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January: opening the door to a prosperous 2020

By
Extract | 13 minute read
First foot your way home to marmalade making and cosy puddings, in this warming extract from The Almanac

January is named after the Latin for door, ianua, being the opening onto the year. Neatly, doors feature heavily in New Year’s celebrations. Traditionally, doors were flung open at midnight to let the old year out, saucepans banging to scare it away. The first person through your door after midnight sets the tone for the rest of your year: ideally your ‘first footer’ should be a tall, dark-haired man, bringing coal (for warmth), salt or money (riches), or bread and wine (plenty). Take nothing out of the door on New Year’s Day, not even last night’s bottles.

In January we often only step out through the door ourselves after ten minutes of dedicated cladding with wool and Gore-Tex, as the wind is keen and cutting, circling unscarfed necks and needling into the foolish gaps between tops and bottoms. Although midwinter falls in December, the warmth trapped in the land and the sea creates a lag, and the full chill of our tilt away from the sun and towards cold, dark space is only felt now.

But it is still worth getting out. The countryside has a bare beauty, all bones and hazes of purple and ochre in the low winter light, every last shred of green leaf having finally dropped. And once chilled to the bone, there will be log fires and marmalade-making and cosy puddings, back behind your own firmly closed front door.

THE SKY

Constellation of the month – Orion

Orion is one of the most recognisable constellations, and beautifully visible in the winter sky. Look directly south at 10 p.m. in mid-January and it is around halfway between the horizon and the zenith, but it should not be hard to find at other times. Orion contains two of the ten brightest stars in the sky: Betelgeuse, a red supergiant in its top left-hand corner; and Rigel, a blue-white supergiant. When the sky is dark and clear, you will see a fuzzy ‘star’ a little below Orion’s belt. This is the great Orion Nebula, the nearest region of massive star formation to earth, and hence one of the most studied objects in the sky.

WEATHER

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev

This is one of the two coldest months and the month in which we are most likely to see snow – ‘as the day lengthens, so the cold strengthens’. In the north and Scotland, polar lows can move in, frequently bringing snow and blizzards. Low temperatures elsewhere are mitigated by proximity to the sea: the coldest areas are the mountains of Wales and northern England, as well as inland Scotland; the warmest and most likely to escape snow and ice are the south-western coasts. There is likely to be frost and fog throughout the country. Rain is very likely, and this is one of the two wettest months of the year.

Average temperatures (°c): London 5, Glasgow 3

Average sunshine hours per day: London 1, Glasgow 1

Average days rainfall: London 19, Glasgow 25

Average rainfall total (mm): London 55, Glasgow 130

Day length

During the course of January, day length increases by:

1 hour and 12 minutes, to 9 hours and 7 minutes (London)

1 hour and 29 minutes, to 8 hours and 35 minutes (Glasgow)

THE SEA

Average sea temperature

Orkney: 7.8°c

Scarborough: 7.3°c

Blackpool: 7.4°c

Brighton: 9.2°c

Penzance: 10.4°c

Photo by David Dibert

THE GARDEN

Planting by the moon

Full moon to 3rd quarter: Harvest crops for immediate eating. Harvest fruit.

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

New moon to 1st quarter: Sow crops that develop below ground. Dig the soil.

1st quarter to full moon: Sow crops that develop above ground. Plant seedlings and young plants.

Jobs in the garden

Prune fruit trees and grape vines, to bring them back into shape.

Force rhubarb clumps by covering them with a terracotta forcer or an upturned dustbin.

Buy and chit (sprout on the windowsill) seed potatoes: the early bird gets the quirkiest varieties.

Glut of the month – swede

Brilliantly hardy, it grows sweeter and more complex the more winter throws at it.

Bashed neeps: cube and boil until tender then mash with a near-excessive amount of butter, plenty of freshly ground black pepper, and salt. Serve with tatties and haggis at Burns Night on the 25th.

Cornish pasties: sturdy shortcrust pastry (use strong white flour), beef skirt, waxy potatoes, swede and onion. Chop everything to the same size and bake for 20 minutes in a hot oven then 20 minutes in a medium oven.

Swede with sausages and gravy: sauté swede slices in plenty of butter until slightly caramelised, then add a little stock, simmer until tender and roughly mash. Mound onto plate and serve with gravy and sausages.

Garden task – plant an apple tree

Photo by Kelly Sikkema

The cool and still inertia of the January garden can be turned to our advantage, most particularly when moving things that would rather not be moved. A tree that has dropped its leaves is in a state of deep sleep, and like gently lifting a baby from car seat to cot, there is an opportunity to make the move almost without a whimper, and certainly without a tantrum. This is the time to plant bare-root trees, lifted from the ground by canny nurserymen and transported with their roots wrapped in hessian, cheaper and available in greater variety than those grown in pots. Apples are often sold this way. Choose your variety and then find one grown on a suitable rootstock, which helps to determine the size to which the tree will eventually grow.

When the tree arrives, unwrap the roots and soak them in a bucket of water. Dig your hole, plant, backfill, firm down with a foot and then stake against rocking winds. Once in place, and despite the continuing cold, the roots will start to tentatively explore their new surroundings, and by the time the first bud unfurls, your tree roots will be all settled in and drinking up moisture, ready to make the most of spring, summer and autumn.

THE KITCHEN

In season

Kale, kohlrabi, leeks, cabbage, cauliflower, carrot and swede are all still standing in the vegetable garden. Early varieties of purple sprouting broccoli start to produce this month.

Some apples and pears are still good if they have been well stored, as are beetroots, garlic, onions, parsnips and squash.

There is lots of wonderful imported citrus around, and this month blood oranges join in. There are also lots of imported pineapples, kiwis, passion fruits and pomegranates.

Truffles – black truffles are still arriving from Italy.

Hare, woodcock, pheasant and venison are available from some butchers. Duck and goose are in season until the end of the month.

Ingredient of the month – Seville oranges

Early in the month the Seville oranges arrive, a brief but glowing respite from the gloom. Bitter and thick-skinned, zesty and complex, they are far closer to their sour Chinese ancestors than are sweet citruses. Almost the entire Mediterranean’s crop is grown to be shipped to Britain, where in steaming kitchens over cups of tea and hours of Radio 4 it is transformed into bittersweet, golden orange marmalade to be spread onto thick toast. Buy them as soon as you see them and use them within the week: they are unwaxed and won’t last. Jane Grigson’s recipe uses 3¼ l water, 1½ kg oranges and 3 kg granulated sugar. Boil the oranges whole in the water for an hour and a half. Cool, halve, scoop out innards, and place them into a muslin, then squeeze this into the liquor before dropping it in with the chopped peel and the sugar. Bring slowly to the boil, stirring, then boil hard until a jam thermometer shows 105°c.

Photo by Monika Grabkowska

FESTIVITES

Wassailing and Tu BiShvat: celebrating trees

January offers two festivities that celebrate trees and their crops. Both act as a reminder that summer and bounty will come again, and mark the start of the growing year, however unlikely that feels right now. Both also provide a perfect excuse to eat and drink by requiring the consumption of the crops they are celebrating, albeit in preserved form, as cider or as dried fruits.

Wassailing is an ancient custom of cider-producing regions of England, in which the wassail king or queen hangs pieces of cider-soaked toast in the branches of the most prominent or the oldest tree in an orchard, wassail songs are sung, cider is poured onto the roots, and favourable spirits are enticed towards the tree. ‘Wassail’ is also the name of the drink drunk on the day, and made by warming cider and apple juice with spices, sugar, oranges and lemons, and a dash of cider brandy. Finally, shots are fired through the branches, pots and pans are banged, and the evil spirits are warded off. A good harvest is hence guaranteed.

Tu BiShvat is a Jewish holiday that falls on the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shevat, which this year means 31st January. It is also called Rosh Hashanah La’llanot, which translates as ‘New Year of the Trees’, and it has become a day of mass tree-planting in Israel. This moment marks the revival of the growing year after winter, and is the day from which the ages of trees are calculated to determine tithes. It is customary to eat dried tree fruits and nuts, or to make a feast featuring the seven species described in the Bible as being abundant in the land of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates.

RECIPES

Date, apricot and pecan sticky toffee pudding

Sticky toffee pudding: warm, comforting and packed with chopped dates. The addition of a couple more of the crops of the Middle East does it no harm at all.

Ingredients

For the sauce

115 g butter

75 g golden caster sugar

40 g dark muscovado sugar

140 ml double cream

For the pudding

175 g Medjool dates, stoned and chopped small

50 g dried apricots, chopped small

300 ml boiling water

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

50 g butter, softened

80 g golden caster sugar

80 g dark muscovado sugar

2 eggs, beaten

175 g plain white flour

1 tsp baking powder

Pinch of ground cloves

75 g pecans, roughly chopped

Method

Preheat your oven to 180°c and butter a baking dish 24 cm x 24 cm. Make the sauce by putting all of the ingredients in a saucepan together with a pinch of salt, heating slowly until they combine, and then boiling for a few minutes until the sauce thickens. Pour half of the sauce into the base of the dish and refrigerate while you make the pudding mix.

Put dates, apricots and bicarbonate of soda into a bowl and pour on the boiling water. Leave to soak and soften while you make the rest of the pudding. Cream the butter and sugar and then beat in the eggs one at a time. Stir in flour, baking powder and cloves, the fruit and its water, and the pecans. Stir well. Pour the batter onto the top of the sauce in the baking dish and bake for around 30 minutes, then remove from the oven, tip on the rest of the sauce, and grill under a medium grill until the sauce bubbles. Serve with ice cream or cream.

NATURE

Look out for:

The first shoots of bulbs, proving that the season is turning under our feet.

Hazel tree catkins start to appear. These are the hazel’s male sexual organs and will disperse pollen while the tree is bare and there are no leaves to hinder it. Look also for the tiny, red female flowers on the stems, ready to catch it.

Hellebores, which are called Christmas roses but rarely do anything at Christmas, start to flower now. Float a couple of flowers in a bowl of water to appreciate their intricacies.

Migrations

The winter thrushes: fieldfares and redwings. These birds migrated to the UK from their northern European breeding grounds in September and October, searching for milder weather and more abundant food, but January often sees a micro-migration as cold weather drives them into towns and gardens. Normally they spend their days in arable fields and scrub and at the edges of woodlands, always travelling as a flock. But when the going gets cold, you may suddenly spot ten or twelve unfamiliar birds in a garden tree or picking over your cotoneaster. Fieldfares are large birds, the size of a blackbird, with a white underwing. Redwings are smaller, with an overall reddish-brown appearance and a red underwing. They like berries and love apples, so throw one onto the lawn when you are out feeding the rest of the birds.

The Almanac by Lia Leendertz is published by Unbound

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