerian lamb and beetroot stew with beer and various spices. Although with lamb currently at £18 a kg, I shan’t be buying much more hogget meat for the time being. We also rehearsed an excellent Moroccan dish of chicken with olives and preserved lemons.
The cheap fish shop in the Holloway Road reopened and I was able to rediscover the delights of pomfret, which Indians treat with the same relish as we do salmon. I also bought very good fresh prawns to make a prawn and mussel risotto. We had scallops and hake and lovely skate with black butter and capers and one night we even ate decent coley – one of those fishes that were famously reserved for the cat, like ling. Apart from two fish days a week, we ate meat, for all the reasons given above.
And wine, despite the homilies in my in-box, we drank that too. Misery requires bigger doses, not smaller ones and the non-alcoholic beer remained firmly lodged at the bottom of the fridge. With breathtaking utility bills and ever-increasing council taxes, the prospect of even higher demands in April together with an average increase in wine duty of a pound a bottle at much the same time, most of the wine consumed has been modestly priced, but good.
I might single out a few, such as the simple Stemmari Nero D’Avola which had been reduced by 20% making it particularly good for under £7. I am sorry to see the price has now gone up again. The Argentinian 2019 Viñalba Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve was nicely measured and not trite in that ‘Mac’ variety way . Equally well-judged was the 2020 Tesco Finest Brooks Road Chardonnay(produced by the celebrated Howard Park) from the Margaret River. Australia has put those fat babies away and this had fine acidity, no overbearing oak, excess weight or oiliness. It was a delight.
The best of all was the 2017 Ascheri Barolo. Sullen at first, it opened out after fifteen minutes revealing something of that ‘Kirsch’ aroma that is so often identified by the American critic Robert Parker- “a spirity cherry, but with plenty more on the palate in the form of black olives and blackberries. It did the honours with a nicely crispy, meaty duck.”