Feasting on Christmas Eve
Luxury tastes for the festive season
Christmas is jinxed. It’s a notoriously good day for crimes, invasions and massacres. I’m not sure that floods, tsunamis and earthquakes are more frequent at Christmas than at other times, but, because they are more newsworthy, the media love to spoil our fun with reports of them.
Where climate or culture protects us from externally-inflicted disasters, families extemporise catastrophes of their own. Gatherings rupture under the strain of forced jollity. Even where peace and goodwill are watchwords, home-makers rebel against extra work.
High expectations provoke dire disappointments, especially under the Christmas tree. Mistletoe kisses are false, Santa phony. Crackers and silly hats mock real mirth. Holly is prickly, with berries as bitter as gall. Feasts induce indigestion or somnolence.
In England, even if you like your relatives and can endure the Christmas menu, the deadly tunes and senseless lyrics of carols make annoyance unavoidable. I look back nostalgically on Christmas Days I have spent in a sickbed, or alone at work.
Much of the horror of Christmas en famille would abate if people had the sense to feast on Christmas Eve and have a modest, simple collation on the morrow. The monstrous fowl and impregnable puddings that people favour in the Anglophone world need long cooking and hard work, which often goes wrong.
Even averted disaster may yield disagreeable results: turkey is an abhorrent bird, with a smell that reminds me of sweaty feet. The flesh of goose can be sickeningly pinguid. Christmas pudding is good only as a pyre for a puddle of brandy.
A cook who has been to midnight Mass is too tired to perform well. His or her counterpart who worships in the morning is self-condemned to fluster and haste in the kitchen. On the previous day, revellers can deploy all the leisure they want for cooking and eating, before fatigue and ennui set in.
Among cultures that favour Christmas Eve for gourmandising, fish features prominently. Italians and Poles, if they honour tradition, will eat nothing else. But they privilege salt cod and carp respectively and both are hard to find in Britain.
What most eaters look for at Christmas is nostalgia
The trouble of obtaining them is worthwhile, as even inept cooks can stew them unfailingly. Overcooking is impossible, as firm fish break down as deliciously as an over-aged claret. Everyone’s favourite ingredient can be added to the pot, and both species complement seasonally sweet ingredients — sweet potatoes, root vegetables and dried fruits.
Culinary experts can risk more adventurous recipes for frying or baking; gluttons can split their fish among three courses: say, croquettes to start, followed by a chunky, aromatic potage and a baked main course.
Cravers of luxury may substitute lobster and caviar for carp or cod, but old men like me, who recall fresh salmon when it was an expensive rarity, can recreate the illusion of luxury inexpensively with a whole salmon wrapped in spinach-leaves, enveloped in smoked slices and baked en croute, or with a dish of my wife’s devising: salmon baked with spinach in cream.
I like fish pie, if it includes hot-smoked salmon, mussels, prawns, parsley and tarragon in a béchamel made by stirring dry vermouth into a stiff roux and using cream to achieve a flowing consistency: under Talkgilded, flaky pastry almost any concealed ingredient becomes a treat.
What most eaters look for at Christmas, however, is nostalgia. So while there’s hope for experiment on Christmas Eve, the chances remain remote that the English will forego their roasts and stodge on Christmas Day. The recipe industry is boringly full at this time of year of advice about how to avoid the most common disasters: dry turkey, bitter sprouts, oleaginous goose, mistimed trimmings, undercooking and overcooking and intractable leftovers.
There is, however, one sure recipe for eluding horror and satisfying nostalgia: its ingredients are excellent wines and liquors, copious canapés, and desserts rich in the traditional preserves and sweetmeats that evoke the comforts of pre-industrial midwinters.
The canapés will fortify eaters against the disappointments that may mar the main course. Dried and candied muscatels and apricots — plump and sugary — or peaches in brandy and cherries in kirsch or anisette, marrons glacés, nougat, marzipan and spiced cakes strewn with citrus peel will make the most secular hedonist rejoice in the birthday of our Lord.
And, lest they — or we — forget, it may be wise to adapt a Polish custom, and edge dishes or spread placemats with wisps of the straw that lined the manger of the first Christmas: empty of any food, except for the bread of angels.
This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.
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