Christmas is not my bag. I don't do Christmas. I especially do not do 'Traditional Christmas Dinner With All The Trimmings'.
For some reason, we Brits are supposed to eat turkey on the 25th of December. I can think of a hundred meaty things I'd rather eat than turkey. Besides, what we now refer to as turkeys originally came from America. You are welcome to them. This website is supposed to be about British Food in America, not American Food in Britain.
Amongst the 'trimmings' you will find that peculiar brassica, the Brussels sprout. George Bush Senior disliked broccoli and I have similar views about one of its closest relatives. Brussels sprouts have practically the same biological make-up as broccoli (or a plain old cabbage for that matter). I've got nearly the same DNA as a chimpanzee, but my knuckles don't touch the ground when I walk. The Brussels is a funny old plant. Brussels tops (the leafy bits above the stalk) are delicious and I love 'em. But I'd have to be starving to eat one of its sprouts. Frankly, I'd rather be water boarded.
So, we have my least favourite meat and my least favourite vegetable. This is normally followed by Christmas Pudding. The one saving grace of Christmas Pudding is that it goes remarkably well with Sauternes. One year I had a half-bottle of Château d'Yquem. It was so expensive that I had to make economies elsewhere. So I dispensed with the Christmas Pudding.
Last year, I accepted an invitation to Christmas Dinner with some good friends. I had been assured that it would be a turkey and sprout free zone. There would be plenty of booze and some good company. I decided to stop being a miserable, secular, culinary snob and enter the spirit of the occasion. Besides, supplies were running low as I hadn't done any food shopping for a day or two.
I needed to buy my hosts a gift, I'd run out of milk, the car was low on petrol and I needed some cash. The normally quiet High Street was heaving. I eventually located a parking space only to find that both ATMs had run out of money (I live in a two ATM town) and the banks had closed. I only had an ATM (not a debit or credit) card and the nearest alternative machine is seven miles away. So off I went.
I didn't get far. I had trouble getting into gear. Fearing the worst, I put it back into neutral and depressed the clutch. The engine note gave the game away. Just what I needed on Christmas Eve. I thought I'd nurse the bloody thing home. One more try, one snapped clutch cable. I walked halfway home before I'd remembered the milk.
It was not Divine Intervention. It was what happens when you drive a very elderly Ford Escort. They break down just when every mechanic in the country is off work for the next four days.
No public transport, and having accepted a ridiculously high quote for a cab, I was informed that there were no cabs, just quotes. Do you in fact have any cabs at all? We were into Monty Python cheese shop territory.
So, I'd just have to make do. For the first time in fifty years, I would spend Christmas Day on my own. It was a good job that there is stuff in the fridge and the freezer and that I had a few fresh vegetables knocking around. So here was my festive feast:
Rummage around freezer and find:
1 home-reared pork joint, formerly part of a local pig and bought from Wotton Farm Shop. This was purchased just in case I ever had an emergency...(I also found a very large duck, a partridge, sausages, frozen fish and a couple of unlabeled mysteries).
1 large piece of frozen smoked haddock that was definitely fresh when I froze it (never, ever re-freeze fish – if you are not absolutely certain, throw it away).
1 container of frozen chocolate cream, made from 85% cocoa chocolate and fresh double cream, left over from a recent dinner party and frozen on the basis that it might come in handy one day.
Investigate fridge and find:
Eggs, butter, a jar of duck paté that had a “best before” date indicating that it had a fair chance of outliving me, some beef dripping and four different types of cheese (I like cheese), one of which looked a bit suspect.
My cupboard is never bare and normally contains the bits and bobs required to make a decent meal. Of course, there was plenty of booze. There were five bottles of good real ale and (mainly due to the largesse of britishfoodinamerica) enough wine to keep me going until the Yuletide hostilities were over. My flat is normally a spirit-free zone, but I had recently won a bottle of whisky in a raffle. The real ale did not make it beyond Christmas Eve. It must have evaporated. The wine didn't make it to the New Year and the twelve-year-old Scotch didn't make it to thirteen.
I also had a bowl of fruit, a biscuit barrel with assorted contents and half loaf of bread that was going stale.
None of this Christmas Dinner nonsense. I would be celebrating 'Broken Clutch Cable Day' in style:
Poached Egg on Poached Smoked Haddock.
My all time favourite breakfast. There is nothing like this. It is smokey, haddocky, eggy and buttery.
You need two pans. I prefer the haddock water unsalted, because there is salt in the haddock. My piece of haddock was un-dyed, naturally smoked and came from bonny Scotland. The egg came from a local chicken.
Bring the water to the boil and poach said haddock for a few minutes. In the other pan, lightly poach a large free-range egg. Put the haddock on a plate, a large knob of butter on top of the haddock and put the poached egg on top of that. Black pepper to season. Ideally serve with brown bread and butter and use this to mop up the jollop (a cockney word, roughly translated as 'good liquid'). No fresh bread, so toast instead.
Real Ale and Nibbles
I would go to the Swan and have a couple of pints. They always put out a few nice nibbles at lunchtime on Christmas day. Free, gratis and for nothing. The pub dates from the 1600s and is not actually the oldest pub in town. There is another pub that dates from a previous century. Unfortunately some of the customers come from a period that pre-dates the pub, possibly the Neanderthal.
Roast pork with crackling, stuffing, apple sauce, gravy, roast potatoes and vegetables.
Poached pear with chocolate cream.
Cheese and biscuits.
The duck paté involves opening a jar and making some toast. Send me $20 and I will air-mail you full instructions. I will put the twenty dollars on a horse or buy beer and cigarettes with it. I do try not to waste money.
To get the crackling on the roast pork, scour the rind with a sharp knife and rub salt into it. Remember: no salt = no crackling.
You may have to re-string the joint. I'm dead good at that. When I was an incompetent communications technician (I actually once worked for Government Communication Headquarters, part of the British secret intelligence service. No kidding), I learned how to lace-up communications cables. That skill now comes in very handy when it comes to tying up meat, but I'm not allowed to tell you how to do it because I've signed the Official Secrets Act.
Cook the pork for 50 minutes per kilo plus an additional 20 minutes at 200°. I haven't the faintest idea what that is in American. I'm told that you guys still use pounds and Fahrenheit. How quaint.
[Editor’s note: A kilo is roughly two pounds; 200C equals 400F]
With any luck you will end up with succulent roast pork and crispy crackling. I don't use scales and timers anyway--I use knowledge, intuition, a sense of smell and, most importantly, a meat thermometer. It won't go wrong because I've done it before. Famous last words....
Stuffing. I use sage and onion and I normally get it out of a packet. The brand is called Paxo and it has been around forever. You could make it yourself. You will need sage, onion, breadcrumbs, seasoning and a raising agent and time (as opposed to thyme). If you spend ages practicing and get it absolutely perfect, it will taste nearly, but not quite, as good as Paxo.
Apple Sauce. Our local (but rare) pig, the Gloucester Old Spot, was often kept to forage in orchards. They are known as the pig that makes its own apple sauce. You cannot have roast pork without apple sauce.
You normally use cooking apples, but I've only got dessert fruit in my bowl. Golden Russets. What an apple. They are golden and brown with red bits, hence the name. They are a late apple, which is why they are around at Christmas. The taste, oh the taste. Sweet yet with a slight tart edge. A hint of caramel. A note of cider. A smidgeon of honey. I get quite carried away by Golden Russets. They grow them up the road, on a tree.
I core and peel and then poach them in a little white wine. I may even add a small sprinkling of cinnamon.
Gravy. The French j'accuse us Brits of only having two sauces: a white one and a brown one. I'm quite fond of the brown one. We call it gravy. I start with a pan, water and some cabbage, a piece of carrot and a half a roughly chopped onion. I season it and boil it for as long as I like, topping up the water occasionally. The ideal time to start this process was last Tuesday. The resultant 'green water' is the ideal base for the perfect gravy. Strain and add the meat juices to the green water. Reduce by evaporation. You do not need stock cubes or browning. Meat Juices and vegetable stock. The perfect gravy. If it is too thin, use cornflour.
Spuds. Roast spuds. I was using Cara potatoes at the time because that is what they grow locally and they are a very versatile winter potato. I always parboil them in salted water (salt=crispiness) and then roast them in beef dripping, in a separate tray from the meat. If I am feeling reckless I will put some onion in the pan twenty minutes before the end of cooking.
I found some broccoli, a carrot and a Swede [Editor’s note: turnip]. I intended to cut the carrot and swede into strips, boil them and add the broccoli a couple of minutes before the end.
To produce the above, you will need an oven with three shelves, four cooking rings, good timing and the limbs of an octopus. This is a serious dish. You can literally stuff your turkey and forget about all that tosh regarding the roast beef of Olde England (normally overcooked and as tough as old boots). If you want a roast dinner 'with all the trimmings', a good bit of home reared Gloucestershire pork with the traditional accoutrements is as good as it gets.
Poached Pear with Chocolate Cream.
There were three pears in my fruit bowl. I had no idea what type they were, but they came from the same farm shop as the apples. I peeled one and poached it in some white wine. I made the apple sauce at the same time and drank the rest of the wine. I'd drunk enough beer, so I went onto the wine. It was a fair trade, organic wine produced by a co-op and sold by my local co-operative supermarket, of which I am a proud shareholder. Not only was I getting paralytic, but I was destroying global capitalism too.
Once my pear was poached, I'd pour the chocolate and cream over it and bung it in the fridge.
There was this air-tight container with some funny old things in it. I found three local cheeses and a couple of other things that had started out as cheese. There you are. The perfect festive feast.
What actually happened....
I stayed up until 4am watching TV and then slept rather well. Too well, as I woke up mid-afternoon. It was too late for the pub but I was feeling peckish and a fine fillet of haddock awaited me.
The haddock attacked me as I opened the kitchen door. It came out fighting, reeking of ammonia. There was something fishy about my haddock. It was definitely not edible and was stinking the place out.
The pork had not defrosted because the fridge was too cold. I'd left the apples and pears cooking overnight and all that remained consisted of carbon residues. I also had a very hot cooker. On close examination, the cheese was developing life forms of its own. Even the lump of cheddar was beyond salvation. The cheese went the same way as the haddock--wrapped up and into an outside dustbin with the lid tightly secured. Next door's cat had a sniff and rapidly departed.
I was going to end up with paté and toast, except that the bread was hard as nails and had been left too near that wretched haddock. At least the biscuits were OK. I sampled the paté. It was horrible. I read the label. There were an awful lot of preservatives in it, possibly more chemicals than duck. In very small type at the bottom of the label it said 'Produit de France'. Don't bother sending the twenty dollars, it would be a complete rip-off.
I opened a tin of macaroni cheese. Heinz macaroni cheese. Henry John Heinz was, and the Heinz corporation is, American. I ended up with American Food in Britain.
© Charlie Burling, 2010. All rights reserved. Don't applaud, throw money.