Living off the land in winter

The life of a farmer revolves around the seasons. Come winter, a certain thriftiness is needed in the kitchen to make the most of meagre produce, writes Paulette Whitney.

It's easy to wake at dawn in winter. This far south we don't see the sun before 7.30 and this is the time market gardeners long for. A short lull between autumn harvests and plantings, and the race to prepare for spring.

Not even the chickens begrudge us our lazy starts as long as we take a steaming pot of mash out on frosty mornings. The plants are mostly sleeping, so there's little watering or weeding to be done. It's a season of planning, shed building, propagating and wood chopping. The tiny greens of summer are gone and winter harvest almost feels brutish - wrenching the heads from cabbages, forking reluctant parsnips from icy soil or hacking frost-browned outer leaves from radicchio to reveal their rosy hearts.

This heavy work and the cold air on our muscles makes us hungry. It's a hunger that definitely makes the best seasoning. The light meals of summer, when a meagre slice of bread with tomatoes and basil seems like an admirable family dinner, look like mouse food when compared with what our winter ravenousness demands.

Last summer saw us agisting a friend's beehive, and despite our steep learning curve we'd managed to put away a few jars of honey. Other friends have begun growing grains on their family dairy farm and we have jars full of their spelt flour in the pantry. The chooks, no matter how we coddle them, slow down egg production to a trickle, pancakes become a rare treat in this cold weather, and we clutch the warm just-laid eggs in our hands with the reverence due the finest china as we carry them to the kitchen.

It's a different way of looking at food. Rather than us deciding we'd like French toast, congee or eggs and bacon for breakfast, our appetites have to conform to opportunity. If the chickens have been kind, and the kids haven't turned all the milk into after-school hot chocolates, we'll grab that freshly milled spelt flour and make pancakes, perhaps having them drowned in warmed honey and cinnamon, and I'll crack the seal on a jar of apricots bottled in the heat of summer.

Maybe we've been really lucky and traded some help planting a friend's garlic for a slab of bacon, or the autumn-hatched roosters have begun fighting and there's ample broth on the stove to cook a rich rice porridge. Whatever opportunity has provided us with, we want carbohydrates and we want them now.

Some mornings, when properly prepared with gloves, layers of jumpers and woolly socks, I'll be lured out into the frost. I'll have popped out to feed the chickens and water the hothouse, when the low-slung sun will shine through frozen grass, lighting it up with a thousand tiny rainbows. The dam may have frozen over and my inner child will throw stones on the surface, first small ones that bounce across, then larger and larger until one shatters the ice with a satisfying plash. Led further up the paddock by iced thistles that look like giant snowflakes I might lose an hour or more fiddling about with tiny jobs while I should be cooking breakfast for my family. When my conscience finally gets the better of me I wander back to the house, through the thawing wonderland, to some very good smells.

None of my regard for eggs or pancakes or honey or bacon crosses my partner's mind. After chopping wood for the morning fire while I wandered about, he's cooked the lot and I come in to a laden table, and very happy children.

The spelt pancakes, leavened with buttermilk, are nutty, tangy and chewy - perfect with the apricots and honey. The bacon, which I'd been hoarding, is piled high. Thick rashers of salty, smoky goodness paid for with our labour. Every egg in the house has been fried and slipped onto plates as we sit down to feast. And, as I finish this meal, stomach full to bursting, I'm glad, very glad, that he didn't think of the congee.


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