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.

Missing ingredients

For the past few years, in the week before Christmas, I’ve done a big cook up for my friends. Large cuts of meat cooked slowly, sides, desserts, and whatever else I feel like serving those people that I like. While I may be on the other side of the world this year, I felt that the traditional pre-Christmas feast was still worth doing.

I went for a bit of a classic. Roast lamb, potato gratin, honeyed carrots, and sautéed kale, followed by apple and rhubarb crumble with custard. Crowd pleasers seemed the way to go.

There were always going to be some challenges with putting a meal like this together while travelling, of course. Not least being the state of the hostel’s kitchen. While better than what you usually get in a hostel, it certainly lacks some of the sophistication of what I had back home. Lacks quite a lot of the utensils, too.

The larger challenge, though, is ingredient shopping. At the best of times I struggle with shopping for an event like this. Not being one for half measures, I like to get really good quality produce. The meat should be ethically produced and as good as can be found.

Vegetables and fruit, too, need to be of the highest standards, which means I need to be able to look at them myself before choosing.

In any new city it can be hard to find places you trust to sell you food. In a big city like London, caught in the grip of warring supermarkets, it can be even worse. Don’t get me wrong, supermarkets have their place, and with the tiered variety of chains here, some of them are quite good.

But even in the supposedly higher end supermarkets there is an upsetting trend away from choosing your own produce. At the local Waitrose nearly everything is in plastic wrappers. Maybe I’m a bit of a snob, but it all just leaves me a bit cold. Is it so odd to want to feel my leeks before I buy them? I would always prefer a small, local grocers or butchers, but they are increasingly difficult to find.

Through the wonders of the internet I did manage to find a family owned organic butchers a mere two tube stops away. HG Walter’s is a dream of a butcher. Along with the usual cuts there was game and offal of every sort, plus some stunning looking house made sausages. The meat was displayed beautifully, the staff knew what they were talking about, and it was a challenge to choose what to take.

Even with the help of the internet, though, decent greengrocers have been near impossible to find. In desperate need of good veggies I did what I would do in most cities and headed for the markets.

When deciding on which market to visit, it’s good to stick to those that are large, old, and central. Barcelona’s La Boqueria are a good example, as are Melbourne’s own Queen Victoria Markets. In London, this meant Borough Markets. With a very long history, including 160 years in the current location, Borough Markets is one of London’s largest, and located right by London Bridge. It hit the brief on all three counts.

That it seemed so likely to be one of the great markets of the world might explain why I came away feeling so disappointed.

Don’t’get me wrong. There is a lot to be impressed about at Borough Markets. If you’re looking for cured meats and cheeses there is a seriously impressive selection. Some of the meat available looked wonderful, too, especially the game meat. And there looked to be some beautiful seafood, too.

But there was a significant lack of fruit and vegetables. Across the whole market I think I counted 5 fruit and veg stalls, most of which were really rather small. Some did have good produce, for example I got some lovely organic carrots for an absurd 10p a kilo. But there just wasn’t the selection I expect from a great market.

Maybe my expectations are too high, and I’ve been spoilt by some of the Australian markets. In Melbourne alone, not only is there the indomitable Queen Vic, but also Prahran. Adelaide’s Central Markets are equally impressive. Even the Belconnen and Fyshwick markets in Canberra aren’t too bad when it comes to the range and quality of fresh vegetables.

To me, Borough Markets just didn’t live up to expectations. I did manage to get what I required, and my pre-Christmas dinner was a huge success. The lamb shoulder spent 6 hours in the oven and fell off the bone, the potato gratin was rich and creamy, and the crumble was sweet and warming. Everyone was left delighted, but I just want it to be easier next time.

Looking online, farmers markets seem to be the best suggestions for fresh produce, but they’re mostly on the weekend.

In the meantime, perhaps I’m stuck with plastic-wrapped leeks.