Friday, 18 November 2011

A New Old Christmas

I've always had such a crush on Donna Reed.

     ‘It’s Christmas, it’s Christmas, it’s Christmas...’  This was my Father’s mantra...he more unable to wait than us...standing by the door at ridiculous o’clock and slowly unlocking our fitful slumber with this Yuletide whisper until my brother and I bolted and tore off to the tree screaming with excitement.  Dad quietly cackling to himself, Mom not quite ready for it all.  
     What is Christmas to me?  Well, this most Christian of celebrations has come a long way from simply being baby Jesus’ birthday.  All I see when I glance around is the same old marketing tripe being trawled out from last year, hastening us shoppers into an anxious frenzy of retail fear, a maximum overdrive of pumped up promises that are laid bare on that anti-climatic day.  The boring party menus slogged out by chefs dreading the hardest month of the trade, the garish blockades of hypermarket tat and poor quality chocolates near depressing me into a Scrooge like hibernation, stooped and snarling to my fellow giddy citizens.  

     But wait, this is to be no bah humbug story.  Now that I myself have a wee one it becomes easier to sift through the sands of time and cast the mind back to my own childhood.  Real food made by real hands with real love.  Grandmothers and mothers painstakingly preparing the mountains of sugared delights.  The homemade popcorn strings, crocheted and starched tree ornaments, sparkly paper chains and real mistletoe stealthily hung.  I remember it was a time to be dressed in one’s finest to make the rounds, the annual visits to family and friends not oft seen throughout the year.  Cards exchanged with clinking glasses.  Best behaviour of course.  If we were lucky we would get two turkey dinners on the big day, our families being so large.  And, of course, the presents.  But what I remember is quality.  The whole ‘it’s the thought that counts’ never really washed with me.  Poor gifts always told me thoughts were what they were without.  I always strive to get the exact right gift for the person in mind.  Not ten rubbish ones, just one or two ‘this tells you I care’ gifts.  They don’t need to be expensive, rather, just right.  And homemade gifts are brilliant, if you possess actual artistic skill.

So, what has happened to this holiday?  This historic birthday bash?  Are we really just too busy now, working too hard?  Both parents now bent to the grindstone, leaving not a lot of time in the run up for baking and festive games.  The further factor of smaller families aids to the tarnishing of old baubles.  For my own part, it’s a tough one.  I’ll be working from 8:00am till quite late on Christmas Day.  The thing is, now that we have Master D, all those childhood memories come flooding back.  The years of not really caring about Christmas, in fact slightly dreading it due to the job are over and I want to ensure the boy gets a taste of all the good things I had whilst growing up.  So, Christmas Eve’s importance may grow, and the gifts may not be attacked until I get home the next day.  Folk adapt, new traditions are forged.   Alas, I may be sneaking out the door when Dad used to be waking us up, but maybe the wife will be thanking me for that one in the end.  

The inspirational wave crest I am currently surfing is due greatly to the sparkle of my new domain.  Southernhay House Hotel is a real gem and where else could one summon up the ghosts of Christmas‘ past, present and future but in this grand old city house.  The spirits of Dickens, Queen Victoria and an England of yore weigh heavy and I can honestly say I have never put so much effort into seasonal menus.  Proper, old school British, reliant on local harvests and damn delectable.  Here are some new old favorites that may just wind their way into the customs of my family.  For that, I thank you.  Happy Christmas to all.

Game Terrine & Mosaic Membrillo
Ok, a posh pate.  Lined with Pipers Farm streaky bacon and chock full of every type of game shot in the region.  Rabbit, pheasant, venison, partridge and pigeon.  The forcemeat is a healthy mix of the game trim and ground pork.  Texture contrast and color spikes provided by some toasted pistachios and dried fruits.  So lucky to have Hillside Specialty Foods providing a bespoke mosaic quince cheese or ‘membrillo’.  Deck the halls!

Spiced Beef, Beets, Oranges & Mulberry Dressing
When I first tried this out it was one of those moments.  Epic.  How this could fall out of favor I’ll never know.  More an Irish thing, but not unknown to these parts, it is a spice cured silverside that is then roasted and sliced very thinly.  I have foregone the usual saltpetre treatment, as you can see the dish is colourful enough.  A few weeks ago I was very fortunate to receive a big basket of mulberries which I promptly transformed into vinegar for a bright and fruity dressing.  

Stuffed Pipers Farm Goose, Duchess Potatoes & Cranberry Gravy
Sorry people, I’m just all turkey-ed out.  18 consecutive Decembers playing about with turkey crowns, turkey ballotines, turkey galantines, roast turkey...argh.  So proud to be able to showcase a much more princely bird.  Old school, new techniques.  Brined, stuffed and given the sous vide treatment, these birds will never toughen up.  Succulent, rich and truly more Christmassy than a gobbler.

Partridge & Pears
Ya see what I did there?  Huh?  For me, large birds for breaking down and cooking separately, small birds for roasting whole.  Rested to perfection and served up with some young Comice pears poached in a simple syrup and pan roasted.  Gravy finished with Hillside Specialty Foods pear fruit paste.  I’m all about Jay’s fruit pastes at the moment, much healthier and stable than the ol‘ monter au beurre.
Venison Olives on Trencher, Elderberry Gravy
Based on the classic beef olives.  This dish has nothing to do with olives, the moniker referring very roughly to the shape of the batted out meat; stuffed, rolled and tied.  Served up on a medieval ‘trencher‘ or ‘bread plate‘ originally used in place of a dish.  Also lovely for soaking up all that fruity gravy that has been jacked up with some old school pontack sauce, or spiced elderberry vinegar.  Garnish with a few choice girolles and chestnuts and, just might break into Gloria in Excelsis Deo.  

Torbay Sole, Brown Shrimps & Grapes
Right, the only conceivable good reason for not eating meat as your major course come Christmas Day is a clever guise of keeping it light to enable you to gorge on the rest of the courses.  Extra cheese perhaps?  A sole, any sole, cooked a la meuniere and tarted up with brown shrimps, peeled grapes, celery leaf and capers might, just might turn a hardened carnivore’s eye.  For a moment.  Snarl.
Exeter Pudding & Hard Sauce
Has it really taken a Canadian to get this pud back on an Exeter restaurant’s menu?  The shame.  I’ll admit, taken just as it is out of Mrs. Beeton, it really did need some work.  This lightened up version punches above its weight with big apricot and almond flavors and is a nice alternative to the Marmite sentiment of the traditional Christmas Pudding.  (P.S. I hate it.)  Served with a dollop of traditional hard sauce- simply creamed butter and sugar with your choice of booze.  Amaretti here seemed appropriate.  

Damson Jelly & Eggnog Custard
There is something special about damsons.  The color, the unique tartness...oh what a jelly.  Pair it up with a wee bit of sweeter compote and a traditional English eggnog flavored custard...yes, you read right, eggnog is traditionally English.  Discarded along the way like so many of your goodies, and made more popular across the water.  Well here you go, lobbed back from across the pond.

Potted Beenleigh Blue & Port, Medlar Cheese
Potting and waiting just seems to make everything better.  A bit of softened and mashed blue cheese with half its weight again in butter, spices of your choice, a little English mustard powder and some reduced syrupy port.  OMG.  Sealed with some clarified butter this will only improve with age.  Served with the unknown Devon delicacy, Roman import and Victorian favorite- medlars; I mean; how unique, seasonal and perfect can your afters get?

Merry Christmas
An edited version of this article featured in Devon Life magazine December 2011.

1 comment:

  1. Chris

    A belated thank you to you and the others at Southernhay House for a perfect Christmas Day. You have written about some of the dishes that I sampled and I can confirm that they were all delicious and I didn't hear any complaints from my fellow diners - quite the contrary. As one lady commented who is a vegetarian, you went to a lot of trouble to produce a menu which gave her a lot of interesting choices. Thanks again Clare deS