I woke up the other morning to find snow on the ground, which quickly melted in places the sun could reach but remained in the shadows throughout the day. I grew up in Canada and have always enjoyed the distinct pleasures of each season. Fresh snow has a different effect on me than it does on most Dubliners, especially this year as my family and I did not make our annual pilgrimage to the rural winter wonderland that I grew up in (we are finally being realistic about our responsibilities for adverting the climate crisis).
The “severe frost” that the Irish suffered through for a few days – down to a low of -3C – is almost laughable when compared to the -20C regularly experienced by my family near Toronto. Of course each society adapts to its own environment. For example, our house in Dublin was not designed to be comfortable during sub zero weather and would likely become uninhabitable if Ireland were to experience a lengthy Canadian hard freeze.
Similarly, all of the vegetables that I am currently harvesting from my exposed allotment on the outskirts of Dublin can easily survive the recent snow and cold weather, but nothing would remain edible below -20C. Growers in Canada have adapted to these hard freeze conditions by pulling everything up in December and accepting that nothing will be harvested again from the garden until June unless significant winter gardening techniques are used (my favourite book on this topic is Four-Season Harvest by Eliot Coleman). This six month period was traditionally bridged by a substantial store of food in root cellars and preserves, but the hunger gap of spring left many of the early settlers to the region malnourished. Today, an endless stream of trucks from the warmer growing regions of California has effectively eliminated this recurring threat to the health of Canadians, even if it is causing considerable damage to the health of our planet. In Ireland we are increasingly relying on the steady stream of trucks from Spain and flights from Kenya and beyond even though we do not have comparably harsh conditions to deal with.
Establishing year round local food systems in Toronto would be difficult, though possible, but in Dublin I have found it to be much easier. I am still amazed at the diversity of vegetables that I can harvest fresh from my allotment every month of the year.
Of course parsnips are the king of winter vegetables, becoming sweeter after a few hard frosts, and providing the ground is not frozen or waterlogged, they are content to stay in the ground until needed. Celeriac, winter radish, scorzonera and salsify, though not traditionally part of the Irish diet, will easily wait out the Irish winter in the place where they grew. It is also best to leave Jerusalem artichoke, or more accurately the sunroot, buried until needed. Add the roots and tubers traditionally stored in the shed or cellar, including potatoes (the staple of the Irish diet), swedes (referred to as rutabaga in North America but which the Irish insist on calling turnips), beetroot (the most noble of all vegetables) and the humble soup carrots, and you have a feast readily available throughout the cold months and into the spring.
Last year, as an experiment, I planted an early variety of carrot in August, covered the bed when the weather changed with a moveable cold frame (a box made from scrap wood covered by an old window), and continued to harvest the delicious tender carrots until they ran out a few weeks ago. Their growth slowed but they became sweeter and more crisp as winter arrived. My daughter and the neighbourhood kids gobbled them up so quickly I will need to plant many more of these delicate winter carrots next year.
With all of these root vegetables, we are consuming the dormant store of energy and nutrients saved up by the biannual plants in order to produce abundant seed in the second year. When we eat the leafy winter brassicas, we are instead relying on the abundance of slow growing but hardy leaves that will collect the energy needed to produce buds and flowers once the warm weather arrives. There are many leafy brassicas that can be harvested fresh through the winter and early spring, but the hardiest of these is kale, which I have grown to love and has become a staple of our winter diet. Some varieties of kale are hardy enough to survive a Canadian winter, if you were willing to dig them out of the snow. Brussels sprouts are another hardy seasonal treat, which would probably be liked by more people if not for the unfortunate habit of over-cooking them. Cabbages and cauliflower have been so extensively bred that varieties are available fresh throughout the year, but I am anxiously waiting for the short season of the purple sprouting broccoli to begin. I wish I had planted an early variety, as well as the heavier cropping late variety, which would have extended the season by almost a month and I would only have had to wait a few more weeks before they started to produce their beautifully flavoured spears.
Chard is a hardy leafy version of the beetroot, which thrives in the cooler climate of Ireland, providing tender greens and crisp stalks throughout the year. But with a bit of protection from a mini-polytunnel, a cold frame, fleece or a cloche, there is an enormous diversity of tastes, colours and textures available from lettuces, spinach, endive, chicory, parsley and many more exotic salad plants. As with the delicate winter carrots, a bit of protection from the frost and wind can extend the season of many plants right through the Irish winter and into the hunger gap of the spring. This same protection also allows these same plants, and many others, to be started earlier.
Another common winter vegetable is the mellow flavoured leek, which would be standing proud all winter had the local rabbits not feasted on them last summer. Luckily we have a store of onions, shallots and garlic, which seem perfectly content to hang around in our rather cold kitchen and will last at least until the spring onions become available.
To finish this list I must mention squash and pumpkins, my favourite winter food. I realise that they are a bit out of place here as they not winter vegetables and will not tolerate frost. They require the warmth of the summer to grow, but they do provide an easily stored source of nutrients, colour and flavour that is very welcome at this time of year. Although the larger pumpkins might only keep for a few months, many types of squash, especially some of the Japanese varieties, will last through until late spring, providing you plant a variety that will mature properly in the cool autumns we normally experience and can find a storage place that is neither too cold nor too damp - in our house, the unheated but insulated attic has the best conditions but it unfortunately keeps these beautiful fruits out of sight.
This diverse array of winter vegetables does not include anything that needs to be processed, frozen, packaged, trucked, shipped, airlifted or stored in a place more elaborate than a cool dark shed, a pantry or an attic. In fact many of them will keep better, and even become tastier, if they are allowed to remain in the ground where they grew. It is deeply satisfying to be able to go to the allotment or into the back garden and harvest the substantial part of an evening's meal, no matter what the season, and it is unfortunate that this experience has become so rare in Dublin. But, more importantly, it has become environmentally irresponsible to not take full advantage of the Dublin climate which allows us to harvest fresh food every month of the year.
When I sort through seed catalogues and begin to plan for the coming growing season, I have to be mindful that there is so much still in the ground. It would be much easier to start from a freshly tilled allotment, a blank slate onto which I can arrange each crop. But with over-wintering vegetables to be harvested as late as May, and all of the new early spring crops to be planted in February, the overlapping seasons can be tricky to juggle. This extra effort of planning is, of course, well worth it with all of the fresh local food that we are still eating as we head in to a new growing season.
(A shorter version of this piece was included in the Dublin Food Co-op newsletter)