Blog: Yey Humbug! Keeping the Christmas spirit alive...from the Sauce
I look back rather fondly on the mild, occasionally menacing, culinary competitiveness between families and friends over the Christmas period. Who made
the fruitiest Christmas cake, the greater selection of stuffings or the better brandy butter? It almost guaranteed that there was some form of Christmas
cooking going on in every household throughout the UK. No doubt in some cases harmonious and organised and in others a bit more chaotic and combustible.
But then that’s what we Brits thrive on isn’t it, a bit of stealth competitiveness to stir us into action.
Everyone wanted to produce a showstopper of some form. It was a matter of pride. The two ways to achieve this were either to be armed with a secret ingredient and sheer determination or to cook something, such as beetroot gravy, that no-one else had really thought about. Defeat was only acknowledged when the dish somehow gained the victor’s namesake - Aunt Mavis’ cheese straws, Uncle Tom’s roast potatoes. This festive familial and neighbourly top trumps has been the fuel for fictional characters and domestic comedy for decades. Occasionally stressful at the time, Christmas was always the reliable source of comical stories for generations.
I have noticed that the Christmas competitive culinary spirit now seems to exist only really between supermarkets. Who sells the best pre-stuffed turkey, who sells the crispiest ready-made roast potatoes and who makes the most value for money mince pies.
I think this is a bit of a shame. As much as we are all told to have a break from the kitchen, make it easy for ourselves, I can’t help wondering if making a bit of effort for one another is really what Christmas is all about? The adrenalin fuelled collaboration of creating the Christmas dinner. Who is bringing what, who is cooking what, who is loudly slamming kitchen drawers and rattling cutlery to emphasise how much work they are doing?
Is there really as much satisfaction to be garnered from the knowledge that your mince pies came from a German supermarket chain and were cheaper than other chains and apparently taste better? What are we doing if we are not elbowing each other out of the way in the kitchen anyway? If all the food is ready-made and just involves popping it in the oven. Does it really mean we are going to spend more time playing board games and catching up with family and friends or does it mean that the television is on watched by a few, while others gaze downward at tablets and phones.
Creating a Christmas feast from scratch should be fun, cheaper and involve less food waste. Ultimately it is just a big British roast dinner shared between family and friends. With some alcohol-soaked fruit cakes and puddings thrown in. Don’t be persuaded that it is too much hard work, too complicated and that the simple solution is to ‘treat’ yourself to overly processed cheap carbohydrates. It’s not a grind, it’s an exciting experience that gives and provides for others. For this to be achieved it does involve some planning and some delegating but the process is surprisingly rewarding and festive. I can almost hear you start to hum Sleighbells Ring as you make your lists.
Start today. Find out who is selling British cranberries. Spread out expenditure and buy some now and freeze them. Have you ordered your turkey from your butcher? How many people are you actually feeding and be honest with yourself do you actually like leftovers that much? If not, go small. How many roast potatoes/parsnips/brussel sprouts each? Go to the shop. 5 large potatoes hand-picked by you are going to give more roast potatoes than 5 small ones selected for you in your online delivery. What are your local specialities? Do you live near the coast – can you incorporate seafood into your festive menu? Do not be afraid. Christmas dishes have been made for generations by many people who think they can’t cook. Involve children – encourage them to roll out and cut the mince pie pastry. As Xanthe Clay wrote in a brilliant 2011 article showcasing her best mince pie recipe, ‘Unlike shop-bought, home-made pastry is made without sugar.’ I can almost guarantee you that collaboratively cooking from scratch will tastier and less calorific too. You will also know the origins of everything and know that you are eating the best, British.
Two years ago I wrote about the slightly forgotten Stir-up-Sunday. So I utterly rejoice at its renaissance, thanks to programmes such as the Great British Bake Off and the increasing volume of articles, tweets and blogs about baking. At the same time, for those not bitten by the baking bug, Christmas is the perfect time to have a go. It doesn’t have to be perfect and the end product might not inherit your moniker but making a couple of mince pies is so much more rewarding on every level than just buying them.
I have no memory of my parents or grandparents buying mince pies. Not that my mother is some sort of domestic goddess with endless odours of baking emitting from her busy kitchen. Quite the opposite. My mother has never been visibly interested in cooking - desperate that her three daughters should aspire for more than domestic duties and believing she should set an example. She very much took a food is fuel outlook. As a result, of course, we all love cooking. We also endlessly rant about her failing to give any of us any domestic instruction. So whilst both my Grandmothers’ mince pies were the stuff of dreams – the perfect ration of golden crumbly pastry and homemade mincemeat my mother’s were slightly bullet-like, 6 fork holes on the top of each and sticky round the edges where the mincemeat had crept through. We still scoffed them though. Not an aluminium foil case in sight.
I have been chief culinary co-ordinator for Christmas for the past three years. The first year, in an effort to save washing up I decided to cook the turkey in an aluminium baking tray. This was a disaster. At the final basting session the bottom of the tray split and the oven, the floor and my feet were covered in turkey fat. Everyone laughed. I suppressed my sense of inner rage and misery by swigging out of the brandy bottle and we ploughed on. I spent Boxing Day cleaning up.
The second year I tried my hand at a Christmas pudding. The result was a mound of crumbs and raisins. Still consumed, I might add, but it was a case of all substance and no shape.
Last year, the third attempt, I decided to do beef. I over cooked it and images of my father-in-law carving huge thick slabs for the children present in an effort to unearth the non-existent inner-pink will ever haunt me. For the record, well cooked beef makes better left overs… So fingers crossed for this year.
So enjoy creating your Christmas feast. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Enjoy the whole experience from sourcing your British ingredients to planning your dishes and cooking times; from making and baking, chopping and slicing to washing-up and drying. Involve everyone. Re-ignite that festive competitive spirit - make your yule log longer. There will be tears, tantrums and classical comedy moments that will hopefully culminate in a friend and family festive feast. Memories made, to evoke in the future. Happy Christmas!
The Love Food Hate Waste portion planner is an inspired bit of digital guidance.