tips for the Christmas table
Two grand dames of TV cooking demonstrate how to keep it simple and keep your cool on Christmas Day
IT’S beginning to look a lot like Christmas, quite an achievement in the southern hemisphere. As always, there’s no escaping the piped carols and sweaty Santas in our shopping malls, who must by now give even the most enchanted child pause as a different one turns up around every corner. And then there are the elaborate window displays too often decorated with sleighs, snow, holly and tinsel, with the odd nativity scene thrown in for good measure. Even our street lighting and the mad electrical displays that increasingly festoon suburban homes speak of a festival happening somewhere else that we might be able to join if we just tried hard enough.
Something similar happens in the food programs that populate the airwaves at this time of year. It is wonderful to see Nigella Lawson rugged up and red-cheeked, clutching a bowl of mulled wine and telling us how much she loves the sensual elements of Christmas. The roaring fires and roasting chestnuts, the London streets awash with slush and the Christmas-specific seasonings in her everabundant kitchen seem quite unreal to us. In a similar vein, it’s great to see Rick Stein getting all sentimental over a freezing cold Christmas in Cornwall, complete with a brass band offering up Silent Night to punters huddled in the chilly twilight.
But how do we relate to any of this as we swelter in our backyards, tax our airconditioning units and fridges to the hilt, and loll about in the pool the minute we get the chance?
Not a great deal. So it’s splendid, this year, to see Maggie Beer and Lyndey Milan, two of our grand dames of the kitchen, bringing it all back home.
Though just a half-hour long, Maggie Beer’s Christmas Feast is an inspiration, especially if you’re one of those cooks whose anxiety increases along with the number of people to be fed in any entertaining situation, far less Christmas with its demands for traditional fare such as enormous, oven-defying turkeys, glazed hams, abundant seafood and all the attendant trimmings. Beer tells us she is throwing ‘‘ the Christmas feast to end all Christmas feasts’’, and perhaps unwittingly shows us some of the secrets involved in staying calm while creating a banquet for 26.
What could be more authentically Australian than a Christmas feast attended by family and friends, consumed at leisure under the trees on a Barossa Valley property?
The idea behind the gathering is of ‘‘ a big Barossa thank you’’ to some of the cook’s favourite producers from the area. She rustles up a Christmas goose that husband Colin butchers and prepares (thankfully off-camera), glazes a ham and oversees an entrenched family tradition at Christmas: yabbies caught in the family dam.
Beer is a force of nature with a warm presence and a graceful manner. Best known for her appearances ON the ABC’s The Cook and the Chef (with chef Simon Bryant), which ran for 160 episodes across four years, the cook now divides her time between writing and heading up her eponymous food company. A good deal of this program is taken up with visits to the producers. The inspirational part comes in the way she is able to share the burden of the traditional feast.
Each of the producers brings their best to the table. Husband Colin, their daughter Saskia, even their grandchildren, are enlisted to create and execute the marathon repast.
Speaking from her home in the Barossa, Beer says there is a lot to be said for family traditions when it comes to sharing the load. ‘‘ The tradition in the Beer family has always been to get in and help, and then those who don’t help with cooking process have to do the clean-up,’’ she says. ‘‘ I can tell you which I’d rather do.’’ She laughs out loud when I ask if she practises meditation to help her keep calm as the pressure mounts. ‘‘ I run on adrenalin,’’ she says. ‘‘ I may look calm but it’s really just the joy I take in cooking that makes it seem that way.’’
Beer says she has always had huge amounts of energy, and just goes until she drops. ‘‘ I’m so excited about so many things in life — that’s what gives me the energy.’’
The Beers have been married for 43 years next month, and have lived together in the Barossa for 39 of those. The warmth between them remains evident, but it may inspire people trying to put their own Christmas banquet together to learn that although the Beers start out with a game plan for a huge functions such as this, it almost always goes straight out the window. ‘‘ Once Colin starts to have fun, that’s it,’’ says Beer good-naturedly. It’s a notion that will find an echo in homes throughout the land. The point seems to be not to take any of it too seriously.
For example, while some television chefs ban alcohol outright in the preparation of food because it makes the cook lose focus, Beer loves champagne, but says she never consumes to excess. ‘‘ I drink for that excitement at the beginning when guests arrive, and then I stop,’’ she says. ‘‘ I love it but I don’t need it to cope, never have.’’
Another trap for entertainers at Christmas time is to try to show off; to aim too high. Damn you Heston Blumenthal, with your caramel sculptures and your thrice-tortured game. Beer’s first tip for players at home is to keep it simple. She also advises that you should do as much as possible the day before.
Another tradition in the Beer family is to visit friends for a champagne breakfast on Christmas morning.
‘‘ Everything is prepared the night before, so I just I need to put the goose in the oven, which lets us off the hook for about two hours, then the family arrives and everyone helps, so I do