Food & Drink: Purple Passion in the aisles

ON SEASONAL FOOD: There's far more to fresh food this month than just endless cabbages and root vegetables. High time to stock-up for feasts ahead
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The Independent Culture
NOVEMBER IS the month when all cooks need to flex their muscles. You can be a slob for the rest of the year - eat ready-made meals in front of the telly - but come December you will be judged according to what you place on the table. Thus, anyone who enjoys a relaxed life would be well advised to invest in a little advance preparation, before the rush begins.

The shops are already full of goodies, so with a little forethought you can fill your freezer and larder with a few well-chosen items that can be brought out to dazzling effect whenever any worrisome guests heave into view. Flour may not seem an obvious choice, but in November you can buy the most delicious stone-ground chestnut flour. John Lister, the miller at Shipton Mill in Gloucestershire, heads for the ancient chestnut woods of the Ardeche in France every October, to buy direct from the local farmers. It makes gorgeous cakes and crepes, especially if eaten with chocolate. Incidentally, it is worth buying a selection of his organic flours, which range from the silkiest white flour to his latest blend, Three Malts and Sunflower Brown Flour, which contains malted barley, wheat and rye mixed with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. Definitely one that will impress the Joneses.

If you feel the need to be completely esoteric, you should look out for the first of the new season's olive oil. Sicilian and Greek oils tend to appear first, at the end of November, followed by Spanish and then northern Italian oils. The French are more unpredictable, picking and pressing according to their mood. The best oils are made from olives that are slightly under-ripe. Tuscan olives are not picked until the beginning of November. According to Charles Carey, of The Oil Merchant, new olive oils should be bought with caution as some people find their bitter pepperiness overpowering, even unpleasant. For this reason, many estates release their new oil only in January or February, when it has settled and mellowed.

November is a wonderful month for fruit, nuts and vegetables. Aside from the many different English apples, several pear varieties come into season. Look out for English Beurre Hardy; their ripe flesh will melt in your mouth. Or try two Italian varieties - the Italians are as obsessed about pears as we are about apples: Abate Fetel, an elongated, thick-skinned fruit, and Passa Crassana. The former has a sweet, nutty flavour with a pleasant, astringent back-bite; the latter a thick golden skin and intensely flavoured, buttery, granular flesh. This is a pear to peel.

Gardeners will no doubt be enjoying the scent of their freshly picked quinces. The supermarkets usually sell Turkish specimens, which English growers claim are less fragrant. Home-grown fruit has to be sought out from neighbours, at farm gates and in the odd shop. Buy whatever you can lay your hands on and make rose-scented compotes, pies and jellies. Your relations will be thunderstruck at being presented with a delicate quince- and-pear pie.

The Spanish citrus season begins now, with clementines and luscious Navelina oranges. No need for Paula Pryke's flowers when you can fill a fruit bowl with aromatic, organic Greek lemons and leafy clementines.

Fresh cranberries also appear in November, especially in London where they need to be on tap for expatriates celebrating Thanksgiving. Personally, I would wait until Christmas; there is only so much you can do with a cranberry.

Walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts and chestnuts are also appearing in large quantities now. Sadly, Brazil-nut lovers will be disappointed this year as it has been a disastrous harvest.

Winter, as every Briton knows, is the time for root vegetables. Parsnips, carrots, celeriac, Jerusalem artichokes and potatoes are all good and full of flavour.

Potato addicts should try out Marks & Spencer's latest potato. It's called Paola. It looks like an ordinary, rough-skinned white potato, but has been developed from low-yielding South American root stock and tastes amazing. Its yellow flesh cooks into a buttery, sweet mash that is gorgeous and knocks spots off your average tattie. Wait two or three years and you may be offered their Phureja; it may not look fantastic, but tastes even better than Paola.

Brussels sprouts are sneaking into the shops in ever greater numbers, along with curly kale, spring greens and red chard; miniature is all the rage for all four at the moment. Cabbage-lovers will be pleased to see the return of green January King cabbages. They have a particularly sweet flavour, as every garden slug knows. And, of course, there are plenty of leeks and all sorts of onions around.

Cooks pining for some winter exotica may wish to try Crimson Pacific asparagus, available from Waitrose. It is a red asparagus from New Zealand. Crimson Pacific and a close cousin, Purple Passion, have caused a frisson of excitement among supermarket buyers this year.

The cold weather brings lots of firm-fleshed fish from the icy northern seas. It is also a good time for shellfish. Everything from native oysters to rope-grown mussels are available now. Marks & Spencer is selling freshly cooked Cromer crabs, while the best fishmongers will have dived king scallops. The majority of scallops are dredged, then cleaned and soaked in water (which increases their weight). There is some debate about how environmentally sustainable dredging is, so where possible buy dived scallops or the smaller, farmed "queenies". If you get fed up with such specialities, you can always curl up in front of the telly with some seasonal fish and chips.

For further information on newly pressed olive oils and mail order, contact The Oil Merchant, 47 Ashchurch Grove, London W12 9BU, (0181-740 1335), e-mail: The Oil Merchant@compuserve.com.

Shipton Mill sells all its flours by mail-order list (01666 505050), Shipton Mill, Long Newnton, Tetbury, Gloucestershire, GL8 8RP. Whichever you choose, the total price including p&p is as follows: 5-9kg at pounds 1.80 per kg; 10-19kg at pounds 1.45 per kg; 20kg and above at pounds 1.05 per kg

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