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Photo by Kai Krog Halse

Signs of life in the most ascetic month

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Extract | 12 minute read
Rhubarb and pancakes in the kitchen; sewing chillies and finding frogspawn outdoors: in the first of a monthly series, this extract from Lia Leendertz's The Almanac shows how to enjoy Britain in February

1   Imbolc (pagan celebration)

1   St Brigid’s/St Bride’s Day

2   Candlemas

13   Shrove Tuesday (Pancake Day)

14  Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent

14  St Valentine’s Day

16  Chinese New Year, year of the Earth

February is an ascetic little month. Cold, short and dark, many of its rituals – Imbolc, Candlemas, Lent – revolve around absence, purging and fasting. Its birthstone, amethyst, symbolises piety and humility. Even the name February comes from februum, Latin for purification, the root – februo – meaning ‘I purify by sacrifice’. Fun old February. Because of its short length it is the only month that can pass without a full moon, and this year it does exactly this, so even the long nights are not lit up by the sparkling full winter moon. In all of this it can feel like a month of self-denial and of suspension of activity, a time to tuck up indoors and wait for warmer days, a pause for contemplation before the hustle and renewal of the next few months.

But look and you will see sure signs that nothing stands still, even – or perhaps especially – in February. In the far north of the country the day lengthens by a full two hours by the end of the month, and everywhere there are little signs of life returning, unable to resist the turning of the year even when breath is cloudy and ground solid. And as light returns so does the urge to sow and to grow, to start off the year’s cycles, and to engage with the still-weak but strengthening sun. The temptation to hibernate may still be strong, but by the end of the month a spring-like hopefulness starts to win out.

Moon phases

3rd quarter – 7th February

New moon – 15th February

1st quarter – 23rd February

In the night sky this month

There will be no full moon this month, but there were two in January and will be two in March.

7th Close approach of moon with Jupiter tonight, before dawn in southern sky. 9th Close approach of moon with Mars tonight, before dawn in southern sky.

Constellation of the month – Canis Major

Follow the line of Orion’s belt from the furthest right star to the furthest left star and then beyond, and you will reach Sirius, the Dog Star, the brightest star in the sky. It lies in the constellation of Canis Major, the Great Dog, and is a major constellation in the southern hemisphere, but from December to March it can be seen in the northern hemisphere too, close to the southern horizon. Together with the Little Dog, Canis Minor, it chases Orion, the hunter, through the sky. Sirius is in fact a binary star, or two stars orbiting around a common point. The largest of the two, Sirius A, is twice the size of the sun and 25 times as bright. Sirius’s brightness is also down to its proximity: at 8.6 light years away it is considered one of our near neighbours.

WEATHER

The lengthening of days creates a huge sense of hope this month, and we gain nearly two hours of daylight by the end of it. But warmth does not match light, and this can be one of the very coldest months – minimum temperatures are often even lower than January’s. The North Atlantic reaches its lowest temperature, and so negates the ameliorating effects of the Gulf Stream. Meanwhile, frequent easterly winds rush in from Siberia and chill to the bone.

Average temperatures (°c):  London 7, Glasgow 4

Average sunshine hours per day:  London 2, Glasgow 3

Average days rainfall:  London 16, Glasgow 22

Average rainfall total (mm):  London 35, Glasgow 90

Day length

During the course of February, day length increases by:

1 hour and 40 minutes, to 10 hours and 50 minutes (London)

1 hour and 58 minutes, to 10 hours and 37 minutes (Glasgow)

 

THE SEA

Average sea temperature

Orkney: 7.3°c Scarborough: 6.9°c Blackpool: 7.2°c Brighton: 8.7°c Penzance: 10°c

Spring and neap tides

The spring tide is the most extreme tide of the month, with the highest rises and falls, and the neap tide is the least extreme, with the smallest. Exact timings vary around the coast, but expect each around the following dates:

Spring tides:  1st–2nd and 16th–17th

Neap tides:  8th–9th and 24th–25th

 

THE GARDEN

Planting by the moon

Full moon to 3rd quarter: 1st–7th. Harvest crops for immediate eating. Harvest fruit.

3rd quarter to new moon: 7th–15th. Prune. Harvest for storage. Fertilise and mulch the soil.

New moon to 1st quarter: 15th–23rd. Sow crops that develop below ground. Dig the soil.

1st quarter to full moon: 23rd–28th. Sow crops that develop above ground. Plant seedlings and young plants.

Jobs in the garden

• Prune last year’s growth on wisteria back to two or three buds from the main framework.

• Weed, mulch and cover vegetable beds with black polythene, to warm the soil ready for spring planting.

• Cut back grasses and perennials that have been left all winter, but pile them up loosely and leave them in the garden, in case the stems contain overwintering creatures.

Glut of the month – rhubarb

If you covered your rhubarb at the beginning of January, you will have deep-pink stems ready for pulling.

• For pretty pink pieces to eat with custard or ice cream, roast, don’t stew. Cut stems into 5-cm sections and place in a roasting tin with a few spoonfuls of orange juice, some honey, and a piece of star anise. Roast on a low heat for about 20 minutes.

• To make a fool you will need to make a puree, so stew the stems with a splash of water and a spoonful of sugar, stirring all the time. Leave to cool, and then mix very loosely into whipped cream.

• Try rhubarb raw, thinly sliced, topped with a little brown sugar or honey. A good topping for plain yoghurt.

Garden task – sow chillies

The urge to sow is strong this month, as daylight hours increase in leaps and bounds and we keenly sniff out any hint of spring. But despite our bones convincing us otherwise, it is way too early in the most part: seeds sown into the cold ground will rot away, and tender plants sown indoors this early will grow leggy, drawn and weak long before they can safely be planted out.

Chillies are the exception. Get hold of the catalogue of a specialist seed nursery and fully indulge those spring-like urges here. They need an epic growing season, and move slowly and with a naturally bushy habit, so will grow perfectly well indoors until the weather adequately warms.

Start them off one or two seeds to a pot on a warm, sunny windowsill. There are a few tricks to success with a chilli. Pot it into a slightly larger pot before it really needs it: they grow in response to root roominess and will be content with smallness if their pot is small. You must also resist any temptation to pinch out the growing tip in order to make it bushier: this is always the point from which the first fruit is borne, and you will set first cropping back by weeks if you do – it is bushy enough. And, finally, they need to bask in warmth and protection from the elements all summer long, ideally in a greenhouse. You will be rewarded for your early start in fiery fruits all through late summer.

 

KITCHEN

In season

• Clams, cockles and mussels are all in season until March.

• Enjoy the brief blood orange season while it lasts. There may be a few around next month, but this is the height of the season. Imported kiwi fruits, passion fruits, pineapples and pomegranates are also plentiful and at their best.

• Leeks, kale and cabbages are still going well outdoors, if starting to look a little battered, and beautiful purple sprouting broccoli is now coming thick and fast.

• Black truffles are still available.

• Pears, apples, carrots, swede and parsnips are still good from storage.

• This is the final month of the venison season.

Ingredient of the month – sheep’s cheese

For thousands of years before we fell for the charms of cow’s milk, sheep’s milk was the staple. Sheep’s breeding cycles are strongly directed by day length – they breed as day length shortens and lamb as day length lengthens – and so unlike cows and goats, they cannot be easily convinced to breed and to produce milk all year round. This means that there is a definite season to the production of sheep’s cheese, and this is the start of it. Sheep’s milk is particularly rich and has a greater concentration of solids than goats or cow’s milk, making it brilliant for cheese-making. Its cheese is particularly rich and sweet.

It will take weeks or months for the first hard cheese of the season to be mature, and these will last through the non-milking months too, but soft, fresh ewe’s curd cheeses can be found from specialist dairies from now until autumn only.

FESTIVITIES

Imbolc and Candlemas

Scratch the surface of many traditional celebrations, and you often find that they are amalgams of Christian and older feast days, often with thematic echoes. The beginning of February sees the old pagan and Gaelic celebration of Imbolc (pronounced ‘imulk’) on the 1st and the Christian feast day of Candlemas on the 2nd, with both connected to purity, cleansing and hope. They fall roughly halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox. Imbolc has seen something of a revival recently among modern Wiccans and Neo-pagans, and it provides a good marker for stopping and taking notice that winter is waning.

Imbolc’s ritual cleansing was a sort of agricultural preparation: peasants would carry burning torches across farmland to purify the land prior to new planting, and to symbolise the ever-increasing strength of the sun. The celebration marks a stirring into life after winter. The word Imbolc may derive from the Old Irish imbolc, meaning ‘in the belly’, or from oimelc, meaning ‘ewe’s milk’, both references to the importance of the arrival of sheep’s milk into the diet at this time of year.

Candlemas is the Christian festival of light and celebrates Jesus’s life as a baby and the ritual purification of Mary 40 days after his birth. Lumen ad revelationem gentium: a light to lighten the darkness of the world, as goes the canticle traditionally sung at the beginning of the Candlemas service. There is a candlelit procession and candles are brought into church to be blessed. Snowdrops, natural symbols of hope and purity, have a tentative link to both festivals. They were once commonly known as Candlemas bells, and it was considered unlucky to bring them into the house before Candlemas. Galanthus nivalis is the snowdrop’s Latin name, and Galanthus is derived from the Greek words gala (milk) and anthos (flower).

 

RECIPES

Pancakes

A cold, dark Tuesday after school, coats still dripping in the hall. An unlikely moment for a feast. But suddenly there is ritual at the kitchen table: triangles of lemon arranged on a saucer, sugar poured into a bowl. The first pancake is always terrible, wet and floppy from being poured when the pan was not yet blisteringly hot. Soon heat and confidence are up, and the pancakes arrive from stove to table with greater speed, but never, ever fast enough.

Makes about 12 pancakes

Ingredients:

100 g plain flour

Pinch of salt

2 eggs, lightly beaten

300 ml milk

Oil for frying

Lemon wedges and caster sugar to serve

Method:

Thirty minutes before you want to start cooking, put the flour and salt into a large bowl and make a well in the centre. Tip the eggs and a little of the milk into the well and use a whisk to slowly bring in a little of the flour at a time, adding more milk as it thickens, until all milk and flour are combined. Set aside. Put a frying pan on a high heat and add a little oil. Swirl a ladle full of batter around the pan and let it cook until bubbles push up from underneath. Loosen, flip and cook for a minute or two on the other side. Either serve them as they arrive or keep a pile warm in a low oven.

 

Whipped sheep’s cheese and shards of seedy crackers

To help stave off the urge to sow seeds, cook with them instead. Celebrate Imbolc with young cheese whipped until spoonable, and homemade seed-encrusted crackers. Soft, fresh goat’s cheese is perfect too if you can’t find sheep’s.

Serves 4, as a snack

Ingredients:

For the crackers :

200 g plain flour

½ tsp baking powder

1 tsp salt

50 g cold butter, cut into cubes

4 tbsp water

4 tbsp each of sunflower, pumpkin and fennel seeds

1 tbsp sea salt flakes

For the whipped cheese:

250 g soft sheep’s or goat’s cheese

2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Freshly ground pepper

Method:

To make the crackers, preheat your oven to 180°c/350°f/gas mark 4, then mix together the flour, baking powder and salt and then rub in the butter. Pour in the water and form into a dough, adding more water if required. Knead briefly, roll into a rectangle, and place on a piece of parchment on a baking tray. Brush all over with water and then scatter on the seeds before pressing them gently into the dough.

Scatter over the sea salt flakes and bake for 10–15 minutes until golden. Remove, cool, and break into shards to eat.

Whip the soft cheese, olive oil and pepper together with a whisk until it is fluffy and then spoon it onto the cracker shards.

 

NATURE

Look out for:

• Snowdrops, naturalised en masse in woodlands. Dig a small clump from the garden and pot in an old terracotta container to appreciate them up close.

• Winter aconites: tiny, golden and spirit-lifting on even the greyest days. The first primroses, too.

• Listen out for mistle and song thrushes singing for territories.

• Large flocks of winter-visiting birds can be seen in the estuaries.

• Siskins, unusual but beautiful visitors to the bird table.

Frog, toad and newt spawn

On warm days towards the end of the month, frogs, toads and newts flock to ponds for several-day-long mating sessions, filling ponds with spawn. Frogspawn is always borne in clumps in shallow water, while toad spawn is borne in long chains, draped over pond weed and plants in deeper water. Newt spawn is less obvious, borne individually and folded into a leaf. Don’t be alarmed by the amount: yes, there are too many potential frogs for your pond to support, but laying spawn is such a high-risk game that huge numbers are produced to allow for the many inevitable losses to predators and frosts. Don’t move frogspawn to other ponds or lift some out to grow on in a bucket or tank: your pond really is the best place. If you know of a pond that does not contain any spawn, it is most probably because it is not suitable for frogs, otherwise they would have found it. Leave them be, and enjoy watching them develop over the coming months.

The Almanac: A Seasonal Guide to 2018, by Lia Leendertz, was published by Unbound