THE 12 EATS OF CHRISTMAS by Ellen Berry
Christmas. I love it all - even the weeks of preparation - but what I love most is the eating part. And I always have. In fact, the delicious things I’ve scoffed whilst wearing a flimsy paper crown evoke the most vivid festive memories. Here are my 12 favourite nibbles of Christmasses past…
1. Mince pies
Grandma May - my paternal gran - and I had a real bond. Being her only grandchild, I guess I was spoiled a little, not in the material sense but in terms of her being happy to spend lots of time with me. She was the one to take me to see Santa every year at Busby’s department store in Bradford - and her home-made mince pies were legendary. Juicy interiors encased in crumbly short pastry (made with both butter and Trex, if memory serves), liberally dusted with icing sugar and stored in an enormous tin… no shop-bought offering can ever come close.
Is anything more heavenly than a perfectly roasted spud? They’re the highlight of Christmas dinner, IMO, and cooking them in duck fat seems to be the key. Also: they shouldn’t be too large and unwieldy, or the crispy crust/gooey interior ratio just won’t be right.
Not my greatest love as a child, as they were boiled to mush. If only we’d had Nigel Slater on hand (sadly, he hadn’t been invented then) to insist they’re braised slowly in a pan on the hob, with butter. Cooked this way, they’re deliciously nutty while still retaining some bite. In fact, they now vie with the roasties for prime position in the Christmas dinner popularity stakes.
4. Bread sauce
My Christmasses as a child were mainly spent at Grandma’s, and I’m pretty sure she made her bread sauce from scratch, as I do (using the recipe from Nigella Lawson’s Christmas cookbook). Sauce made from bread doesn’t make sense really - I’m sure the clean eating brigade would sob into their kale pesto - but it’s so deliciously, naughtily good.
5. Pigs in blankets
When Jimmy and I became parents, we started to host Christmas day at our house. It seemed like the proper, grown-up thing to do, and meant that we didn’t have to worry about relatives’ precious cut glass collection being smashed to bits. Family members would descend at our place, with high hopes of a calmly-prepared feast, even when we’d just moved into a ramshackle Victorian house with an oven so tiny, its door had to be wedged shut with a kitchen chair. Fortunately, once our daughter was about three years old, she’d already become a willing helper in the kitchen - and wrapping bacon around chipolatas to make pigs in blankets was always ‘her’ job. She is now 16 and a committed vegan so I imagine she will be a little less keen.
6. Christmas pud
So rich, dense and unthinkable at any other time of year. My teens are appalled that my grandma used to hide money (a ‘thrupenny bit’) in it.
7. Terry’s Chocolate Orange
Although I don’t have a sweet tooth, I do have a soft spot for a Chocolate Orange which I’d find in my Christmas stocking every year as a child. In fact, when my three children were little I had a thing about taking them to a chocolate factory (we were all entranced by the wonderful stories of Roald Dahl). On a holiday to York, I had the brilliant idea of taking them to the Terry’s factory - but alas, by then it was no longer ‘Terry’s of York’. A little research revealed that Chocolate Oranges were now manufactured near a town called Jankowice in Poland which, sadly, wasn’t quite as convenient for a day out.
8. Nuts in their shells
So fiddly and impractical, sending shards of shell pinging everywhere - but it’s so fun to be let loose with the nut cracker as a kid. And walnuts look like tiny brains.
9. Chocolate liqueurs shaped like bottles
Another exception in the not-particularly-loving-chocolate arena. With their boozy centres, they seemed so glamorous and louche whenever I was allowed one as a child. These remain the only occasions when I have knowingly consumed Grand Marnier or cherry brandy.
10. Christmas cake
While I have never got it together to make my own - my teenagers don’t particularly like it anyway - helping Grandma to stir in all the ingredients was one of those rituals I’ll always remember. My own family finds my habit of eating fruitcake with a slab of cheese completely weird; it’s actually a Yorkshire tradition. In a similar vein, apple pie with cheese is miles better than pie and custard. Yes, really.
…Which brings me neatly to the pinnacle of festive feasting - the cheese part. In seventies Yorkshire, cheese basically meant Cheddar or sliced processed stuff. Now, of course, a zillion varieties are available - although I still favour a crumbly Wensleydale which, as it too comes from Yorkshire, makes the much-mocked cheese/fruitcake pairing feel just right.
Leaving the best until last… well, they are the best bit, aren’t they? While our Christmas day is usually a family affair, on the 26th of December our friends arrive to make short work of a fridge crammed with leftovers - and they bring theirs too. Turkey, stuffing, cheese and all the accompaniments - it’s a glorious boxing day feast and I can’t wait.