Let it flow

From rab­bit paella in An­dalu­cia to par­tridge in Provence, food writer Elis­a­beth Luard has al­ways taken a ‘when in Rome’ ap­proach to Christ­mas. This year, her first with­out culi­nary re­spon­si­bil­ity, is no ex­cep­tion

The Guardian - Cook - - Elisabeth Luard’s Christmas Memories -

For­get the tur­key with all the trim­mings and go with the flow at Christ­mas, wherever you may be. I learned my own les­son in child­hood on the diplo­matic cir­cuit in Latin Amer­ica. I was just seven years old when my step­fa­ther was posted to the em­bassy in Mon­te­v­ideo, Uruguay, where the sea­sons were up­side down and my fam­ily cel­e­brated the mid­win­ter fes­ti­val in high sum­mer.

Prepa­ra­tions rarely went to plan. The pud­ding or­dered from Har­rods via the diplo­matic bag would ar­rive shortly af­ter the new year, and my mother’s cook, a na­tive of the high An­des, had her own ideas of what to do with a scrawny old bird (boil un­til ten­der and sauce with chilli). She had to be taught how to pre­pare bread sauce, Bisto gravy, tinned Wall’s sausages and brus­sels sprouts heated up from the can. A point­less un­der­tak­ing – in her view and mine – not least be­cause when I re­fused to eat the stuff, I was sent sup­per­less to bed. Which hap­pened to be the desired re­sult, since I headed back down to the kitchen for sym­pa­thetic hugs and a can of con­densed milk and a spoon.

There­after, in a re­mote val­ley in south­ern Spain, I brought up my own young fam­ily – four chil­dren born in quick suc­ces­sion in swing­ing Lon­don in the 60s to a hus­band, Nicholas, who, with his friend Peter Cook, was pro­pri­etor of a satir­i­cal the­atre club, and never home be­fore dawn– even at Christ­mas. In Spain, I made lit­tle at­tempt to re­pro­duce the fes­tive feast­ings of my peri­patetic child­hood. The first year, how­ever, I at­tempted a Christ­mas pud­ding, co-opt­ing ev­ery­one over the age of three in sep­a­rat­ing suet (floury fin­gers and pa­tience), pop­ping al­monds (fun but messy), pip­ping raisins, ston­ing prunes and can­dy­ing or­ange zest. The re­sult was, well, pass­able, but noth­ing like as de­li­cious as a square of soft tur­rón, a nougat made with toasted al­monds and honey, or a screw­pa­per of pow­dery polvorón, a frag­ile al­mond short­bread.

In the wilds of An­dalu­cia, while we’d or­der up a scrawny young tur­key from the baker for the day it­self, our post-Christ­mas treat was rab­bit paella cooked on a fire on the beach or, if it was blow­ing up for a storm, along the stream where the chil­dren hunted for cray­fish and the grownups sat around with a tum­bler­ful of wine and a sliver or two of pata negra ham. Black-foot hams from the haunches of the old ibérico breed was the must-have Christ­mas treat. Our black-foots ran free in the cork-oak forest, while ev­ery house­hold kept a sty-pig to eat up the scraps.

Later, when we no longer lived in our val­ley and the chil­dren were grown up and gone, I fell into the habit of rent­ing Christ­mas houses some­where on the Mediter­ranean lit­toral. Our favourite for sev­eral years was a snug lit­tle house be­long­ing to a head­mas­ter in the mar­ket town of Vaisonla-Ro­maine in up­per Provence. The spe­cial­i­ties of the Christ­mas mar­ket were plump lit­tle par­tridges from the vine­yards on the plain be­low, yel­low ap­ples to cook with them, pears that had had their stalks dipped in red seal­ing wax, and win­ter melons to set among the tra­di­tional Proven­cal tretze dessèrts (13 desserts) – an ar­range­ment of dried fruit and nuts set on a ta­ble in the hall through­out the hol­i­day as a kind of open larder where visi­tors and chil­dren could help them­selves.

For the souper mai­gre – the fast­ing sup­per that pre­cedes the Catholic mid­night mass – there were wrin­kled lit­tle black olives from Nyons, sweet and chewy from frost-pick­ling in airy at­tics in the snow-laden air of the moun­tains, sold along­side great bowls of snowy bran­dade de morue – salt-cod beaten to ex­quis­ite soft­ness with olive oil and cream and eaten as a penance with bit­ter car­doona. For those who knew where to search along­side the road, there might be a coal-black truf­fle found un­der a scrub oak or lime tree, its pres­ence sig­nalled by a lit­tle red fly that flits busily above the tell­tale bump and lays its eggs on the tu­ber as soon as it’s ripe. As for the feast that fol­lows mid­night mass and lasts un­til dawn – not un­til the clock strikes mid­night on can wine be drunk or meat eaten – there might be fat­tened capon or poulet de bresse or maybe a palm-size lobe of fresh foie gras sliced thin and cooked on a dry pan, with rest of the goose pot­ted up as win­ter stores, an en­rich­ment for bean-stews and soups.

Never to be for­got­ten, too, was the year we borrowed an icy vil­lage house way up in the snow­bound Gar­farg­ni­ana, a steep val­ley in the moun­tains above Lucca in Tus­cany, where we ate ch­est­nut-fat­tened pork with bit­ter leaves, and nib­bled on hazel­nuts roasted in the shell.

And then there was the Christ­mas we spent on Long Is­land in a clap­board palace among the glit­terati of New York and ate noth­ing but lob­ster and lit­tle neck clams with a buck­et­ful of melted but­ter. That was the year the el­dest of the four chil­dren in­tro­duced his fam­ily to a tall young beauty from New Hamp­shire, a food writer like me, the woman he meant to marry – and hap­pily did.

Of such joys are mem­o­ries made. This year, now that I’ve just moved to my white-walled stu­dio-flat in Lon­don from my ram­bling old farm­house in the wilds of Wales where my grand­chil­dren were happy to spend their Christ­mases, things have changed, as in­deed they must. No re­grets if this year I won’t be or­der­ing up the free-range tur­key from the butcher in Aberys­t­wyth, or com­pet­ing with the birds for the berries on the holly, or gath­er­ing chest­nuts from the tree by the river for roast­ing in the fire.

This year will be the first time I’ve cel­e­brated Christ­mas with­out culi­nary re­spon­si­bil­ity, real or imag­ined. When you’re a granny with two grown-up daugh­ters and a daugh­ter-in-law, it’s hard not to of­fer ad­vice on how many cloves should go into the onion that flavours the bread-sauce. And even harder to let go com­pletely. But let­ting go is what comes to us all, sooner or later.

Prefer­ably later.

I haven’t en­tirely let go. Not yet. I’m hop­ing to in­volve my grand­chil­dren in a lit­tle un­listed cake-bak­ing. All

– the youngest is 11 and the el­dest

18 – are en­thu­si­as­tic cooks. And my go-to Christ­mas recipe – the one that

No re­grets if this year I won’t be or­der­ing up the freerange tur­key from the butcher in Aberys­t­wyth

re­minds me of those long-ago fam­ily Christ­mases in Provence but also my grand­chil­dren of theirs in granny’s house in Wales – is a proper buche de noel. Not the shop-bought choco­late­cov­ered kind topped with a plas­tic robin, but the Provençale ver­sion, a fluffy layer of sponge cake baked in a swiss-roll tin, rolled around and cov­ered with sweet­ened chest­nut­puree light­ened with crème fraiche. The trick – the fun to be had at the end – is to chop off the ends di­ag­o­nally, giv­ing two tri­an­gu­lar pieces that can be stuck back on, pale side out­wards, so that the cake looks like a sawn-off log with two branches.

When fin­ished – as hap­pens in Provence – with a dust­ing of ic­ing sugar (ash) and grated choco­late (soot), it’s a re­place­ment for the Yule log, a slow­burn­ing branch basted with grapesyrup – vin cuit – as a re­minder to the care­less gods to set the sap ris­ing in the green­wood to en­cour­age the re­turn of spring.

While the ch­est­nut-stuffed buche is for im­me­di­ate con­sump­tion (most de­li­cious straight from the freezer), the real yule log was kept smoul­der­ing in the grate from one mid-win­ter to the next, thereby en­sur­ing that the fam­ily’s old folk all stay hale and hearty – an as­sur­ance of im­mor­tal­ity now ren­dered un­nec­es­sary in the farm­houses of Provence through the in­stal­la­tion of cen­tral heat­ing. A les­son to us all.

Elis­a­beth Luard is a food and travel writer and il­lus­tra­tor. Elis­a­beth’s lat­est project is Cook­strip, a car­toon cook­book now fund­ing at Un­bound; @eliz­a­beth­lu­ard

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