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
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.
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