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A Cook’s Christmas

It’s years since I made a mince pie

13 December 2006

2:50 PM

13 December 2006

2:50 PM

The opening scene in Allison Pearson’s I Don’t Know How She Does It has our heroine distressing supermarket mince pies with a rolling pin in the hope that other parents at the school carol concert will presume them home-made. I loved her for that, just as I did the Calendar Girl who wins the cake competition with an M&S sponge. It’s years since I made a mince pie. And a fair few since I boned the turkey, stuffed it with ham and chestnuts and got up at dawn to set the pudding boiling.

For donkey’s years I did all that, and pressganged friends and family into hanging the Christmas tree with Quality Street sweets lovingly threaded with cotton; decorating every inch of the house with garlands of greenery from the garden; stringing the cherry tree in the drive with hundreds of light-polluting bulbs; and carol-singing with the neighbours. I even marshalled live donkeys and livelier children into nativity plays, and enjoyed it all quite as much as the children did.

***

Not now, though. I’m in that widow-but-not-yet-Granny trough. Too late to escape with loved one and guilty pleasure to a non-Christian country like Morocco and so avoid ‘Jingle Bells’ in the lift and the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ on the help-line.  Too early for a new generation of eager little faces shouting up the chimney that they’ve changed their minds and would rather have a trampoline.

It took me a while to grasp the fact that my friends haven’t come to my house primarily to eat — or to award me Michelin stars, or to cluck at the murkiness of my consommé — but rather, I hope, to see me. And if they haven’t, they don’t deserve feeding at all. Last December, with an unavoidable meeting ruining my planned afternoon of relaxed cooking, I dished up a festive dinner entirely composed of ready-mades (from Carluccio’s it’s true — I haven’t yet stooped to Tesco) with the table sparkling with classy Christmas tat from W.H. Smith. Excellent it was too, though I hate to say it.


***

This Christmas there’ll be no Christmas dinners. I’m off to see icebergs and penguins in Antarctica. But I shall have a family feast before I go, and it will probably be a hassle-free assembly job: my beloved Hebridean Smokehouse salmon, Welsh black or Aberdeen Angus braising steak cooked for hours in the bottom of the Aga with a ton of onions, mustardy mashed potatoes (I’m not above cheating with frozen mash, if it’s a good one containing nothing but potato, butter and cream), a big bowl of bitter leaves like rocket and endive with some pink grapefruit in it, and an expensive but unbeatable chocolate cake from Melt in Ledbury Road.

***

One of the minor barbs of widowhood is no longer getting that big fat serious present from your Number One admirer. Admittedly, my husband’s presents were usually chosen, bought and wrapped by me, with his contribution being the message on the label. And if they weren’t, they inevitably got swapped for something else. But still, they were proper presents, a validation of my pole position in someone’s affections. But I’ve now solved the major-present problem. Last year I bought myself a gold necklace from Leo de Vroomen, who wooed me, and a lot of rather posher women, into his classy little shop in Elizabeth Street for a champagne and vodka jelly. The necklace drew me like a magnet and I kept trying it on until, after the second glass of fizz and the fifth vodka jelly, I succumbed. This extravagant lapse is now validated by a new decision to buy one socking great thing for myself every Christmas. Only I must be more original. At dinner last month Douglas Hurd’s wife Judy was wearing the same necklace, and it looked rather better on her.

***

On the matter of Christmas presents, my friends seem equally divided between those delighted to learn they have donated, by proxy, a goat to an Eritrean farmer or a latrine in rural Somalia, and those vaguely irritated or positively outraged. ‘If Sally Gumpton-Smythe wants to use her lolly for good causes, that’s fine and noble, but why does she have to advertise her saintliness, and drag me into pretending I’d rather she gave her money to charity than bought me a present?’

Actually, I think it’s a rather good wheeze. You don’t have to act delighted by presents you don’t want, or worried that your hard-up children are compensating for their absence at successive Sunday lunches by buying you off with presents they can’t afford. It’s even quicker to do than mail order — and you can still do it in time for Christmas.

***

Still on the subject of presents, and of dinner parties, I am constantly embarrassed by the modern habit of arriving for dinner bearing posh presents. I almost never remember to take anything. Once upon a time, when all of us were skint, we might arrive at each others’ parties or dinners with a bottle of wine to lighten the financial load. Now friends arrive with astonishingly expensive things — boxes of truffles, classy bunches of colour-co-ordinated flowers, even a scarf or a book or perfume. Of course, I adore all this loot, but am I alone in thinking it unnecessary and mad? Does anyone think less of a guest who arrives empty-handed? I do hope not, since I am a serial offender. And is there a web company that would send you a stock of ready-wrapped, unisex, all-purpose dinner-party presents?


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