Hello everyone and welcome to a very festive edition of The Seasonal Supplement.
December already! And here in the hills of rural Somerset, it is finally cold. Frosts, sparkling dewdrops, and flurries of snow decorate the countryside landscape, and heavy fog clouds the air, turning the trees to silhouettes. There’s nothing to plant. Nothing to preserve. This is a month of just keeping the smallholding ticking over, while we make time for the festivities. Foraging for decorations, baking spiced biscuits, wrapping gifts in brown paper and twine, reading Christmas stories, and lighting beeswax candles to glow on windowsills and tables. Doing our best to create the magic of Christmas for the littlest members of the household as simply and sustainably as we can.
The daily routine for early winter is a slow one. We light the fire every morning, while it is still dark outside. A nudge of the grey wood ash at the bottom of the woodstoves reveals glowing embers from the night before that can be coaxed back to flames with plenty of air and a few twigs. The fairy lights twinkle gently while wait for the fire to catch. Kettle on next. Tea in bed. Curtains opened as the sun comes up. The old leadlight windows, beautiful but impractical, are misted and dripping with condensation. We wipe them down and peek outside.
The orchard trees, now mostly free of leaves, are fluttering with birds instead. Fieldfares, chubby woodpigeons, and blackbirds flock to the old fallen apple tree to peck at the frozen windfalls. Chattering parties of long-tailed tits flit between trees. Charms of goldfinches snack on the fading sunflower seed heads. A great spotted woodpecker can be seen scaling log store fronts on a scout for nestling insects. And, of course, there are the robins, puffed up against the cold, and carolling from branches and fence posts.
Coated and booted, we head outside. The garden birds disappear in a cloud of wings as the front door clicks open. Hay, fresh water, and seasonal fodder is taken up to the sheep: a basket of apples, soft holly leaves (gathered from high branches that the tree believes are safe from predators and therefore doesn’t bother to make prickly) or tangles of ivy leaves. The geese, mouser cats, and chickens are fed and watered too. We collect the wheelbarrow and head over to the log stores to fill up with seasoned wood. A towering pile of birch, oak, and ash is pushed right into the cottage and deposited by the main fireplace, where it is sorted (smaller bits for the 5kw log burner and bigger bits for the 8kw one) and stacked on the hearths or tumbled into fireside baskets.
If there’s time, we’ll pop back out and pick a trug of vegetables for dinner. But more often than not, this is done in a rush at the end of the day, accompanied by torchlight and rather a lot of garden slugs, some of which stow away amongst the sprouts, leeks, and twizzled parsnips and pop up in the kitchen. One slug in particular has become our slithery nemesis. It has made a home in a secret spot in the cottage but only makes an appearance at night after we have gone to bed. We come down in the morning to find glittering silver trails all over the carpet. We must remember to track it down before any Christmas visitors arrive. We have a feeling they won’t appreciate its contribution to the holiday cottage décor any more than we do.
Anyway, back those parsnips (now scrubbed, peeled and, most importantly, slug free), and a seasonal recipe that is ever-present on our Christmas table…
A seasonal recipe
This rustic parsnip bake, laced with nutmeg and a few handfuls of cheddar, is a handy side dish to have in your pocket (metaphorical, obviously) throughout winter. It is quick to assemble and can easily be made ahead of time if needed – just get it to the oven-ready stage and then pop it in the fridge overnight, or in the freezer (it can be cooked straight from frozen, just give it slightly longer in the oven). We always eat it as part of Christmas dinner, and on Boxing Day too, where it provides an ideal accompaniment to a pie of leftover turkey, leeks, and foraged chestnuts. The breadcrumbs are a good option if you need to add a little crunch to your meal, but we usually leave them out if there are other crispy, carby things on the table (e.g. roast potatoes), so the parsnips can provide a pillow-soft contrast instead.
Parsnip, Nutmeg and Cheddar Bake
30g unsalted butter
1 medium onion, peeled and finely chopped
1kg parsnips, peeled and diced into 1cm chunks
600ml whole milk
1tsp freshly grated nutmeg
150g mature Cheddar cheese, grated
3 tbsp breadcrumbs (optional)
1tbsp fresh parsley, finely chopped (optional)
Melt the butter in a large pot over a low heat. Stir in the onion and cook gently for around five minutes until softened. Add the parsnips and milk to the pan, then turn up the heat to bring the mixture to a simmer. Leave to putter away gently for 15-20mins until the parsnip is soft.
Once the parsnip is cooked, remove the pan from the heat, and pulse the mix to a smooth purée with a stick blender (or mash it for a more textured finish), adding a little extra milk to loosen if needed. Stir in the nutmeg and half of the Cheddar cheese, season to taste, then spoon the mixture into a shallow oven-proof dish and smooth over the top. Scatter the remaining cheese over the parsnip, followed by the breadcrumbs and parsley (if using), and pop in the oven at 180°C for 30-40 minutes, until the top is golden and bubbling.
A book (or two) to read
We started a new tradition in our house last year, which was inspired by an Icelandic practice called Jolabokaflod (which translates as ‘Christmas book flood’). Essentially, it involves sitting in front of the fire, next to the twinkling tree lights, drinking hot chocolate bobbing with homemade marshmallows, exchanging the gift of a new book, and then snuggling up to read. All very cosy. The plan went a bit squiffy last year when we gave each other exactly the same book, but it was still a very lovely thing to do. So, this year we’re going again but with our books pre-agreed so that we don’t end up with two copies. Not surprisingly they are smallholding-themed:
Letters to a Beekeeper by Alys Fowler and Steve Benbow
This is a beautifully presented coffee-table book written by a beekeeper (Steve Benbow, the founder of the London Honey Company) and a gardener (Alys Fowler) who spent a year teaching one another respectively how to keep bees and how to garden. The book is filled with handwritten letters, sketches, diary entries, photos, and thoughts as the two friends share knowledge, questions, and experiences with one another. If you like bees and flowers and honey as much as we do, this could be a good one for your bookshelf.
The Apple Book by Rosie Saunders
This is a collection of watercolour drawings and detailed descriptions of over a hundred different apple varieties. We’re hoping it will help us identify some of the mystery trees we have in the orchard, as well as choose some new ones to plant. Frustratingly, the book is out of print and highly sought after, so getting hands on a reasonably priced copy can be a bit tricky. Luckily, we managed to locate one in a Hertfordshire branch of Waterstones for the normal cover price and they kindly posted it to us. We’re looking forward to flicking through the pages and penning a new apple wish list.
A new way to light the wood burner:
We thought we had our fire lighting system down to a tee: cover the ash floor of the log burner with scrunched up balls of newspaper; criss-cross kindling in a grid on top; strike a match; light the paper in several spots; wait for the flames to burn through the paper and catch the wood; then add a small log once it’s going strongly (carefully, so as not to flatten and snuff everything out); then add a few bigger logs once it’s really found its feet. It worked fine. But we have discovered a new way. A better way. One that has no need for kindling or newspaper, or for gentle flame coaxing. It’s our take on what’s known as the upside-down method. Here’s how we do it:
Get two medium-sized logs and place them next to each other (right up close, so that they are touching) on the floor of the wood burner. A tiny air gap should be visible between them. If no air gap can be seen, flip one upside down to create one.
Place a natural firelighter on top of the two logs in the centre, so that it spans the air gap.
Put two smaller logs on top, so that they sit perpendicular to the bottom logs and just cover the firelighter (again with a small air gap between the two of them).
Open all the air vents, ignite the firelighter, and close the door.
The fire will build up gently from the centre. It might take a little while for the flames to pick up. Once it’s going well, close the primary air vent and adjust the other vent as needed, then add wood as normal.
Sit by crackling flames, glass of sloe gin in hand, and admire warmth-inducing handiwork.
The success of this technique varies from wood burner to wood burner and from chimney to chimney (our smaller log burner lights way quicker than our bigger one because the chimney draws much better), but if you have a wood burner, it’s well worth giving a go if you want to eliminate the need to chop kindling and the necessity to keep a dusty pile of newspaper in the fireplace.
A few snippets from our December task list:
There’s very little on the list this month as we wind down for Christmas. A few things from November still need doing (e.g. processing the fallen apple wood), but we’ll push those into the new year now. We need a bit of a rest! So, this month’s Yuletide list is very short:
Collect the Christmas tree. We normally do this on the first weekend of December to make the most of having a real tree, but this year we’re running late because we’ve been busy lime plastering the room it needs to go in*. As soon as the plaster is dry enough, we’re heading to our local Christmas tree farm to choose a suitable (not too needle-droppy) fir. If we don’t finish in time, we’ll just get a small potted tree for the windowsill and make the best of it.
*the stone cottage that came with our land is characterful, but needs a lot of work. We are gradually renovating it ourselves using traditional techniques, but it’s a slow process and tricky to fit around all the smallholding activities and our other commitments. In the UK it seems that most houses that have land attached, tend to be quite old (sometimes very old), which means that smallholding here can often mean taking on the responsibility of caring for a historic home as well as the soil around it. It’s very hard work sometimes, but, for the most part, we think it’s worth it.
Find that pesky slug
Bottle the cider vinegar. The apple juice that we poured into huge two ceramic jars to ferment into cider and then vinegar is now pleasantly acidic and ready to be decanted into swing-top bottles. A bottle tied with ribbon will no doubt make it into someone’s Christmas stocking.
Make the Christmas cake. We usually do a take on the traditional Christmas cake that utilises as many homegrown ingredients as we can squeeze in without it distracting too much from the conventional flavours. This usually means mulberry vodka or sloe gin for the alcohol; dried cherries, pear, apples, and plums alongside the sultanas for the fruit; and foraged hazelnuts and chestnuts for the nuts; eggs from the freezer (as the chickens aren’t laying much right now); plus a few walnut halves (if we can winkle them out of the shells without breaking them) to decorate the top, glued down with spiced apple jelly.
Make the wreath. If you follow us on Instagram, you’ve probably already spotted pictures of our homemade willow wreath popping up around Christmas time. It was roughly woven together during our first Christmas here from freshly cut red dogwood and an unknown variety of green willow that grows ardently by the stream edge. Since then, it has dried, shrunk a little (making handy gaps for stuffing winter foliage and pinecones), and faded. It certainly won’t win any floristry prizes, but it wouldn’t feel like Christmas without it adorning the front door. It always looks a little different depending on what berries, seed heads, and greenery can be collected in the garden. This year we’re thinking: holly, conifer leaves with their teeny-tiny pinecones attached, cotoneaster with its bright red berries, a few rosehips, some sprigs of bay leaves, and a some sugar-scented, golden-skinned, baby quinces. The door where it will hang is spattered with lime plaster, so we’re going to pretend it is snow and leave that bit of cleaning until 2023.
We so hope you enjoyed The Seasonal Supplement. If you did, please do let us know by leaving a like or a comment - it really does brighten our day to read your thoughts and chat with you in the comments.
We’ll be back with another issue next month (if you don’t mind us popping up in your inbox again). In the meantime, we wish you a restful and joyful few weeks. See you in the new year!
Thanks so much for reading,
Kathy and Tom
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A lovely read. I will be trying the parsnip recipe. I can also empathise about the slug. We often have the same, where on earth do they go during the day?! I’ve resorted to putting down salt but let me know if you come up with a better solution!
I’ve loved reading your posts. Just wonderful, helpful and inspiring. Thank you.