St Cuthbert battles self- indulgence
Eating In

How to beat the killjoys

A pared-back Christmas means we can at last bin the big bird, says Felipe Fernández-Armesto

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


Before you settle, close-packed, to a big Christmas feast in defiance of plague, be warned by St Cuthbert. Food figured prominently in Bede’s narration of his life: Cuthbert shared barley with birds; dolphins’ flesh sustained him after shipwreck; a friendly eagle supplied fish; angels bore bread “that surpasses lilies in whiteness, roses in scent, and honey in taste”.

But when fellow monks tempted Cuthbert from his cell for what must have been a chilly Christmas picnic, he felt uneasily self-indulgent. His brethren dismissed his qualms: “Let us rejoice! It’s the birthday of our Lord!”

After “eating, merriment, and conversation” Cuthbert renewed his admonitions. But the picnickers replied, “Days of fasting, watching, and prayer are numerous. Relax. Enjoy the occasion.”

When Cuthbert’s misgivings arose a third time, the revellers reluctantly broke up the party. The saint’s caution was vindicated: when they re-entered the monastery, “one of their brethren was dead of a pestilence; and the same disease increased, and raged furiously.”

Today’s killjoys are less charismatic and less credible, but Covid Christmas feasts will be sparsely attended.

Mathematically, smaller parties mean diminished family friction and a merrier Christmas for the cook, who will be free of recurrent tyranny: cramming unaccustomed quantities of intractable turkey or unfamiliar goose into an unsuitable oven, or struggling to recreate indigestible puddings that no right-minded eater would confront on any other day of the year.

The typical British Christmas dinner should have been banned long ago

The typical British Christmas dinner should have been banned long ago by any morally responsible nanny state. Big birds are hard to cook well, even with more practice than infrequent intervals allow. You can joint them before roasting — but they gobble up even more oven space. They take so long to carve that portions congeal by the time everyone is served. After tepid, unevenly cooked fowl, followed by stomach-shocking stodge, who but the fatally plague-stricken will sleep in heavenly peace?

Inside Covid bubbles, there are opportunities to innovate this year. Something en croûte always feels festive and is mercifully simple to serve: one stroke of the carving knife per portion. Only experts should make puff pastry from scratch: one can’t do better than buy it.

If one wants to risk St Cuthbert’s disfavour by over-indulgence, a loin of venison or fillet of beef is an insuperable filling. Coat the former in a paste of finely chopped mushrooms and truffles; wrap securely in thin slices of jamón ibérico before rolling in pastry. The beef filling is best smothered in truffled pâté de foie gras and encased in a thin pancake inside the pastry.

In either case thorough searing is vital: rub the meat well with olive oil and use life-threateningly high heat. Add sloe gin in the venison gravy, or amontillado for the beef. Whole roasted garlic cloves and roots or tubers defy winter admirably.

There’s no need to make further demands on the cook: a sybaritic dessert of glacé fruits, fresh pineapple, Carlsbad plums, caramelised nuts and chubby figs will evoke ghosts of Christmases past, especially if you drink old port or sweet champagne with it.

Our Lord is not the only December birthday boy. Covid regulations forbid the birthday party my wife had planned for me. “This year,” she said with consoling generosity, “you can choose the menu.” Thinking that salad and cheese could be decently omitted, I sketched a modest proposal for only nine courses.

Champagne would accompany hors d’œuvres of blinis and caviar. At the table, a crab-and-coconut tart would launch proceedings, alongside a glass of Manzanilla, followed by Fino to go with the mussel-and-saffron soup with strips of bitter kale and the artichoke hearts tossed with crunchy jamón serrano.

I thought of Albariño to irrigate the finely-sliced octopus with smoked paprika that would form the next course. Grapefruit sorbet might brace the palate before serious eating ensued, with beef on the bone and pommes dauphinoise.

If you roast two ribs or pairs of ribs separately and have two carvers at work, everyone can be served more or less simultaneously. Choose a joint with a good crust of fat. Rub well with garlic and salt. Roast rapidly and fiercely, with the fat turned upwards to render and get crisp. The potatoes should have structure, and so be waxy and thinly cut. To pierce the pinguidity of the dish, fennel is a good vegetable and mature Rioja a good wine.

After such a digestion-busting course, I knew my wife would be severe with me if I chose any but a light pudding with the return of the champagne; so I asked for a mere Grand Marnier soufflé with vanilla custard. Some fingers of anchovy toast, I suggested, would round the meal off with coffee and pacharán — the fruity Navarrese aniseed liqueur — over ice.

I presented my shopping list. Grimacing contemptuously, my wife discarded my screed, cancelled my menu-planning licence, and sat down to compose a light and healthy substitute.

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