I once did an idle poll of all the ways people’s mothers had called them fat and my favourite … well, it was a joint three-way between: “You could eat one more potato than a pig”, “Your brother is slimmer and more handsome, but that’s made him arrogant” and “Darling, you’re at what I would call your winter weight.” Ah, winter weight: is it a real thing or just a caustic critique? It’s both.
Some people don’t get hungrier when the seasons change and think it’s one of those things that happens to women, and bears. Those people are the outliers; they just don’t know it. A drop in ambient temperature increases energy expenditure in both sexes (also in bears). It shouldn’t matter enormously on a basic calories-in-calories-out model, because we’re talking just 150 calories a day. You use extra energy, you eat a banana; this is the smallest inconvenience the change in seasons has to offer, less annoying than having to find your cagoule. However, the human body being somewhat more complicated than a basic book-keeping system, all your appetite hears is the activation. It’s like the Hulk. It doesn’t want to do just one job. It’s a force of nature, not a supplier of goods and services. It wants to burst out of its clothes and keep on going until you, too, have burst out of your clothes.
There’s also a serotonin angle, as the sunlight recedes and your hormonal pathways try to source joy from other places, at which point a banana won’t cut it. And then, of course, there’s a feedback loop. You start by craving refined carbohydrates for a reason, but then you want more cake because you just had cake, as with heroin.
There’s a strong argument that says: who cares? Be your winter weight. And, sod it, while you’re there, why not eat one more potato than a pig? But let’s say you’re one of those people who hates being at the mercy of uncontrollable forces under the skin. There are things to eat in winter that don’t come from Greggs.
The point isn’t that you should eat hot food because it increases your body temperature from the inside. It doesn’t create a little pocket of heat in your stomach that emanates to your extremities for the rest of the day – it’s food, not uranium; the Ready Brek ad was basically mis-selling. But complex carbohydrates take more energy to digest, so will be both satiating and warming, which leads inexorably to the stew or hearty soup.
I start with pearl barley. I’m always bored with it by Christmas and by June I’ve forgotten how to cook it (it’s easy, like rice, only takes four times as long), but in the first cold snap it is powerfully cheering and fills your kitchen with a delicious, heady smell, as if you were living in a 16th-century brewery and will be ready for a massive knees-up in six months’ time. Delia Smith’s One Is Fun – perhaps the most controversial work in her canon, having caused lifelong rifts since the 1980s as friends presented it to each other as a passive-aggressive gift item (“You’re going to be alone for ever, at least eat nice soup”) – has a pearl barley soup of such substance, such rough but pleasing texture (squishy; no, wait, chewy; no, wait, slightly sticky; ah, hang on, also crunchy) and such an ancient vibe – you can taste the centuries of embedded knowledge, one generation passing carrot-wisdom on to the next, back into the mists of time – that while you’re on the first bowl, you feel as though you could eat it every day, for every meal, for ever. This will, unfortunately, turn out not to be true.
I don’t want to bang on about meat, painfully aware of how often I’ve claimed to be nearly vegan and then had a salt-beef sandwich. But the classic stew is barley with lamb, and William Drabble’s recipe is as close to perfect as it gets.
This will all take a lot longer than pasta and someone is sure to bang on about their slow cooker, and how it revolutionised their lives, because suddenly they were chopping onions at 7.25 in the morning and coming home to a delicious meal of very intense onions. I find this a slightly saddening life fix because part of the pleasure of making a stew is feeling that it was your skill – browning it, poking it, going back to have a look at it – that brought it to that point of excellence. Also, all those delicious smells, like a full-house scented candle made of food, except not £65 (there is no stew as expensive as a candle, except cassoulet). It’s better to make it on a Sunday and eat it all week. When you feel the painful monotony on around Thursday, you can add aioli.