Quite a year 2016 has turned out to be! Whatever it has meant for you, what with Brexit and the extraordinary pantomime that has been the US election, it’s now time to celebrate that we have made it through one way or another. There are sure to be some heated debates during the festivities over that last glass of port or mulled wine but sharing good food and drink around a table is one of the best ways to enjoy being together and a little debate is healthy, as long as it remains good-natured! Plan accordingly so that everyone, including the cook and bottle washer, can participate in relaxed style.
Just like stir-up Sunday and opening the first door on the advent calendar, a visit to your local Farmers’ market is the perfect way to get into the true spirit of Christmas. The sights, scents and sounds of the season are all around you so whether you are there with a lengthy list of favourite goodies to hunt down or simply want to soak up the atmosphere, browse and pick up some presents and special treats, you’ll have a better chance of success with a little preparation. Whether it’s shopping for tried and trusted old favourites, getting advice on the best way to cook your carefully selected produce from those most qualified to offer it, or maybe trying something new for the first time – it’s all a world away from pushing an overloaded trolley round an overcrowded supermarket.
This coming Saturday 3rd December I’ll be at Penshurst Farmers Market as usual signing copies of my books in the company of all our regular stall holders plus some special guests but also other talented local authors, carol singers, goose and turkey tastings, Wild at Heart’s wonderful seasonal canapes to try, and for even more Christmas shopping ideas, the Penshurst Place Gift Shop (my favourite place to buy really good cards!) and in the village hall, the annual Christmas Craft and Gift Market. So come prepared…..
Plan ahead to get the most from your trip
To make sure you get the best from your visit and spend your budget wisely, be sure to plan ahead and do a bit of research. Sit down a few days before your market and make lists of the essentials plus a few treats and surprises to help take the hard work out of all the cooking. Check on line at the Kent Farmers Market Association website www.kfma.org.uk/ for advice on individual markets, which suppliers you will find where, and what’s at its best to buy. If you’ve forgotten to order items ahead such as the turkey or maybe a goose, phone or email individual suppliers to see if they can fulfill your order ready to pick up at the market.
The big day…
Whatever you are planning for the big event – maybe a succulent goose or magnificent roast of rare breed beef or pork, or just going with tradition and sticking with turkey check what size you will need. You might be catering for smaller numbers so a pheasant or wild duck could be the best choice. And wonderful sea-fresh turbot or halibut are both very special for all kinds of celebrations. Whichever you choose, buying locally makes sense on every level. Smaller producers can select the best breeds for flavour and respond to local conditions to ensure the very finest results. You’ll also be supporting vital regional industry and have the satisfaction of caring for the environment too.
Once you’ve made your list of what you intend to buy at the market (and don’t forget it’s also the ideal place to pick up all kinds of special foodie gifts too), it’s a good idea to make a few simple preparations for your trip. If you haven’t ordered ahead and there is something you can’t manage without then aim to get there early so you don’t miss that special purchase. Make a trip to the cash machine ahead of your visit. Some producers do accept cards but many smaller ones don’t have the facilities so be prepared. It’s intensely frustrating to run out of money before you’ve bought all your essentials. Come with plenty of bags to carry away your goodies, and a freezer bag is always a good idea if you want to leave perishable goods in the car (unless we have a repeat of the arctic weather of some recent winters!) And before you leave home it’s a great idea to check you have enough fridge and freezer space for your purchases – storing them properly is vital to maintain flavour and quality.
What to choose this month…
The wet June, followed by a warm late summer sunny autumn have been good for many growers and producers which means there is a wealth of great produce out there from which to choose. And we’ve had some sharp frosts to add flavour to winter vegetables, and sharpen the appetite for warming dishes full of spice and rich tastes. Celebrating the winter solstice with feasts, frolics and fun goes back way beyond Christian traditions. With the harvest all safely gathered in and a long dark winter to face, country folk have always turned to celebrating the short days with fire and feasting, and many of the foods we associate with the season have been featuring on menus for centuries. Cranberries, turkey and pumpkins may have come to us from the new world but we can more than match these imports with chestnuts, celeriac, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, goose, pheasant, partridge, venison, wild duck, oyster, mussels and sea bass. Plan your menu around these and you won’t go far wrong.
Don’t forget the extras such as sausagemeat and bacon for the trimmings, maybe a chicken liver pate or local hot smoked salmon to serve as a starter, and to round up, traditional Christmas pudding served with thick cream or ice cream, warmed mince pies and a platter of carefully selected local cheeses.
As well as all the traditional festive produce, there are plenty of speciality foods and dishes at the market to help save time and feed crowds over the holiday. A cooked gammon or ham, pates and terrines, soups and curries, all are worth finding a space for in the fridge or freezer to bring out for unexpected guests or when you are just too overwhelmed to prepare yet another meal. Also don’t forget to stock up on chutneys, preserves and relishes to go with your cold cuts. And a few extra loaves of good bread tucked in the freezer for turkey sandwiches or to go with a bowl of soup will always come in handy.
When it comes Christmas presents it’s a great idea to stock up on local produce as gifts for families and friends. A hamper of goodies is a wonderful way to say thank you to a special friend for help during the year, and an over-worked host or hostess will welcome a carefully selected basket of treats, if you are going to others for the big day. Offer to bring the Christmas pud, put together a locally sourced cheese board or choose a beautiful savoury pie with pickles for Boxing Day. The changing climate and fashion for micro-production has seen a growth in local wines, spirits and beers, many of them award winning. And they make a great talking point so why not match your food gifts with a special chosen tipple.
Spiced pumpkin and sweet potato gratin
(from The Busy Mum’s Vegetarian Cookbook by Mary Gwynn published by Simon & Schuster)
Photograph by David Merewether
I often make this satisfying bake several times over the festive period! It goes perfectly with the Christmas turkey or goose, so much so that I find all the non-veggies want it too so make a huge one for the table. And a large dish makes a great Christmas Eve supper – either with a cooked glazed gammon joint and spiced red cabbage or simply served with a salad for when everyone gets in from carol services, as it sits happily in a low oven once cooked.
Serves 4 – 6/ Prepare 15 minutes/Cook 1 hour
500g pumpkin, peeled, deseeded and cubed
500g sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
2 tbsp chopped fresh sage
1 tsp ground ginger
1 tsp ground cumin
150ml vegetable stock (or white wine)
150ml single cream
25g seed mix
25g white breadcrumbs
50g hard goat’s cheese, grated
salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 Preheat the oven to 180C/fan oven 170C/ gas mark 4. Place the pumpkin and sweet potato in a shallow 2litre (3pint) ovenproof dish or roasting tin. Scatter over the garlic, sage, ginger, cumin and seasoning. Pour over the stock, cover loosely with foil and bake in the oven for 40 – 45 minutes until the squash is almost tender.
2 Increase the oven temperature to 200C/fan oven 190C/ Gas Mark 6. Pour the cream over the vegetables and scatter with the seed mix, breadcrumbs and goat’s cheese. Return to the oven for a further 12 – 15 minutes until the top is bubbling and golden. Serve with bread and a green salad.