My family knows that once the flaming pudding is on the table, late on Christmas Day, all meals will be picnics. Bar a few potatoes flung into the oven to bake, all cooking stops and eating becomes a forage into a squirrelled hoard of treats: the jars, tins, balsawood boxes and less pretty but functional vacpacs, inside which lie the delicate results of ‘cures’ achieved using sugar, salt, booze or smoke.
Preserves are as much a part of my Christmas as the big fat bird and Brussels sprouts, only I find them far more interesting. Often they are memories of past Christmases. We recall the specialities our forebears once loved; the image of an elderly relative eating plums in brandy while watching the telly. My grandmother, for example, felt Christmas was not Christmas without sticky Elvas plums from Fortnums; her Russian émigré husband lusted (not always successfully) after caviar.
My mother never did Christmas without buying a whole gammon then taking ages in the run-up to soak, boil and glaze it with mustard, cloves and demerara sugar. Needless to say, I do the same. Like her, I buy smoked eel and jars of mi-cuit foie gras, and search Middle Eastern shops for dates on the stalk. It nags me that we often spend our adult lives trying to be different from our parents, but at Christmas we become them.
A sort of forgiveness, in a way, but mostly it is about treating ourselves how once we were treated. If you are going to splurge — and almost all cured foods are expensive — you may as well buy what you have always known tastes good, unless you become your own artisan and make your own preserves.
This is a fast-growing hobby. Equipment is now made on a domestic scale and at weekends the scent of home-smoked pork or fish will often waft across suburban back gardens; sausage skins, Kilner jars, vacuum packers and brewing equipment fly out of the kitchenware suppliers Lakeland, and who knows who is doing a little distillation on the sly, out of reach of the regulators. News of this trend will not be welcome to the continental producers who traditionally do so well out of filling British hampers.
Historically, Christmas was a time to indulge at the delicatessen, buying tender, slinky slices of Parma ham and boozy chocolates. But that has all changed thanks to the German budget chains, which offer the discerning gourmet low-priced deli foods. Lidl and Aldi remind us how much cheaper delicacies such as Parmesan cheese are in Europe. There is a danger, though, that their stack ’em high and sell ’em cheap cult could take the special out of specialities.
So we hunt for rarities, debating who smokes the best salmon, makes the best game terrines, pots the spiciest shrimps, crystallises apricots to perfection or makes a mean booze-soaked cherry. It has always been pleasantly competitive, especially when searching for an unusual present to bring if you are a guest during the festive season.
Having moved to Dorset, I am making my first attempt to join the hobby artisans. I will leave the smoked salmon and eel to the Severn & Wye Smokery, as usual, the ham curing to Sandridge Farm in Wiltshire and the Elvas plums to Fortnums (or rather to the ladies who first boil in syrup then air-dry the greengages that grow near their fortress town in Portugal). Like my grandmother, I find opening the balsawood box and unwrapping the lace paper that encloses these delicious, fat and wrinkly plums simply is Christmas.
These foods are difficult to perfect and there is a strong danger a parvenu like me will get it wrong and waste expensive ingredients. The art of curing is complicated; one must understand elements of fermentation, acidity and bacterial activity. Why do they not teach these essential skills in school science lessons?
I do, however, have a salted, marinated venison fillet hanging in a draughty place, mid-cure towards becoming bresaola which we will slice paper-thin and eat with homemade quince jelly. The process takes only three weeks — most home curing takes much longer — so if you start now it should be ready in time.
Bresaola can also be made using beef topside or silverside, but I recommend Katie and Giancarlo Caldesi’s The Gentle Art of Preserving (Kyle) as a guide to curing and pickling all sorts of ingredients. A successful attempt will be rewarded with a dish that is uniquely good. Christmas soothed by salt, smoke and liquor.