Winter King

They say the first winter is always the hardest. It’s not believe me. The hardest one comes four or five years down the line when a crisis hits and then another and then finally another. How you handle it is up to you. Zah proved his love once in an incident with some coffee and my heart swells every time I think of what he did. There was a moment where famine loomed. I know it sounds odd in a modern age that famine can still be a problem but somehow things didn’t go right and literally they snowballed. What started it was that the harvest was poor. At the time you don’t really count past the fortieth jar of homemade tomato sauce or the sixtieth jar of pickled beets. You’re more worried about where everything is going to be stored and whether you can afford the next five gallons of vinegar. The provisions was my responsibility and finding thirty different ways to work tomato sauce so that by December you weren’t painting the walls with it rather than eat it was difficult but vital. Zah was responsible for the proteins so from the garden came the sweet, earthy smell of the smoker as fish, sausages and meats were slowly turned into prize eating.

Underlying it was an urgency. The need to be ready when the first snowflake hit but it was taken at a slow steady pace and we both felt comfortable that we would achieve our goals. So jar was stacked upon jar, freezers were filled and slowly but surely everything seemed to be going well. The harvest had been poor as I said. A wet, cold spring meant that things didn’t get a good start. Then a humid summer came where the white of mildew seemed to cover every leaf. We sprayed as best we could but it took extra time, sometimes working until after midnight with torches, to solve the problem. But finally the harvest came and it seemed bountiful. True some of what we hoped for didn’t make it but we could make do and begin again the following year. Every berry, fruit, and vegetable that wasn’t good enough for preserving as was found itself turned into jam, chutney, or was dried and chopped as soup fillers.

One of my proudest achievements that year were the mushrooms. Somehow this was the one thing I missed when I cooked. There was one dish, when I was feeling very quiet that I would turn to, and that was mushroom ragu on toast. For those who’ve never had it let me tell you it is the one thing you will dream about. It’s the perfect balance between creamy and meaty with a subtle tang of licorice and the perfect mouth feel. The prep is pretty simple and the amount of ingredients needed are minuscule but it somehow manages to creep in and fill every corner and bring a smile. Zah’s laughing at me because I’ve warned him the next time I make it he will not divert me with a kiss and steal it off my plate. So you take about two square inches of bacon and finely mince it. Gently fry it off to crispy goodness, remove it from the pan, and then add about a very thin slice of onion. Let that turn translucent then remove and add your mushrooms to the bacon fat, thinly sliced again. For one person I’d say there mushrooms and button are fine. Let those sauté gently until golden brown and then tip the onion and bacon back in. Here’s where the magic happens though. A tablespoon of cream creese, a smudge of dijon mustard, a couple of drops of lemon juice, a couple of tarragon leaves, and fold that into the mushroom mix  off heat. Pile it on a couple of slices of warm, buttery toast and there is heaven. As I say it’s simple, so simple he could make his own, but somehow mine tastes better and I do get the kiss.

But back to the mushrooms. I missed them, craved them the previous winters and so I was determined not to have to go without another season. Catalogues were ordered and a huge number of options considered. True there was the option of the woods but I was never confident about what I selected and Zah wasn’t much better. It was a skill lost to us and so I decided to grow them rather than poison us both. In time the kits came and they began cropping. Pounds and pounds of shitake, button, and oyster mushrooms were produced and these were dried ready for snow days. Some of the buttons Zah put into the smoker which actually worked to my surprise so life looked to be glorious. Everything ready, not as much as we hope, but we were grateful for what we had and what we would enjoy.

When it came to provisions. We saved over the year, putting something by each week towards the big shops. Herbs from the garden were dried and spices bought in. Sacks of flour were bought, mountains of butter, powered milk, everything that we couldn’t grow but needed to bake and cook. The trick was to not go for the cravings. No chocolate or things which lead to glutting. That way there was never a regret because something was finished and we knew there was the promise for the spring. Finally come the coffee and tea rations. Again Zah tells it it that I am worse than a grizzly with a headache without the stuff. This is a truth but no more than he is. We need it and so fifty pounds of coffee were safely stored away together with the same amount of tea. We buy cheap as the sales happen and slowly the promise of coffee in March is realized. After all death by caffeine deficiency isn’t fun for anyone. In fact we buy an extra month given the way that the weather can be. All the preparations and the work might sound odd to most people but when you are trapped in the house by heavy snows and the walk to the shop is ten miles you do appreciate home comforts.

So that was our harvest. The whole year seemed to revolve around that first snowflake. It was as if our world passed from full on to stop. Firewood was collected and stacked cord upon cord for that snowflake. Shutters and boards were put up for that same snowflake. Repairs were made, the buildings strengthened, so many nails and bruised thumbs just for one damn snowflake but it was needed and so it was done. Zah is laughing again, reminding me that this was my choice. It was and always will be, as much as it is his, we choose to be together and in the being together we accept the work involved and the thumbs whenever they get bruised.

But this is about making it through the winter in the end. With the first snows the land itself seemed to close down. The skies become purple and the ocean whips up to feel tremendous and more powerful than you ever thought possible. Stand in the silent woods and you will hear the snow sizzle as it falls. Crystal upon crystal falling to wipe clean the land. At first it’s a good feeling. When the snow comes the view from the window changes and you snuggle beneath the duvet to investigate a needful body. It’s delicious. The feeling of your own body slowing down with the landscape and it’s no wonder in rural communities why there are so many babies born in summer. October slide into November and as I was busy working on a book it didn’t matter. Zah dozed in his chair as he read a book in my office and the dogs lay sleeping by the fire. No music, no TV just the sound of typing and the occasional “I love you” or the turning of a page. As I’m English we let off fireworks across the now freezing ocean for Guy Fawkes night. Rockets glistened on the water and the ice. Green, gold , and purple glittered and hung in the pregnant air. To watch those same rockets reflected in the dark eyes of my love was even more beautiful. We had a tradition of lighting them as I had when I was in my twenties with a cigar. Just one, shared by both of us, touched to the blue fuse to fill the skies with spiders webs of pure light that hung and danced before being swept away in a gust of wind. Once the fireworks were spent we would light the bonfire and in the embers bake a couple of potatoes for a late supper.

The first of our crises rather ruined Guy Fawkes that year. We woke in the morning, snuggled and enjoyed until Zah decided I needed to work and so left me to make coffee. Hearing very loud cursing coming from the kitchen I stumbled out of bed and discovered him finally swearing like a sailor in the storeroom. A mouse had got in and managed to chew into two of the five pound bags of rice spilling precious grains all over the floor. We were both standing naked and both swearing until we caught each other’s eye. Then we laughed and I grabbed a dustpan to try and save what we could. The total on the floor was a little over a bucketful and so it became a question of whether we could use it. We needed it of course and there was only one bag left untouched so the decision was made to boil every grain, skimming for dust as we did, and then try to find room in the freezer for it. The untouched bag was placed in a tin box and so we moved forward. Traps were laid for the intruder. We didn’t like it  but there it was the mouse had to go. We also agreed to leave the door open so the cat could help.

So that evening we walked to the lake and lit fireworks, held hands, ate baked potatoes. The same as every year we marked a moment in our lives together forming a tradition that Zah’z son Chase now repeats with his own children over a thousand miles away. But that year with our bellies full and our hearts fuller we walked back to the house and found that our crisis continued. The cat had chased the mouse and caught it but in the process Jerry had obviously run behind some jars and Tom had decided to follow. Now it wasn’t rice but coffee which littered the floor and this time a precious commodity was full of glass shards. I was sent to bed, where I lay seething at the sheer bloodymindedness of cats, sleep didn’t come until I was joined by a coffee scented Zah. We snuggled and slowly fell asleep and in the morning I found boxes of coffee neatly placed on the kitchen counter. The blessed man, my man, had spent hours picking through and sifting out every piece he could find. He’d also stitched a triple filter bag sacrificing a shirt to the cause and told me to filter twice drinking it.

By Christmas the cat was forgiven and we began to prepare for Chase and his girlfriend’s visit. The driveway had to be dug out three times that day and we were both frozen and tired by the time they arrived. They stayed for a week and the world took on a different energy. The was a vibrancy in having them there but it also made things difficult sometimes. Clothes were required for one. There was a sudden queuing for the bathroom and a new palette to please. She was sweet enough but we could all tell that she found the food strange. Chase told me towards the end of the visit she missed burgers and sushi. But she made Christmas for all of us with her spirit and quiet fortitude in the face of snowball fights. When they left we were truly sad to see them go. Two weeks later Zah got a message that Chase had been involved in a serious car accident. As he packed to go take care of our boy I spent a frantic couple of hours digging out. A sad goodbye and I was left for a week feeling useless and utterly alone. News trickled in about what had happened. Broken ribs, concussion, and loss of blood. It was touch and go and I could hear the panic in his voice. The utter despair that his son, our boy, was lying on a hospital bed and he could do nothing. We talked for hours that night. His voice trailing in and out as he tried to make sense of the details and trying to convince himself things would be ok. By dawn he had fallen asleep with the camera still rolling. My tear stained warrior gave in to sleep and lay curled on the bed and in time I feel asleep too. When I woke up he had gone. Back to the hospital but where he had laid the camera showed a note that said “love you xxx”.

Chase recovered in time. There were a few complications but he made it through and came home in mid February with his dad and his girlfriend to recuperate. The second time around we had the swing of things. Most of the time anyway. There was a morning when Zah clad only in a robe was forced to wade out into the snow and pee because Elise was taken her own sweet time in the bath. We never mentioned it and as a reward for laughing I was given chilblain duty for an hour to warm him back up. For Chase it was slow going and there were no snowball fights for a while. Elise joined in with the cooking to give us a break and spent most of her time nursing Chase to the point he begged us to take her shopping.

Elise was the cause of our famine. She’d taken over the cooking for a few days shooing Zah and I out of the kitchen as she reduced the room to chaos. She wanted to be Chase’s personal domestic goddess and was determined we, her future fathers-in-law, would benefit too. The meals were interesting. Smoked salmon with puttanesca sauce was interesting and the venison with bourbon peaches definitely came into the interesting category, but she tried and that was enough. Late one evening after we had enjoyed venison flambé with the emphasis on flambé Chase and Zah implored me to go back into the kitchen and teach the poor girl a few things. So I agreed and prepared mentally to gently but firmly take my kitchen back. She took it very well. Kind of. There was a downward glance as I explained the routine. Bread was made daily. Stored fruit and vegetables needed checking. and a meal plan should change if something needed using up. Then there was checking the larder and storeroom to make sure everything was in order. The poor girl must have thought she was going into service as a scullery maid but she needed to learn if she wanted to truly win Chase over and they were good skills to have. The fresh produce was checked and everything was fine. When I went for flour there was an odd smell in the air but I put it down to a rotten apple that had rolled under a shelf. We’d find it and everything would be fine. Bread was made with a minimum of fuss and then we went to make lunch.

I decided a simple pasta dish would be a good place to start. So we went to the store room for onions and a jar of the puttanesca sauce. What I found was nearly every jar was now had a thick layer of white mould growing over the top of it and the smell of vinegary decay was pervasive. Out of some fifty odd jars of produce and sauces about four were untouched. I asked her as gently and calmly how she had been choosing her sauces. By taste she said. It seemed that she didn’t recognize the names on the jars so she would open them and dip a finger in to try them. The lid would be replaced if it missed the mark. I couldn’t be angry. The poor girl didn’t understand sterilization and she thought everything would be fine. She didn’t have a mother who cooked more than picking up the phone and so no one had taught her about what food needed to be handled. But it did leave us with a problem. Food we were counting on was now gone and so while I emptied out jars Elise was put to washing them. Zah dug us out and was sent with a shopping list to town. It took the poor man all afternoon and he arrived home very late after battling his way through drifts, but he had brought enough to see us through for a couple of weeks.

What I will say is that Elise showed a flair for the kitchen once she learned the basics. She learned her herbs and her meats, her vegetables and her fruits. Much to Chase and Zah’s joy she mastered the mushroom ragu. Basic, simple dishes became easy for her and all though she occasionally reverted to interesting it was when she tried too hard to please. The following year she came back for both the planting and the harvest, writing copious notes but always genuinely wanting to learn. We managed that winter grateful we had managed to make it through the crises. Every night Zah and I would lie in each others arms knowing that all would be well when the snow melted, and we could start it all again.
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