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How you can use your Christmas tree for food and cooking

Brew pine needles to make a citrus-y tea, with four to five times more vitamin C than orange juice or a lemon. Photo: Getty Images
Brew pine needles to make a citrus-y tea, with four to five times more vitamin C than orange juice or a lemon. Photo: Getty Images

‘Forage, ferment, and favour free food!’ advises author Rachel De Thample. (And that includes eating your Christmas tree.) Katie Jarvis chats to the acclaimed ‘ingredient maverick’ about her new book, Winter Wellness

Rachel De Thample – author, chef, fermenter and forager supreme – has a confession. A rather delightful confession.

‘Actually,’ she says, as we meet on Zoom, ‘I just went to the corner shop before I met with you…’

(Hang on. That’s not the confession yet.)

The thing is this. She’s just back from time away and… guess what. A fridge as empty as a desert landscape. So, she walks to the local shop – passing an apple and a quince tree surrounded by windfalls – on her way to buy herself a banana.

Great British Life: Rachel De Thample. Photo: rivercottage.netRachel De Thample. Photo: rivercottage.net

‘But the banana was all wrapped in plastic, and I just thought: Actually, I’m not [going to buy it]!

‘So, I went into this garden where I’ve seen the quince tree and it just rains quinces. No one seems to be living there, and I thought: I’m going to get a quince. So, I picked it up off a builder’s rubble sack… and that’s going to taste so much better than this banana that’s been picked, under-ripe, and flown around the world; that’s been sitting in plastic in a warehouse and in the back of a truck.’

Love it. After all, what’s a moral dilemma if it’s not balancing feather-light trespass against unforgivably heavy waste?

What I can’t get over, I tell her, is that I can spend a glorious late-summer afternoon gathering basketfuls of free, juicy blackberries from the path outside my house (Hydra-like brambles, that seem to spring two more fat berries for every one I pick); while a mere 100 metres down the road, I’ll see plastic punnets for sale in the town supermarket.

She nods. ‘People will literally trip over apples, going to the shop to buy them. And I’m still amazed that supermarkets sell apples from the Southern Hemisphere when they’re in season in the UK. But they do – and wrapped in plastic.’

 

The reason?

‘People are afraid. Because they want to see it labelled, they’re not sure if it’s edible.’

She laughs. ‘It’s an eating apple if it tastes nice! And, if it’s a bit tangy, you need to cook it.’

So far, so unseasonal, I know.

But did you know this?

You can actually eat your Christmas tree.

RACHEL DE THAMPLE’s new book Winter Wellness (Nourishing recipes to keep you healthy when it’s cold) is full of different ingredients.

Ingredients such as poetry – melt-in-the-mouth poetry: ‘These crepuscular rays at dawn,’ she writes of chill winter’s light; ‘like breathy arrows piercing through a frosty forest…’

Great British Life: Dry orange zest to store and add to dishes for the coming year. Photo: Getty ImagesDry orange zest to store and add to dishes for the coming year. Photo: Getty Images

Ingredients such as ‘who-knew-it!’ tips:

• How to dry orange zest to store and add to dishes for the coming year.

• That putting mushrooms in sunlight for six-or-so hours before you eat them adds to their vitamin D.

• On sprouting, and on fermentation (one of her specialisms).

It’s full of photographs – not just of dishes but of iced plants that remind us to be joyous because winter has arrived. Rachel and a photographer friend went out at 5am ‘to catch the sunrise, and the frost before it melted. It was really magical.’

And startling ideas. Again, who knew – who really knew! – that you could eat your (admittedly organic, non-chemically-treated) Christmas tree, by brewing the pine needles (four to five times more vitamin C than orange juice or a lemon) to make a citrus-y tea.

Great British Life: Brew pine needles to make a citrus-y tea, with four to five times more vitamin C than orange juice or a lemon. Photo: Getty ImagesBrew pine needles to make a citrus-y tea, with four to five times more vitamin C than orange juice or a lemon. Photo: Getty Images

‘I do eat imported citrus from Italy and Spain in the winter, but pine gives you that same citrus-y note. And similar health benefits as well. There’s pine everywhere.’

Foraging in winter warms you twice: once when you gather your bounty; twice when you cook and absorb its thermogenic qualities.

Rachel now lives in Dorset – she works with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (who has written the foreword), teaching preserving courses at River Cottage. (‘Magician’; ‘ingredient maverick’ are two of the descriptions River Cottage rather wonderfully bestows on her.)

But don’t for a moment think that living in an urban area is an excuse for not foraging.

‘I actually know more foraging spots in London because I was there longer.’

Chestnuts blown from trees on the Pentonville Road.

Great British Life: 'Chestnuts are in so much protective coating, you don't have to worry about pesticides' Photo: Getty Images'Chestnuts are in so much protective coating, you don't have to worry about pesticides' Photo: Getty Images

‘They’re in so much protective coating, you don’t have to worry about pesticides.’

(Actually, she points out, studies by the University of California demonstrate that the chemical residues of foraged foods in urban areas are on a par with commercially grown, non-organic produce.)

Or hawthorn – and it’s a bumper hawthorn year. ‘The flowers in spring! Bees were going completely crazy for them. I picked some and infused them with vinegar.

Great British Life: Hawthorn berries are really good for heart-health. Photo: Getty ImagesHawthorn berries are really good for heart-health. Photo: Getty Images

‘Now the trees are laden with berries, which are really good for heart-health. There’s a Christmas borscht recipe, inspired by my friend Caroline, in this book: I put hawthorn berries in as an optional extra. I have tried to pepper foraging opportunities throughout the book just to get people outside.

‘I was writing the book this past winter – so in ‘live’ time. I wasn’t writing it in summer and buying in imported swedes. Everything was local and true.

‘And I relished the opportunity to go outside, even though I kind of wanted to stay nestled inside! It’s quite nice to stretch your legs and go and pick something. It wakes you up in a different way.’

RACHEL DE THAMPLE’s winter recipes draw on a panoply of cultures: Japanese, Chinese and Scandinavian amongst them. Since she moved away from her family home in America, she’s experienced Christmas in every different kind of place.

Ask her to reminisce, though, and it’s those Christmases deep in rural Texas that resonate the loudest.

Great British Life: Fermenting is one of Rachel De Thame's specialisms. Photo: Getty ImagesFermenting is one of Rachel De Thame's specialisms. Photo: Getty Images

At her grandparents’, they’d eat produce grown by her granddad, cooked into preserves and ‘homemade everything’ by her grandmother.

‘Every member of my family would probably have the same answer in terms of their favourite Christmas memory: my granny’s bread rolls. She made these amazing milk buns. The next day, they were the house for all the leftovers as well.

‘My favourite bit was as soon as they came out the oven, when granny would gloss them with butter: hot buttered rolls. A very southern delicacy.’

You’ll not get snow in Texas at Christmas. Yet perhaps, even so, that was where Rachel’s love of the shivery brr-y-ness of winter began. For her great-grandmother was Norwegian, and Bosque County – the farming community where her grandfather was raised – contains a mini Norwegian time-capsule with the minutest of communities still.

‘It has a couple of tiny shops, and the sort of swinging saloon-type doors; proper country. And lots of trees with fields and a stream.

‘My granddad’s surname was Stanford, and his great granddad established an area in Bosque County called Stanford Valley. I went there after my granddad passed away last year; we drove along this stream and it’s just complete … You can see nothing else apart from trees and landscape and cows – and probably a few snakes.’

You can find that Scandinavian heritage honoured in Winter Wellness, such as the ginger biscuit recipe – pepparkakor – eaten to celebrate Lucia’s Day (December 13).

Great British Life: Pepparkakor: Swedish ginger biscuits – are eaten to celebrate Lucia's Day (December 13). Photo: Getty ImagesPepparkakor: Swedish ginger biscuits – are eaten to celebrate Lucia's Day (December 13). Photo: Getty Images

(‘I keep a log of it in my freezer. It’s a very American thing to have cookie dough in your freezer: in 10 minutes, you can have freshly made cookies.’)

You can also find it in the way the book encourages us to gather up winter – its dark, its cold, its sleepiness – and embrace it in a hibernating-bear-hug.

WINTER WELLNESS is full of stories. I’m fascinated by the idea of the couple in Manhattan who lived off-grid. (Really? Off-grid in Manhattan!)

The creation of granola (spelt ‘granula’ originally) by Dr James Caleb Jackson for his health spa in New York, way back in 1863.

But the one that makes me laugh is of Rachel’s celeriac Seville ceviche which, she casually notes, she made for the first time when she invited one of her food heroes (and colleague) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall for dinner.

‘I was going to make classic fish ceviche, but the fishmonger was closed… so I bravely improvised.’

I mean, goodness! ‘Bravely’ doesn’t begin to cover it.

Great British Life: Winter Wellness, by Rachel De ThampleWinter Wellness, by Rachel De Thample

She laughs, brushing off my admiration.

‘I’ve had him for dinner only twice: I think people are scared to cook for him.

‘I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to his for dinner. He just cooks what he has – it’s always stuff from the garden. It’s 20 times, a million times more than what you see on TV when you go to his house because even his wife makes the plates – I don’t know if she digs up the clay for them; she probably doesn’t do that… Maybe she does! I wouldn’t be surprised.

‘But if you’re going to cook for someone that you admire, or that you love, the best way is getting the best produce and keeping it simple.’

I know she’s an amazing chef who has worked in the kitchens of Marco Pierre White, Heston Blumenthal and Peter Gordon.

But, go on. What’s the scariest meal she’s ever had to cook, then?

‘That was in winter as well: I was a prize in an auction for Made In Hackney, an amazing community kitchen; a charity that does so much good for the world of food. I’m one of their ambassadors.’

Henry Dimbleby, co-founder of food-chain Leon, bought a dinner-party cooked by Rachel.

‘He invited Giles Coren [Times restaurant critic] and one of the editors from BuzzFeed… I forget who else. So not only was I cooking for him in his kitchen, but he had a pretty illustrious friend-group coming.’

Great British Life: 'Bay is literally one of the best; I always have a vase on my table and pick from it when I'm cooking'. Photo: Getty Images'Bay is literally one of the best; I always have a vase on my table and pick from it when I'm cooking'. Photo: Getty Images

So, she smoked beetroot over bay leaves (‘Back to foraging: bay is literally one of the best; I always have a vase on my table and pick from it when I’m cooking’) until it was gorgeously tender, then blended it with walnuts ‘and very little else, actually’ to make a kind of hummus. ‘It was quite nerve-wracking,’ I have to say.’

What did they think?

‘Giles liked the beetroot. I’m not sure he liked everything else. It was a vegan meal because Made In Hackney is vegan, so everything was plant-based. I don’t think he was terribly interested in that idea. Henry was, but not Giles.’

In which case, let’s move onto a more appreciative audience.

What will Rachel and family be sitting down to at Christmas this year?

‘I have no idea!’ she smiles. (We are, at time of interview, in mid-October.)

She does know that Christmas this year will be in the West Country. ‘We don’t really eat much meat at home, although my partner is pescatarian… and he has a secret love of turkey, I think. But I’m not so keen.

‘When we had Christmas here a few years back, I made a celeriac dauphinoise; and then I wrapped it in pastry with mushroom duxelles on the top. It was utterly amazing. So we’ll probably have that.’

Great British Life: Why not make some honey-fermented quince-meat this Christmas. Photo: Getty ImagesWhy not make some honey-fermented quince-meat this Christmas. Photo: Getty Images

Or maybe a whole roasted turbot, ‘because it’s like the turkey of the sea, and we live by the sea. That is a really special fish to have at Christmas. That, and heaps of veg.’

ONE FINAL QUESTION before she goes.

I’ve realised I’ve never, ever eaten a quince. I have no idea what you’d even do with one?

‘I just grated it and put it in the oven to roast. But I made last year some honey-fermented quince-meat – like Christmas mincemeat. You grate it and fold it through honey with all those lovely spices you would have in a mince pie. Some dried fruit and a bit of citrus zest.’

So now you know. Happy Christmas cooking.

Winter Wellness: Nourishing recipes to keep you healthy when it’s cold, by Rachel De Thample, is published in hardback by Bloomsbury, £22.

Great British Life: Sticky citrus date cake, by Rachel De Thample. Photo: BloomsburySticky citrus date cake, by Rachel De Thample. Photo: Bloomsbury

Sticky citrus date cake recipe

Inspired by an English comfort food classic, the mighty sticky toffee pud, this recipe amplifies the date element, yet melds and balances it with the sharp tang of winter citrus. Blood oranges are my favourite here, but in fact you can make this at any time of year, with whatever orange orbs you can lay your hands on. You can also grind up any nut you have or love in place of the almonds. (I once made this with freshly ground pecans and it was delicious.) And try playing around with different oils: next time I make it, I’m keen to try it with cobnut or hazelnut oil, along with ground hazelnuts.

This batter is also lovely baked in a muffin (or mini bundt) tin. Baked that way, it makes 8–12 muffins or mini bundts and you’ll need to reduce the baking time to 18–20 minutes.

SERVES 8

75ml olive oil, plus more for the tin

200g pitted dates

2 tsp finely grated orange zest,

plus 300ml freshly squeezed orange juice (see recipe introduction)

1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

thumb of root ginger, finely grated

1 tsp mixed spice

100g buckwheat flour

75g ground almonds, hazelnuts,

pecans, or walnuts

pinch of sea salt

For the sticky topping:

300ml freshly squeezed orange juice

Preheat the oven to 180°C/170°C fan. Lightly oil a 900g loaf tin.

Chop the dates in half, put them in a small saucepan and cover with the orange zest and juice. Simmer gently for 5 minutes until the dates are soft.

Take off the heat and stir in the bicarbonate of soda, which will froth as you add it. Blend the juicy bicarb dates until smooth with the ginger and mixed spice.

Fold in the buckwheat flour and ground nuts, the 75ml olive oil and the pinch of salt.

Spoon into the prepared tin. Bake in the centre of the oven for 35 minutes, or until cooked and the sponge bounces back when pressed.

Meanwhile, gently boil the juice for the topping until it has reduced by half. Serve it warm in a jug alongside the cake, to pour over each slice.



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