Christmas appears these days to have become largely about food - or at least, food is a significant manifestation of the general excess that surrounds the celebration of Christmas. Perhaps it was always so......but I suspect not. If it had been, then a good deal more food-based traditions would have sprung up around it than have done, and the raft of recipe books which focus exclusively on Christmas would have more to talk about than they patently manage to do. Every year, more appear in the bookshops, falsely promising the answer to the perennial challenge of what to cook for an entire household 'at celebration' for a period of ten days or so.... and a skim of their contents is enough to show them for what they are: shams!
Oh, they include enough recipes to get you through the period alright, but there's nothing particularly Christmassy about them, as they desperately grapple with the fact that traditional Christmas fare is effectively limited to three or four things: Turkey (we always have Goose...); Christmas Pudding; Mince Pies; and Christmas Cake. Beyond that, it's pretty much a free-for-all.......and inevitably the writers of the books substitute 'luxury' as a stand-in for 'celebratory' and the resulting onslaught of references to sturgeon, and smoked salmon, and caviar, and aspic, and crystallised ginger, and preserved fruits is enough to make your liver take fright merely at the thought of such unashamed binging.
Elizabeth David's 'Christmas', though is quite another matter - as you'd expect. She manages to avoid a bah-humbug approach, and at the same time doesn't fall into the slightly hysterical nuances of 'surviving' the experience that have become an accepted norm these days for dealing with complicated social devoirs....('How to survive the family holiday...', or 'How to survive your Mother-in- Law coming to stay', or other equally silly themes, when the sensible response to such situations if they fill you with such dread must be 'Don't have one', and 'Don't ask her'!).
ED's approach to Christmas is exactly the no-nonsense practical one that you would expect. The reader is left with the strong suspicion the David doesn't have much time for Christmas, but recognises that there isn't much opportunity for ignoring it unless one chooses to become a complete hermit. Despite the fact that she refers to most Christmas food as 'cloying', the book nevertheless provides methods for dealing appropriately with Turkey and Goose, as well as suggestions concerning Beef, Pork, and Duck, Pheasant and Tongue, for those who've had enough of the afore-mentioned. She hasn't made Christmas Pudding in thirty-five years, and hopes 'never to have to do so again', but nevertheless includes two different versions, both of which come with the David guarantee of quality. Likewise, Mincemeat, Brandy Butter, and Stuffing......... And all interspersed with the usual pithy bonmots that make her take on life so crisply refreshing (well, at least for those of us who have reached grumpy-old-person time of life, at any rate....)
ED's particular opinion of Christmas fare, though, is probably best summed up by her aside that one of the most positive thoughts about Christmas is that 'when Christmas morning dawns, for four whole days there won't be any shopping to do....'coupled with her statement that 'if I had my way.....my Christmas Day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime, and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening!' Which strikes a chord.
And I can't finish without quoting in full her wonderfully jaundiced put-down of those nattily creative ideas for dealing with leftovers that have graced every 'Golden Hands for Cookery' publication practically since Christmas began: '...if any of those marauding bands of persons who apparently roam the countryside calling themselves unexpected guests appear at my door - well, they'll have to make do with an omelette and a glass of wine to help them on their way to their next victims. I think I'd feel less nervous anyway offering them this sort of food than I would if I'd made a lot of little surprises with names like Pantry Shelf Fishbits and Fantastic Belgian Meatballs and Festa Turkey Nut-Logs. I didn't make them up, I swear I didn't, I read about them in a desperately sad American cookery book all about leftovers'.
Read it! I promise, you'll laugh out loud at least once every three pages, and smile wryly in agreement at least once in between.
Tonight's (still resolutely unfestive) menu:
Baked Bream, with Anchovy sauce. Endive wilted in Butter.
Saturday, 22 December 2007
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It's a favourite of mine, too, except that it fell apart, the pages spilling out like leaves in a folder, within about five minutes of first being opened. And I do think she's rather bah humbug, but that's what I like. Because, as you say, if Xmas is merely to be survived, then how can it be a celebration. Here, we have lots of food - much of it the usual sort of stuff, but it's THERE - and lots of time to cook it, also, rather more importantly, lots of time to linger over it, discussing ... well, all the things you end up discussing: crossword clues, maths puzzles, old jokes, what Grampa actually did for a living, the plot of As You Like It, what to plant on the new pergola which is being constructed in the orchard, and whether or not the new St Trinian's is the best film ever made ... you know the sort of thing. Nothing to do with caviar.
Have a good Christmas
Oh, I think she manages to tread a fine line between bah humbug and the idea that things in life should be understated-but-perfect....right down to the glass of champagne and the smoked salmon sandwich (although that does bespeak somebody to bring it to you as you recline in bed and to take it away afterwards, so you don't have the debris to look at in the morning...)In its dry way, it's just a polemic against frenzied excess and in favour of Good Things...
Off now to make a Duck Terrine for New Year's Eve.
Have a splendid time!
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