I’ve always enjoyed autumn and winter cooking more than summer cooking. I like the way you gradually turn in on yourself as the weather cools.
Life slows down and so does cooking. Cold-weather dishes undergo slow transformations: alchemy takes place as meat and root vegetables, through careful handling and gentle heat, become a rich stew, a dish far greater than the sum of its parts.
The techniques employed in the kitchen fug the windows and seal you in and you find you want different foods. But even without their food, autumn and winter are my favourite seasons. Perhaps it is the result of growing up in Northern Ireland. I find comfort in drizzle and beauty in hueless skies just as much as in the colours of autumn foliage and the smokiness of autumn air.
Curiosity about cold-weather flavours took me to Austria, Switzerland, Hungary, Scandinavia, northern Italy, America and the cooler areas of France, collecting recipes as I went. They all use much the same basic produce as we do – root vegetables and brassicas, orchard fruits, pork, game and cheese – but their flavour combinations are different. These trips have had a profound effect on my cooking.
It took me a while to get used to game. It’s very different to farmed meat. It tastes of the earth, the result of a diet of berries, wild grain grass and grubs; no wonder we describe it as ‘strong’. Not all game is truly wild nowadays. The quail, still widely regarded as game, is not shot wild in Britain now, though it is in parts of Eastern Europe.
Here it’s farmed and real game aficionados scorn it, but I’m fond of the little birds. The flavour may be mild, but quails still make for good eating: there are plenty of small bones to get your chops around, they cook quickly and look elegant.
For a bit of dark glamour in the cold months, I turn to plums, figs and little black damsons. Of course plums and figs are summer as well as autumn fruits: you see the first of them in July. But classic summer fruits, such as tart, bright raspberries and redcurrants, put a spring in your step and make you think of blue skies; plums and figs make me want to close the front door and put the oven on.
I’m a sucker for baked and poached fruits, and plums and figs take to this treatment brilliantly. Poach or bake them in red wine with sugar or honey, with herbs such as thyme, fennel, bay and rosemary, or spices such as cinnamon, ginger and cardamom…each combination will give different results.
Scoop the fruits out of the cooking liquid when they are just tender, reduce the juice, leave it to cool and thicken, then pour it back over the fruit and chill: simple and delicious.
Roast Figs, Sugar Snow (2023), by Diana Henry, is published on 14 September (Aster, £22)