Cold weather has its compensations

DAWN WAS ALL BROWN FOG TO T S ELIOT IN THE WASTE LAND. But up here in Derbyshire, as we edge toward spring, it’s red and beautiful. As the sun rises, a sky like scarlet smoke turns a hazy grey and gold. Cold weather has its compensations.

Making crème de cassis is another. Kir is one of my favourite aperitifs and we were almost buried under blackcurrants from the summer’s bumper crop. We also had a cupboard full of undrunk bottles of vodka.

What was stopping us?

Following a recipe found in these very pages, we swamped the fruit in Stolly. The many empty receptacles went in the recycling; what the recycling men must have thought can only be imagined.

This all happened last July and now, six months later, it was time for the next stage. We had to strain the mixture, add the sugar syrup and decant it. This done, and arranged in rows in the kitchen, the labelled bottles are an immensely satisfying addition to the jams and quince paste we made in the autumn.

I feel the urge to open a deli, especially as, adding an exotic touch to this splendid range of home preserves, are several large bottles of Cretan olive oil that a Greek friend imports from her family village.

On the other hand, the deli business round here is pretty competitive. The Chatsworth Farm Shop, with its straw-boatered till operatives, is just over the hill. And there’s another farm shop along the moor road, a deli down in the village and butchers and cheese shops everywhere you look. Food round here is quite wonderful, and quite unlike anywhere else.

Take the pyclet (pronounced pikelet) stall in Derby’s lovely Georgian market hall. Its proprietors, two brothers, cook these small, fluffy pancakes fresh to order. My daughter loves chewing her way through a packet of six as she sits in the stands watching Derby County. I prefer mine heated and slid under bacon and sausages on Sunday morning (or indeed any time of day or night). Pyclets are food for the gods.

After that we strap on our boots and stagger out into the fields, heading, ultimately, to one of the excellent local village pubs. A favourite is the Barley Mow in Bonsall whose dynamic landlady, Colette, has been introducing shabby chic to her time-honoured hostelry. Union Jack cushions, gilt-framed pictures, lopsided lampshades and mismatched chairs have duly made their appearance and it’s all gone down very well.

But a line has been drawn over the flooring. Colette’s plan to pull up the ancient flowered pub carpet and polish the wooden boards beneath has been thwarted. Locals like the carpet and have got up a petition to keep it. Faced with the carpet’s retention, Colette is wondering about extracting some of the generations of local DNA from it; might she be able to clone the ultimate village resident? Or would a flat-woven fiend be let loose? An Axminster axeman? An underfelted Frankenstein? Watch this space.

The Barley Mow’s other contribution to village life is maintaining the fine tradition of hen racing, of which it claims to be world centre. July sees crowds of thousands assemble to watch chickens running across the carpark.

Other established local rites include well dressing, which is not, as a French friend once imagined, a sartorial stand-off among the denizens of rural communities. It is the ancient summer practice of decorating the local water source with panels of coloured petals. Villages get very competitive about it and some of the results are amazing.

Derbyshire winter village traditions are few and far between. But that of putting on your own panto is alive and well. And why not? We all need cheering up in February and there’s zero competition from other seasonal entertainment. But that’s not the only reason. Far from it.

The fact is, villagers round these parts have strong terpsichorean tendencies. They require, nay demand, an outlet. There are many local families which make the von Trapps look like slackers. So numerous are the performers in one place that you practically need an Equity card to live there. One lady I know has two professional dancers and a circus bareback rider among her offspring. She is, moreover, married to the pantomime dame.

By day he’s a respected company director. Last week, as Widow Twankey, he was all pink wig and falsies. Supported, as it were, by other leading lights of local business playing roles from sultans to policemen.

What’s behind all this? It might be something in the water (of which we get a lot). Or something to do with the long dark nights. Perhaps villagers, especially in the undemonstrative north, simply need to let rip from time to time. Or confound opinion by revealing unexpected sides to their personalities.

Whatever the reason, the performers have a blast and it brings the whole village together. Entire local dynasties, including lots of teenagers, people the panto cast list. Some perform, some produce, some provide musical accompaniment. Round here, community spirit isn’t just alive and well, it’s singing, dancing, cross-dressing and providing ice-creams in the interval. We may live in the age of the internet download and a million TV channels but there’s still no fun quite like your own fun.