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Murray Chalmers: Hoping for a Christmas cracker after tough times

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Christmas is absolutely my favourite time of the year, but this year I’m approaching it differently because, for the first time ever, I will be waking up in an empty house on the big day.

With this revelation I’m aware that I’m certainly not alone in being alone, and that’s not to negate the presence of Simone the cat – but she’s pretty poorly right now and, even at full pelt, isn’t best known for her skills at making breakfast blinis while opening that crucial first bottle of Champagne.

Caterwauling

I also hope she won’t mind me saying that no caterwauling feline has mastered the chorus of I Wish It Could Be Christmas Every Day with as much aplomb as we humans after two breakfast sherries, half a box of Milk Tray and a Champagne chaser.

This Christmas will definitely be a novel one – my only hope being that the novel doesn’t, in fact, turn out to be Bleak House.

This isn’t a plea for sympathy because the first thing to state is that I won’t be alone all day – my neighbour and best friend David will wake up in his own solitary grotto and we will convene as soon as the log fires are lit (we long ago formed a bubble to see each other through the more isolating extremes of lockdown).

The absence of my sister and David’s brother Andrew might mean that pulling the crackers is a bit gratuitous and a game of Cluedo might be a non-starter, but there will be much merriment, albeit with the lingering fearful notion that Still Game might have shifted inexorably from being a TV show to our actual reality.

This year has led to some difficult decisions for so many of us, my latest being that my sister and I reluctantly agreed that it was too risky for her to travel back from London to spend Christmas in Fife with me.

This was a pretty dispiriting conversation to have because, with both our parents dead, we literally are our family; however, Elaine and I decided to stand firm in our belief that foregoing a traditional Christmas now would hopefully mean we can celebrate many more in the future, a small price to pay – or so it seems to us.

Once this decision had been made it’s true that everything became a bit emotionally heightened, not least when Elaine asked me to send her Nigella Lawson’s recipe for a classic trifle. This recipe, which we always use at Christmas, is in Nigella’s first book How To Eat, our blueprint for every festive meal from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day.

Trifle

As such it’s as much a part of our Christmas as our mother’s broken strawberry decoration on the tree and the Ralph Lauren sheet we use as a festive tablecloth.

Finding the trifle recipe didn’t take long because that particular section of Nigella’s book is so well thumbed, the relevant pages imbued with food stains sticking them together like ghostly glues of Christmas past.

Seeing all the recipes – ham braised in Coca Cola, the goose, Lidgate’s chestnut stuffing, their cranberry stuffing, bread sauce, Viennese red cabbage, the clementine cake – reminded me how much I love the whole joyous joining-in exercise of Christmas, and how I will really miss it this year.

For me, Christmas is about so much more than the day. When I lived in France I really loved going to Bergerac airport to collect Elaine, flying in on the O’Leary Santa Express from London. The sky was always a vivid blue – a chic French blue, of course – and the cold air hung heavy with expectation.

Seeing families and friends reunited, rushing towards each other arms outstretched, faces beaming with joy and hope, I confess that this experience sometimes reduced me to tears.

Our menu this year will be completely different because only a fool would cook a goose or a turkey for one, and also David is vegetarian.

Much as I revere it, I will not be using How To Eat as my culinary bible because that’s for the hopeful normality of next year. This year, I will be cooking from Nigel Slater’s wonderful The Christmas Chronicles which is so much more than a recipe book, and also from the excellent Towpath Recipes and Stories by Lori de Mori and Laura Jackson.

This delightful book includes a recipe for roast crown prince squash, ricotta and caramelised chilli sage butter that has Christmas written over it, vegetarian or otherwise.

Murray Chalmers.

Food on TV at Christmas is often a joy, not least because we get endless re-runs of Nigella’s Christmas specials, along with a brand new one. Watching Nigella repeats is fascinating for many reasons but one thing I never noticed before is just how brisk she was in the earliest shows.

Nigella

While now she is almost performative in her presentation, earlier years saw her barely look at the camera, talking and cooking with such urgency that it now looks charmingly gauche at times. I’m amazed not to have noticed this before!

Now, however, Nigella’s Christmas specials really do celebrate a world where there are never too many fairy-lights, the larder is always stocked with nduja and harissa, and the wolf is forever kept from the door.

Fanny Cradock.

I just adore her and love that her camply knowing pronunciation of microwave as “meecrowahvey” not only became a national story but led to her coining the equally glorious response of “fauxtrage”.

That this great cook and writer turned down an OBE in 2001, saying: “I’m not saving lives and I’m not doing anything other than something I absolutely love” makes me respect her even more.

Glorious version

An equally glorious version of Christmas is served up by Nigel Slater, whose shows combine an almost Zen-like calm (I covet his John Pawson-designed kitchen) with the supreme confidence of someone at the top of their game.

Just like Nigella, Nigel Slater makes the world seem a better place and his banana cardamom cake in The Christmas Chronicles will be 2020’s substitution of my staple Nigella clementine cake until tradition can be resumed next year.

The pinnacle of food on TV at Christmas is from a time so far away that the EU was called the Common Market and there was a referendum to see if we would stay in it, a mere two years after we had joined.

The year 1975 is credited as being the one in which a recession ended, although I remember 1976 as being very tough – not least because the UK economy had to be bailed out to the tune of $3.9 billion by the IMF.

Into this recession and on a mission to help her fellow beleaguered, battered “housewives of Britain” came the indomitably terrifying reality of the late Phyllis Nan Sortain “Primrose” Pechey, better known to a generation as Fanny Cradock.

This series of five Christmas cookery shows, now on BBC iPlayer, show this grotesque vision at peak authority, powered by an hauteur allegedly almost permanently enhanced by pills and alcohol.

Dismissal and revenge

The first show starts with Fanny – an unlikely hybrid of Divine, Margo Leadbetter and a ginger pot scourer in Kabuki – pretending to decorate a tree she clearly has no interest in, apart from that of dismissal and revenge.

Revenge is the leitmotif of much of what follows, most notably in the first show The Christmas Bird. It doesn’t start well; the first tip for dealing with turkey starts with Fanny manically ripping her nails into the flesh of the bird in “a curious pinching movement which isn’t to show that I’m scared stiff to meet you all”, already a clear definition of how hierarchically she views her public.

As the stabbing increases in ferocity the bird starts to look very much like road-kill, as indeed does Fanny herself.

Stuffing mushrooms under the skin of the bird “doesn’t do much for the bird’s figure, but then it wouldn’t do much for ours either”, proclaims the Great One as she then proceeds to stuff the bird using what appears to be a pair of 30 denier tights.

Goose

Meanwhile Sarah, the rather frumpy assistant, responds to Fanny’s imperious commands with the grace of someone who probably dreams of poisoning her employer slowly and skilfully, just like she’d seen on Crossroads in 1968.

Now to the goose, which is deemed suitable festive eating for a maiden aunt, a phrase hanging heavy with disdain for any woman who happens to be single, plain or who can’t carry off pink chiffon and over-plucked eyebrows like Fanny.

Sharp implements are raised and we’re advised to think of “someone you never really liked but you’re too well bred to say what you think of them so you take it out on the goose as you stab it all over”.

Subsequent episodes show Fanny get more deranged by the minute, culminating in her demonic creation of a mincemeat omelette in episode five where she screams at the viewer ‘SHAKE – SCOOP – SCOOP – SHAKE’ like a demented cheerleader on appetite suppressants.

At the end she wishes everyone a happier 1976, a year which was actually to bring her disgrace and downfall in the end.


More in this series:

Murray Chalmers: How I found a food paradise offering chocolate cake and a cheesy toastie shack in Fife

A culinary trip around the East Neuk: Pies to die for, soup to savour and a ‘flower hug’ so sweet

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