Lynda Hallinan: My winter favourites

The challenge of the cape gooseberry: cook it or leave it for the possums?

The challenge of the cape gooseberry: cook it or leave it for the possums?

Ten things I love about winter: porridge with cream, plum jam spread thick on toasted sourdough, mince and cheese pies, bacon butties for Sunday brunch, mulled wine, roast potatoes drenched in gravy, oxtail stew with mashed spud, rhubarb crumble, steamed treacle puddings and warm winter coats big enough to hide a multitude of dietary indiscretions.   

As you can probably guess, I'm no slave to the Paleo diet but I can definitely see the advantages of dressing like a cavewoman come winter. Carbo-load at lunch, then layer up with cardigans and coats until no one can tell if you're thin or fat.

I wouldn't be without my merino trenchcoat (is there a retail outlet in New Zealand more conveniently situated to literally fleece freezing commuters than Icebreaker's store at Wellington airport?) As warm as a Swanndri but somewhat more stylish, my coat scores extra points for its fashionista-approved versatility: it can be dressed up with black tights and thigh-high leather boots, or down with gardening gloves and gumboots.

"Isn't that what fashion is? A nonverbal means of lying about the sad, naked truth?" quips one of the trio of single, suicidal sisters in Judith Claire Mitchell's new novel, A Reunion of Ghosts. (A dark comedy, I was hooked by page four when it was revealed that the sisters – Lily, Veronica and Delph – were all named for flowers, although "Delph is short for Delphine, which our mother thought that was the name of the vivid blue perennial, but actually means 'like a dolphin'.")

Make that 11 things I love about winter: devouring novels in one go without feeling the least bit guilty about sitting on my chuff, comfortably indoors, while my garden, stripped starkers, shivers out in the cold alone, looking decidedly worse for wear.

If my winter garden was a child, CYFS could charge me with neglect for failing to provide the necessaries of life. But the way I look at it, winter gardens are like accidental encounters with old boyfriends: best avoided. No good can come from being reminded of the fulsome flexibility and freshness of young love. Nor is it wise to recall the glory of spring or the abundance of summer when you're looking a bit wrinkly and wobbly in winter.

Few winter gardens look good – aside from those blanketed in snow – because few plants look good naked. I can only think of a handful to truly hanker after. There's the corkscrew hazel,Corylus avellana 'Contorta', with golden branches as twisted as a 1980s poodle perm; clipped mahogany clouds of divaricating native Muehlenbeckia astonii; the red-barked dogwood, Cornus alba 'Sibirica', its bare stems glowing like a decanter of shiraz; and strangely skeletal cape gooseberries.

When Jack Frost returns to our farm in winter, his first task is to strip my cape gooseberry bushes of their modesty. These promiscuous South American annuals (Physalis peruviana) are instantly felled by the falling mercury, but at least they die with dignity. When their leaves have all sagged and the stems have flagged, the orange berries still glow like fireflies trapped in intricately filigreed cages. 

Sadly, I've only ever found three reasonably appetising ways to actually eat cape gooseberries, though I'm open to suggestion.

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You can dip them, whole, into melted chocolate to make sweet and sour truffles (of a sort), boil them furiously into a sticky jam the colour of burnt toffee, or simmer them in a little water with vanilla and sugar then, when cool, fold the stewed berries into a bowl of whipped cream or Greek yoghurt for a simple gooseberry fool.

Or just leave them where they lie and let the birds, rats and possums scrap over them.

 - Stuff

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