Charles Campion, food writer and critic, takes on today’s fine food issues

“Gung hay fat choi!”

This year the Chinese New Year was early and the main festivities ran from 27th January until 2nd February. For everyone else this is a quiet time of year, with both food shops and restaurants choosing to lie low in January. Eventually St Valentine’s Day will encourage an upward blip in the sales figures and things will perk up

Meanwhile, the Chinese community is busy merchandising its flamboyant New Year. Drums are beaten, cymbals clashed, while the lion dances and rears up to the windows collecting lucky red packages of money. Everything to do with the Chinese New Year is about building up a stock of good luck for the year to come, and stirring up business during the “hungry months.” It makes you wonder what we could do to put some pizazz into February and stop it being so grim.

British poets have not been much help. “February Fill Dyke” may be traditional but it doesn’t deliver much beyond floods and mud. The Anglo Saxons also had a soft spot for February, which was said to be the point in the year when the first kale and cabbages were ready for the cooking pot. Goodness knows what those Saxons would make of kale’s current role as a trendy yearround veggie. Only a very hungry man would be charmed by the fresh food available in February. Scholars would have it that the name “February” is derived from “Febria,” a Roman Festival of purification, but for most Brits striving to eat fresh and local whenever possible, February means “Turnips á la mode Baldric”.

There is a rich tradition of taking over feasts and national festivals and using them to drive business.

At the end of January, the Scots hold Burns Night suppers (dinners to celebrate the earnest poet’s birthday). The skirl of bagpipes precedes a mighty haggis into the dining room – a.k.a. the “Great Chieftain o’ the Puddinrace” – this is a magnificent bit of spin for a sheep’s stomach stuffed with a suspicious oatmeal mixture. The whisky helps make it all palatable. For their part the Welsh have St David’s Day (at the beginning of March), but rather disappointingly you’re unlikely to find iconic seasonal Welsh delicacies – unless you count the “Eat a Raw Leek Competition” that is popular in village pubs.

For once England has a real advantage in the race to cash in on the folklore front. St George’s Day falls on April 23rd. The days are longer and there’s a slightly higher chance of decent weather, but sadly no quintessential English dish to stand in as centrepiece. You are much more likely to eat well in April than in February, but that’s explained by the first fresh vegetables coming through, the first spring lambs, and more good weather opportunities for fishing boats to put to sea.

One strategy for food shops and restaurants is to ease up on the seasonality imperative, and make the most of the flood of produce that comes to us as air freight. Which brings us back to the Chinese New Year. It’s unlikely that we will ever see Morris Men as flexible as the dancers in the Chinese lion costume, but we could find some enthusiasm and perhaps a new festival or two that would encourage customers and retailers alike and so make a difficult time of year a bit less difficult. Happy St George’s Day!

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