I’m a real sucker for Christmas. I still have home-made decorations, angels and hanging ornaments made by the children 35 years ago. Our old wheelbarrow, rusted and full of holes, nonetheless gets a coat of red paint each year to turn it into Father Christmas’s cart. (The reindeer that pulls it is a rocking horse with battered cardboard antlers and tinsel trappings.) Year after year I patiently tie cotton loops to Quality Street toffees and hang them on a silvered, now rather shabby, branch. It all takes hours.
I love everything about Christmas: stirring the pud, icing the cake, cutting the holly. When we were children we had a ritual annual outing to see Selfridges’ Christmas window displays and the lights in Regent Street. These are never as good as they were all those years ago.
But Christmas memories are not all jingle bells and champagne. My earliest is of making a Christmas cake at school and producing it for Christmas Day tea. I was very proud of my work of art — the three kings painted in food dyes on the smooth royal icing. But I’d failed to add any glycerine and the icing set like concrete. My Dad split the ivory handle of my mother’s best knife by holding it like a chisel and hitting it with a hammer. That didn’t work and we had to scoop the cake out from the underside, leaving the rock-like icing bowl.
One Christmas, when I’d got my first room of my own, a bedsitter in Earl’s Court, I set the place on fire with real candles on a tiny Christmas tree. The net curtains blew across it when I opened the window to let out the smell of burning roast parsnips.
But most Christmas memories are set in the past 40-odd years in the same house, with the same cast. And what tends to dominate are the disasters.
One year I read an article advising that to peel chestnuts you should boil them to loosen the skins. How much quicker, I thought, to deep-fry them… (Do not attempt this at home!) What I had failed to read was the instruction to make a slit in the skin so that the inside could expand without bursting. I lowered the chestnuts into the fryer and pretty soon they were going off like hand grenades, hot oil raining down everywhere. I couldn’t get near to turn the heat off. I reached for the nearest thing to a safety blanket — my husband’s new tweed coat — and pulled it over my head like a criminal on his way to jail, and, thus protected, crept to the pan and turned it off.
Of course we’ve had our share of more usual disasters too: the dog eating the presents under the tree, and wolfing a whole ham. One year I dropped the cooked turkey on the floor. It slithered along for a couple of yards. No one was looking so… well, what would you do? Exactly.
And then there was the time I agreed to a photoshoot of the Prue Leith family Christmas for a colour mag. It took place in July in a heatwave. We had my children and their cousins, aged between six and ten, standing behind a decorated dining table. Each child held something really heavy: turkey, cake, pudding, a pile of plates, a bowl of sprouts and chestnuts, a champagne bucket.
The problem was the photographer. He would not take the picture. The children’s arms were breaking and their smiles fast disappearing as he directed them a bit to the left, a bit to the right: ‘Eliza, can you hold the bowl a bit higher? Jodie, drop the platter a bit will you? Daniel, please look a bit happier.’ On and on it went.
After two hours it was done. But the photographer had left his Polaroid camera and notebook lying there in shot on the table. There was no Photoshop or airbrushing then to make them go away, and the effect was ruined, so a week later we had to do the whole thing again. By the time we got to December no one could face another turkey or another Christmas pud and we had Peking duck pancakes and ice cream instead.
But my worst disaster was when I decided to slow-cook two loins of Gloucester Old Spot pork for 25 people for Christmas lunch. They were to take five hours so I put them in a low oven at 8 a.m. and spent the morning happily exchanging presents and drinking fizz. When I opened the oven at noon the pork was as raw as when it went in. My nephew had cooked his breakfast and, being a nicely brought-up lad, he’d wiped down the cooker top and turned off all the knobs.
So we hacked up one of the loins and fast-fried the slices for a very late lunch. It certainly wasn’t gastronomy, and it was criminal treatment for beautiful pork. But you know what? The resulting panic and feverish activity made for a lot of laughing, and for a very happy Christmas.
Prue Leith’s latest book is The Food of Love: Laura’s Story.