Buckling, bloaters and the game of the season

A New Year's resolution to eat healthily needn't mean a dull diet. The shops are full of exotic imports, plus the best local produce.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Are you feeling as fat as a pig? Can't look at another chocolate? Fed up with cooking, eating and food in general? Don't despair - you are suffering from post-millennium excess. At least it makes abstinence seem alluring. Time, I feel, to peel a refreshingly healthy clementine and contemplate life.

Are you feeling as fat as a pig? Can't look at another chocolate? Fed up with cooking, eating and food in general? Don't despair - you are suffering from post-millennium excess. At least it makes abstinence seem alluring. Time, I feel, to peel a refreshingly healthy clementine and contemplate life.

In the last few years the food world has changed enormously. Shoppers now have to contend with genetically modified ingredients and a cocktail of additives such as MSG and aspartame. We have to consider whether we want organic, artisan, farm-friendly or mass-produced food. And if that were not enough, we have the choice of buying from the Internet, box schemes, supermarkets, village stores, farmer's markets, street markets or farm shops. Every decision we make has a repercussion.

The simple act of reading a label and selecting on the basis of origin can make or break an industry. English apple growers, for example, suffered last autumn from supermarket shoppers choosing to buy the cheaper European imports.

Contrary to popular belief, we can, and do, influence what we are sold. Dorcas Jamieson, the head of consumer affairs at Sainsbury's, explains: "We constantly monitor customer demand and change our products accordingly."

Within days of the first few phone calls about the safety of GM foods to their customer service department, Sainsbury's began to investigate the problem. By the time they were receiving 20,000 phone calls a week, they had already begun to remove all GM ingredients from their own labels. They are now working to eradicate them from the products of their suppliers. In the same way, the demand for organic produce has led them to increase their organic food from 100 to 500 items in one year.

I, for one, have resolved to shop more responsibly this year as it seems to me that we have reached a crossroads in food production. It is time to signal how we want our food to be produced. If, for example, you don't want MSG in your food, you will have to read labels and boycott everything from Knorr's stock cubes to Jacob's Cheeselets. In the same way, if you want to support the rural economy you will have to buy home-grown produce before imports, and use farmer's markets or their shops. The same principles apply to organic produce. Foods containing GM ingredients are more problematic, but any expression of disquiet to shop, producer or MP will help.

Such resolutions do not mean a dull diet. Quite the reverse. You can buy the best home-grown ingredients during their season, before supplementing them with exotic imports that would never grow in our chilly climate. Thus in January, you can enjoy the delicate stems of forced Yorkshire rhubarb, English apples and pears, sweet from storage, as well as juicy lychees, pomegranates and citrus fruit.

For centuries, January has marked the arrival of Spanish lemons and Seville oranges. The latter are due to arrive today and will be around for the next two to three weeks, so marmalade makers had better pull out their preserving pans. Those not quite ready to start bottling could try freezing their Seville oranges whole - they will make good marmalade later. Those still with an appetite should buy some extra Seville oranges as they make a fantastic ceviche, as well as superb savoury butter sauces, creamy puddings, cakes and curds. Blood oranges and clementines are also in season now. The former makes a most reviving buck's fizz.

Home`grown vegetables are still easy to buy in January, provided snow doesn't hamper supplies. Jerusalem artichokes should be at their peak and make deliciously sophisticated salads, as well as excellent soups, gratins and crisps.

Keen gardeners and cooks might like to know that The Henry Doubleday Research Association is holding a National Potato Day at Ryton Organic Gardens, Coventry on Sunday 6 February, where you can taste and buy tubers from over 120 rare varieties. (For further information telephone 0247 630 8211.)

However, if you tire of the many roots and greens available, you could always turn to salads and sprouts. The hardier bitter lettuces like raddichio, trevisse and Belgium endive all make gorgeous winter salads, although some can only be found in recherché greengrocers. Why can't one buy a whole escarole (batavia), curly endive (frisée) or feathery magenta-coloured trevisse (red chicory) from a supermarket? Incidentally, if you happen to dine on salad in a chic restaurant, look out for utterly scrumptious pea shoots and onion sprouts tossed into your leaves. Frances Smith, the grower for Appledore Salads in Kent, says that with a little care they could be grown at home. Sugar snap seeds yield the sweetest shoots - which are snipped before the first tendril unfurls. Onion or leek seeds are harder to grow, but they do have an exquisitely light allium flavour whether eaten fresh or stir-fried.

Farmed mushrooms are another good winter choice. You can now buy cave-grown Blewitt mushrooms, along with shiitake, horse or brown mushrooms. As to the juicy oyster mushrooms, don't expect spectacular cooked colours from the yellow or pink versions, they always turn beige once cooked. All of these mushrooms work well together, particularly in warm salads and pasta.

It is worth remembering that the game season ends on 31 January, so if you want to savour the last partridge, pheasant, wild duck, snipe or woodcock of the year, now is the time. They might be a bit chewy, so you will have to stew, pot or turn them into paté to appreciate their fine flavour. Fanned venison is available throughout the year and makes an excellent, tender winter dish.

Those in need of lighter food should consider fish, in particular smoked fish. You can now mail-order from H Forman & Son (0181-985 4321) traditional British delicacies like smoked sprats, buckling and bloaters. The tiny sprats may be fiddly to eat, but they have a lovely flavour, fresh or smoked. Unfortunately, fishmongers can never guarantee their availability as they have become increasingly hard to sell in recent years. Buckling and bloaters are both ungutted herring, but buckling are hot smoked and can be eaten cold, while bloaters are cold smoked and should be lightly grilled with lashings of butter. Whoops, there goes the diet.

Sybil Kapoor's latest book is 'Simply British' (Penguin, £7.99)