As we slide somewhat gracelessly into a new month, on mud as much as ice, little has changed.
Temperatures remain too low for growth and all but the hardiest animals are under cover.
We can still find plenty of food in the ground though, living and stable. Carrots, cabbages, kale, turnip and leeks all hold firm, roots embedded in soil, patiently awaiting harvest.
Starchier crops - potatoes, swede and celeriac - too fragile to stay earthbound in frosts, sit darkly in cold stores, held in time until called upon.
Scottish fruits which weren’t preserved as jams or frozen last year are sparse with just a smattering of stored apples.
Imports fill the gap with the citric joys of lime, orange and lemon in particular adding colour and much needed zest to our otherwise earthy local offerings.
"Imagine if each of us committed to spending just £10 a week more on Scottish produce by choosing Scottish.
This would mean £25 million worth of extra Scottish produce bought every single week, £1.3 billion a year!"
During an inspiring visit to an organic farm in East Lothian last week it struck me just how much activity continues during what we may expect to be quieter months.
Workers were topping and tailing leeks; sorting and grading potatoes; covering carrots in deer-proof fabric (vindicating children everywhere who left a carrot out on Christmas eve); loading sacks of produce high on pallets ready for delivering out into Scotland and beyond.
There was no sign of a hungry gap here, except perhaps for the deer…
We are deep into winter, yet hardworking and hardy farmers and their workers maintain production levels of which Scotland can be proud.
But do we, the shopping public, recognise the work that goes into making local produce available at a time of year when the ground can switch between hard as iron and soft as mousse in a few hours?
Or are we guilty of thinking that a carrot is a carrot is a carrot and it matters not whether it was hard fought, nurtured and fresh? We wouldn’t assume two cars are the same, or two people, yet we sometimes assume that our fruits and vegetables, meat and fish is entirely interchangeable and let our wallets decide.
Having seen rows of greens growing proudly in hand-weeded fields, and hearing how they are pulled from the ground the same day as being taken off in trucks, to be on the shelf a day later, I see many reasons to seek out Scottish and organic produce.
The farmer made a telling comment: it never tastes as good as when it’s just out of the ground.
And this cuts to the truth of the matter - the taste of a fresh vegetable, unlike something that has been created to taste nice artificially, is surely the finest barometer of vitality and human benefit.
So we gain from seeking out the tastiest, freshest produce. If we do this then choosing Scottish and organic comes naturally because great taste is practically guaranteed.
I don’t mean we should necessarily choose Scottish every single meal of every day.
I like a monkfish ceviche with passion fruit and lime coulis as much as the next man. But there are times when we can introduce more local food to benefit ourselves, our families and those around us.
Which brings me to another thought…
There are nearly 2.5 million households (occupied dwellings) in Scotland.
Imagine if each of us committed to spending just £10 a week more on Scottish produce by choosing Scottish.
This is easily done by checking labels and tweaking recipes. This would mean £25 million worth of extra Scottish produce bought every single week, £1.3 billion a year!
Obviously the farmers wouldn’t receive all of that money, unless you’re buying it direct.
Assuming they get as little as 20 per cent (shameful but realistic) that’s still £260 million to share out in local communities, employing more workers and recycling the money in nearby shops and pubs.
Of course, not all Scottish households are going to do that. With my limited readership and clout in the world of food, I have no means to bring about such a change.
Maybe someone can start a campaign, like Meat Free Mondays, which encourages everyone to buy Scottish once a week.
Scottish Sunday? Tartan Tuesday? Just a thought…
Please don’t interpret this as Trumpish nationalism. Far from it, I totally get that we need to
import food when it is at its best elsewhere and to support communities around the world.
We are all global citizens now. We would also struggle to grow coconuts or bananas.
But I do have a strong desire for everyone, wherever they are, to forge a deeper connectedness to food.
This is because I believe that our bodies and minds benefit so much from food that is produced using natural methods and in our local area – it’s what we are naturally meant to eat and our bodies respond accordingly.
There is nothing better for body or soul than consuming fresh, local produce. It operates on a subconscious level.
We breathe it in and it nourishes us. So, whether we live in Papua New Guinea or Pinwherry we should try and shorten the distance our food travels to get to us. And it’s easily done.
This month there are several contenders for “highlight of the month”. Red cabbage comes a close second and I’m sorry not to publish my coleslaw recipe using it.
But, on the basis that January’s highlight was also purple and that what I saw on the farm was impossible to ignore, this month we are going for another member of the cabbage family: Cavalo Nero.
Also known as black kale. My only hesitation is that you might not find Scottish in all the shops as Spanish is also in season – but fingers crossed you do.
Unsurprisingly, given that it originated in Tuscany, one of the best ways to enjoy this delicious brassica comes by way of an Italian recipe.
The only mild chore with this dish is cutting off the middle stalk which must be done leaf by leaf – unless you have the knife skills of a young Gary Rhodes, don’t try and pile them up to do multiple leaves at once, you will either cut yourself or have stalks left.
The trick with this dish is the temperature – too low and you’ll have soggy leaves, too high and you’ll scorch them and burn the garlic.
• Two garlic cloves
• 200g of cavalo nero
• 1 fresh red chilli (strength and type of your choice but I think red is sweeter. A dash of cayenne or chilli powder/oil can work here instead), the juice of a wedge of lime or lemon and a good glug of olive oil.
• Finely chop the garlic and chilli.
• Prepare the cavalo nero leaves by slicing out the stalk with a longish sharp knife. You’ll end up with two sides of the leaf joined at the top and a heap of stalks for the compost.
• Do not chop the leaves any further.
• Heat the oil in a suitable pan (heavy bottomed helps avoid hot spots) and immediately add the garlic and chilli, before the oil gets hot. You don’t want to burn the garlic (if it goes deep brown the dish will be bitter).
• The garlic and chilli is your temperature gauge. Once the pieces sizzle very gently, add the leaves.
• Stir and gently fry for 5 minutes.
• Add the lemon/lime juice (not too much as it can overpower).
• Season with salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.
• Serve as a side dish or starter.
There are hundreds of other uses for cavalo nero, in place of many other leafy greens in soups, sauces and casseroles.
The only slight warning is that the leaves can be chewy so if using in dishes which you want children to eat, chop quite fine.
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