What do you think of when you hear the words ‘seasonal food’? Perhaps it’s the bounty of spring: purple-sprouting broccoli, the first Jersey Royal potatoes and delicate asparagus. Maybe you think of summer’s ripe berries, tomatoes and broad beans, or the rainbow of apples and squashes in autumn. Chances are, winter doesn’t cross your mind. Yet, chefs don’t give up on seasonal cooking when the clocks go back. So, what exactly do chefs cook in January and February; after the endless Christmas dinners are all out the way and the colourful produce of late autumn is a distant memory? Is creating exciting tasting menus in the bleak midwinter an impossible feat?
“There’s a lot less seasonal food around in winter. Creating menus is certainly more of a challenge, but it’s not necessarily harder,” says Adam Jackson, head chef at The Park Restaurant at Marmadukes Town House Hotel in York. “I actually like this time of year. A lot of chefs don’t because they like the bright colours of things like summer berries.”
“Winter is one of my favourite times,” agrees Mike Thompson, head chef at The Cavendish Hotel in Derbyshire, who makes the most of local produce from the Peak District and from the hotel’s own outdoor larder: the 35,000-acre Chatsworth Estate.
When it comes to vegetables, there’s more in season in the depths of winter than you might think. There’s plenty of hardy roots that can survive harsh frosts. Beetroot, parsnips, potatoes, celeriac and Jerusalem artichokes are all in season in January. Cabbages, kale, sprouts and cauliflower are around too. Jackson has a dish of Jerusalem artichokes, with pheasant, homemade game sausages and sprouts on his winter menu at The Park. Meanwhile, Mike Thompson is making the most of the winter roots by serving beetroot and celeriac with roasted venison loin. And at Jesmond Dene House in Newcastle, head chef Michael Penaluna has a celeriac soup with roasted chestnuts on the menu, as well as salt-baked Jerusalem artichoke with toasted spelt barley risotto. “There’s nothing wrong with celeriac, red cabbage and sprouts,” says Jackson of winter’s home-grown survivalists.
When it comes to fruit the choice is also limited, but not enough to deter a creative head chef. “In January you can use the autumn apples and pears that are in storage,” says Jackson. For those chefs happy to use a few seasonal treats from abroad, there are blood oranges and pomegranates to brighten the plate. Otherwise, Jackson for one eagerly awaits February and the first forced rhubarb. This Yorkshire delicacy is grown outside and then moved to special sheds to avoid the frost. The rhubarb is kept in darkness, with growers even using candlelight when they harvest it. The result is a delicate, floral flavour and a deep fuschia colour that provides a preview of spring on the winter plate.
The misconception that winter is the worst time for seasonal eating could be because we tend to think only in terms of seasonal fruits and veg. If you add meat, game and fish into the mix then the cold months suddenly become a lot more interesting. Game season is still underway in January, with good availability for pheasant, partridge and duck. Thompson says his team relish winter tasks like preparing game birds. “It’s satisfying to pluck a pheasant,” he says.
Venison is another winter menu mainstay. One of Thompson’s favourite ways to serve it is to mince the haunch down into a rich Bolognese, and serve it with the aformentioned venison loin with beetroot and celeriac. At Jesmond Dene House, you’ll find saddle of venison with plums, parsnip and – intriguingly – bitter chocolate.
The winter months can be a mixed bag for British fish and seafood, as supply can be dependant on the weather. In a good year you’ll find Dover sole, halibut, gurnard, lobster, mackerel and turbot on menus. Plus seafood like clams, cockles, mussells and sweet Queen scallops. “We get hand-dived scallops from Shetland,” says Jackson. “If the weather’s good, the divers will go out. Otherwise we’ll have to change a scallop dish to halibut or monkfish.”
Forget the idea of winter as a fallow period. Get the Christmas menus out the way and chefs can even do creative things with turkey and goose that don’t involve a sprig of holly on top. January and February might be a time to hunker down but underneath the earth, roaming the fields, and in the seas around Britain, there’s a wealth of seasonal ingredients for creative cooks to play with. If you’ve always wanted to splash out on the tasting menu experience at a top restaurant, winter could be the perfect time to do it. “Customers are more clued up about what’s in season in winter these days, like all the game birds,” says Mike Thompson. Join these savvy diners and avoid the Christmas crowds and the summer waiting lists for a prime time table. Winter’s seasonal delights might not be as obvious as the rest of the year, but the flavours are all there waiting for you.
Katy Salter is our food and travel writer. She contributes to most of the UK’s major food titles, The Guardian and The Telegraph. In 2012, Stylist named Katy one of its ‘Top 20 Food Heroines,’ alongside Mary Berry, Lorraine Pascale and Delia Smith.