Traditions

         I really like Christmas

         It’s sentimental, I know, but I just really like it.

With that simple statement, the always entertaining Tim Minchin starts what is one of the best modern Christmas songs. For those of you who haven’t heard White wine in the sun, in it Minchin goes on to explain why he really likes Christmas. Why, despite not being religious and having issues with certain problematic aspects of the holiday, he still loves it because, “I’ll be seeing my dad, my brothers and sisters my gran and my mum. We’ll be drinking white wine in the sun”.

It’s an interpretation of Christmas that really resonates with me. For me, the religious origins of the day are nothing but historical context, and a story that makes for some nice lyrics. But I still love the holidays, for the same reasons that Minchin does. Because it’s about family, and the traditions they hold true.

In my family we have a number of these traditions, little rituals that really make Christmas feel like Christmas. There’s the way the tree is loaded up with the dozens of beautiful wooden decorations my parents bought in Germany in the late 70s. It is next to that tree that we gather to hand out presents, always with a glass of champagne, and always after breakfast (a wait that was torture as a child).

When we get to lunch, the real centerpiece of the day, the table is laid with our best silverware and plates, along with the obligatory Christmas crackers that are pulled open to reveal their ridiculous paper crowns and terrible jokes. The food for us is always roasted, despite the heat outside. We play around with the exact details, but pork is always on the menu, with perfect crackling the most longed for thing on the plate. Then, after lunch, a game or two of Scrabble.

Those are the things that make a family Christmas as my house. But there is one tradition that stands above them in my eyes. One thing that, if everything else didn’t happen, would still make it feel like Christmas.

Pudding.

I’ve always found that people are very protective of their Christmas pudding rituals, whether it involves a traditional steamed pudding or not. They do what they do, and they aren’t going to let anyone convince them that another way is better. I have to admit that I fall into that category exactly, but then, the way we do it really is the best.

It’s not so much about the pudding itself. I mean, of course it is important, but over the years we have experimented with pudding recipes a lot, continually improving. This year’s version, a traditional suet pudding, was particularly good. Instead, the pudding is more a base for the things that go with it. And these never change.

Hard sauce, lemon sauce, and cream. They make up the triumvirate of accompaniments that make our Christmas dessert so perfect.

Hard sauce, also known as brandy butter or rum butter (depending on what booze is added), is a thing of simple beauty. You beat together two parts brown sugar to one part butter, then drip in the alcohol until it can’t absorb any more. Most recipes out there ask for icing sugar, for reasons that I simply can’t fathom. For both flavour and texture, the rich, dark grittiness of the brown sugar adds so much.

The lemon sauce is also pretty simple. Sugar and water, thickened with a little cornflower, is swirled with lemon juice, lemon zest, and a touch of nutmeg. It provides the sharpness needed to cut through the fat and sweetness of everything else. Adding cream to these two is then pretty self explanatory, and these three together on top of a plum pudding is delicious. For me, it is the essence of Christmas.

All my life, this is how I have eaten Christmas pudding, as my mother has before me. It has been a part of our family for around 65 years, ever since my grandmother found it in Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook, given to her by my grandfather on their wedding day. For those who don’t know Fannie Farmer’s, it was originally called the Boston Cooking School Cook Book, published in 1896. It has been a hugely influential cookbook, even introducing the idea of standard measuring cups. But in my family, it is best known for these hard and lemon sauce recipes.

The tattered book that we pull out every Christmas isn’t that same wedding day copy. Even though the book was replaced, we still turn to that same page.

In the late 70s my parents were in London. In fact, it’s where they met. One year they had a big Christmas dinner with a bunch of other expats. My mum rang home to get these recipes from my grandmother, intent on introducing her friends to this excellent way to eat pudding, but when the sauces were put on the table, they were ignored by most of the diners. Everyone just wanted custard. My dad, however, was willing to try something new, and as far as I know he has never turned back.

When I was younger, I didn’t like the pudding much. My perfect Christmas dessert was just the hard sauce, lemon sauce and cream. I was never allowed to eat just that, of course. My parents rightly felt that dessert needed to consist of something more than just butter and sugar. Over the years my tastes matured and I learnt to love the depth of the pudding itself. But I still loved those sides.

Last Christmas, my second one in London, my parents sent me a Christmas care package. It had a few gifts, special Australian products, things like that. The usual bits and pieces that parents send. But alongside the Tim Tams and some new socks was a tiny little Christmas pudding, and two cards with those two recipes, copied from Fannie’s. I made the sauces, heated the pudding, and dug in. Eating that was the most homesick moment of my two years away.

Now that I am home again, it was wonderful to have a family Christmas for the first time in years. Everything was the way it should be, with the tree, the champagne, the crackers, the pork, the Scrabble. But nothing made me feel like I am home more than that dessert.

Even though it is something that I only eat once a year, there is nothing that connects me to my family more. And one day, if I am lucky enough to have a family of my own, every Christmas I will be pulling out that tattered copy of Fannie Farmer’s, beating together some butter and brown sugar, and passing on this tradition. My family will learn about my Christmas, the way I love it.

It’s sentimental, I know. But I just really like it.

Granada: With your drink

If I lived in Granada, I’d be a raging alcoholic.

Not to say that wouldn’t be true in other places as well. The drinks certainly flowed well in cities like Budapest, and in New Orleans there was a go-cup in my hand from breakfast until, well, nearly breakfast again. But this part of the south of Spain is a special case.

It’s not because of the quality of the booze, either. While some of that Spanish wine is pretty decent, more often than not you’re just knocking back a fairly ordinary lager. Nor is it really a constant party like some other cities, with every individual moment of revelry staying relatively tame.

No, the potential damage to my liver in Granada would be thanks to one simple fact: In this town, drinking is the best way to eat.

“Tapas” has become one of the most overused words in the world of food. It has inexplicably morphed into a catchall term for any small plate, regardless of cuisine or style. But in this corner of Andalucía, they do tapas as it is meant to be done. That is to say, free with your drink.

That’s right. The bars and restaurants of Granada give you free food with every drink, all through the day. It sounds too good to be true, doesn’t it?

And, to be honest, more often than not it is. A lot of the food is simply terrible. Just think about the sort of dishes that would be out for free by every tourist-trap beer barn, where everything is deep-fried in the same old oil. There are plenty of bars where free tapas is a horrible thing, but then they aren’t the bars that I go to.

If you ignore them, though, and go to the classic places, the neighbourhood places, and the places that take some time with their food, then it can be a great experience. Take, for example, Bar Casa Julio. A tiny hole in the wall bar down a tiny laneway off one of the main tourist squares, Bar Casa Julio has maybe eight items on the menu. With your drink you might get some salty, crunchy fried anchovies or squid, a fresh octopus salad, or some simply luxurious croquettes. And be sure to get the berenjenas, fried slices of eggplant drizzled with a thick, dark honey, one of the best vegetarian snacks I’ve come across.

Everything at Bar Casa Julio was simple and delicious, the way bar food should be. How could anyone stick to just one drink?

If you listen to locals, or do a bit of research, you can find bars like this across the city. There was a little neighbourhood joint called Bar Axia, suggested to me by a barber, which was wonderful. It was a warm day and people spilled out into the square, knocking back glasses of cold beer and plates of cured meats, sardines, fried seafood and deliciously silky potato salad. I didn’t want to leave.

Nor did I want to walk out the door at La Tana, where surprisingly bright slices of tomato on bread accompanied a killer wine list and a room buzzing with people enjoying themselves. The place was so packed that it was hard to move, random artifacts covered the wall, and it felt like a place that people wanted to be. I certainly did.

And that’s the thing about Granada. It’s not that the food is the best you will eat, or even the best tapas (Seville takes the cake there. I could spend ages talking about the pork cheek at Bodeguita Romero). It’s the conviviality of the culture that makes it special.

I love good food and drink. I think that is pretty clear. But as much as the quality of the food matters to me, food is at its best when it brings people together. The way they eat in Granada, with small plates and lots of drinks, works well for getting people talking. It’s no wonder that the rest of the world has borrowed tapas culture, even if much of the world hasn’t mastered the art yet.

Granada is a town fully immersed in the idea of eating and drinking together. That’s why I had to leave. I don’t know how much togetherness my liver could handle.