Ian Cuth­bert­son

tips for the Christ­mas ta­ble

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents - Ian Cuth­bert­son

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

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