I would be the first to admit that I have too many books. Also I probably have too many unread books, not books I don’t want to read but ones which I am intending to read ‘very soon’. The problem is that ‘very soon’ can stretch to years, with some books remaining in situ long enough to be dusted. Last year Nigel Slater wrote The Christmas Chronicles. I was very excited as I love his writing as much as his recipes. It was arranged by date, starting in early November and going through to Candlemas on 2nd February. It immediately appealed to me as I use Candlemas to mark the end of the Christmas season too – January can be a grim month and a few fairy lights make it a little brighter. In the days when I lived in a small and cluttered flat, my tiny tree often remained up until then too, becoming a temporary winter ornament.
His selection of dates meant the book covered just over three months. Surely I would manage to read daily entries for such a short period? The book has sat on my kitchen table for just over a year, the bookmark sticking out accusingly on the entry for 7th November. This year I moved it to a more inconvenient place on the table and resolved to read it. I have, and it is wonderful – why did I wait a whole year?
Nigel Slater loves winter, relishing its arrival in the same way that many people welcome summer. I now like all seasons. When I was young I loved winter: Christmas and snow (yes, I’m old enough to remember reasonably reliable snow at roughly the correct time) and summer – the long (and always sunny) freedom of the summer holidays. Spring and autumn largely passed me by apart from jumping clumps of daffodils on a pretend pony (sadly accompanied by my pretend dog), walking through deep layers of crisp leaves and playing conkers. That has all changed, mainly through gardening, and I now appreciate each season for its particular joys.
When does winter start? Officially in Britain 21st December, the Winter Solstice, is the first day of winter. This I cannot agree with. For me the Winter Solstice, with its shortest day, marks the turning point towards spring and light – from then on it is (almost) downhill all the way to light spring mornings and long summer evenings. In all my books I mark 1st December as the beginning of winter, not because I particularly regard November as part of autumn but because I cannot think of February as spring (working on the assumption that each season lasts three months). Nigel Slater’s winter begins on 1st November but before that the book has a delightful twenty-five pages of general wintery writing. Pictures in winter gardening books annoy me as, almost without exception, they show gardens covered in a crisp white frost or atmospherically clothed in a romantic mist, whilst the reality of most winter days is a sort of murk somewhere between the two. Nigel Slater’s winter manages to encompass all the best of winter without becoming unrealistically rosy-eyed about it. Yes, I know these photos are ridiculously romantically rosy-eyed but I have to remember that even London is, on occasion, deep and crisp and even.
So far the recipes look delicious and most are his trademark easy preparation: a New Toad-in-the Hole involving marmalade, Crumble-Topped Mince Pies and Sweet Potato and Kale Bubble & Squeak. Lentils and Basil sounds a wonderful combination (particularly with added cream and mushrooms) but surely this is a dish for late summer or autumn? My basil plants would not allow me to take ‘a good handful of leaves’ in November, although perhaps it would be a fitting way to say farewell to the plant and eat the lot rather than trying to nurse it through to spring on a chilly windowsill.
The book also includes wintery musings: Christmas markets, the story of the Magi and a mass of fascinating information about candles, including the fact that in winter he writes by candlelight! I am enchanted; this will be my New Year’s resolution. I write everything first in fountain pen and have often thought that using a quill pen might be even better. This may be the first step towards that.
Looking slightly ahead, to Christmas Day I see that, unlike Delia (see Book Six) Nigel recommends the following for mid-morning: ‘May I suggest that you sit down and take it all in, as I do. Collect your thoughts – there is still much to do – but also take in the scene . . . . Five minutes in which to settle your spirit.’ So far I have followed this book date-for-date, rather like a literary advent calendar. I have every intention of continuing to 2nd February.
As always we would like you to buy this book. Also, as always, we would like you to buy it from your local bookshop. Without your support it might not survive.