I’m not a gambling woman but I wouldn’t mind putting money on the fact that mankind has used food in celebrations for the whole of our history. It’s such a fundamental, human, life-affirming thing to do, to come together to share meals in an atmosphere of giving, gratitude and generosity, forming and strengthening bonds and creating and deepening traditions. Christmas is, of course, no exception to this, and food rightly plays a central part in many people’s celebration and enjoyment of the festive season. It’s a wonderful, wonderful thing . . . but I’d like to make a gentle plea that we try to eat, drink and be merry without stressing ourselves, creating piles of waste or generally wrecking the planet.
To be honest, I nearly didn’t write this post; having done a lot of research and reading, mostly around food waste, the shocking statistics left me feeling sad and despondent. I’m not going to repeat the figures quoted in previous posts, but just share one new one: in the UK, 130 million Brussels sprouts are wasted at Christmas. One hundred and thirty million. I don’t know about you, but I struggle to imagine what that even looks like. It feels like a complete and utter lack of respect for every part and process of the journey from field to fork, so much work and energy spent producing a fresh, wholesome vegetable that is simply thrown away. Now, I like my writing to be grounded in reality ~ life is not about unicorns prancing in sunlit uplands, no matter who might think it ~ but I do like to weave a general uplifting thread of hope and happiness through my musings and I have to admit, I’ve really, really struggled with this one.
Sprouts are one of those foods that people tend to love or hate; sifting through studies and surveys, it seems a third or so of British adults like sprouts and can’t imagine Christmas dinner without them. That’s great! However, the maths says that the other two thirds don’t, and I suspect that is part of the problem: people are cooked or served a vegetable they don’t like and won’t eat and therefore it goes to waste. What a terrible shame when there is such a wealth of options for seasonal green vegetables to choose from. We can’t grow sprouts here as the climate is too mild but with leeks, spinach, chard, cabbage and kale in the garden, we don’t miss them at all. In an earlier post, I suggested that we should not be tyrannised by traditions that don’t serve us and this is surely one of them; if you don’t like sprouts, don’t buy them but choose something you enjoy instead. If frozen peas are your thing, then have frozen peas; the Vegetable Inspectorate is not going to be knocking on your door on Christmas Day and it makes so much more sense to opt for foods you will eat and enjoy rather than something that could end up being wasted. It’s a win-win, surely?
Let’s talk turkey. I have recently completed a 30-day vegetarian challenge and to be honest, it was a breeze; I don’t eat much meat anyway and I thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience, especially experimenting with some new veggie recipes and rediscovering old dishes we haven’t made in ages. Now I’m back to my former flexitarian ways, enjoying occasional meals of good quality meat which started with a local, organic, free-range chicken roasted with all the trimmings to celebrate my birthday. Personally, I believe that a roast dinner is a thing of great glory when it is done well . . . and there is the problem: it isn’t an easy meal to pull off, relying as it does on precise timings and temperatures and juggling a range of culinary processes to ensure everything arrives at the table at the same time. Enter Christmas dinner, and a nation where many people actually do very little cooking through the year, trying to produce the mother of all roast dinners centred on wrestling something resembling a baby ostrich in and out of a hot oven. Turkeys are relatively huge; they require large roasting trays, wide foil, a lot of oven space, a very long cooking time and at the end of it all, unless you’ve stumped up for a super duper delicious free range number, you end up with meat that is often bland and dry. To make things easier, many people opt for a turkey ‘crown’ which is basically a limbless bird; I understand the reasoning but to me it seems a bit weird, and stranger still that you can now also buy a turkey crown with ‘added’ legs. Mmmm. If you enjoy turkey, fine; it’s traditional, after all, and can be lovely. However, if it means ending up feeling stressed on Christmas Day (as surveys suggest many people do) and piles of leftovers going to waste, then have something else instead. One of the arguments for turkey is that it feeds a lot of people but so does a good sized roasting joint of other meats and, given that turkey is not a cheap option, it might be better to go for something different. In all our years together, we have only ever had turkey on Christmas Day once; in other years, choices like a rib of local pasture-fed Welsh beef did us proud and helped to support farmers and butchers in the local community. One year, in deep snow, we famously had a barbecue. I know people who have dispensed with the whole idea of a grand Christmas roast and had a marvellous time on good old bangers and mash instead and others who pack a special picnic every year and head off to a beautiful spot to eat it. Traditions can be great but some of the best are the ones we make ourselves.
Speaking of making things, one of the aspects of festive food that saddens me is the extent to which so much of it is bought ready-made. Yes, I know I’m a keen cook and I appreciate not everyone shares the pleasure I get from cooking from scratch, but I think making your own stuffing, bread sauce, gravy, mincemeat and mince pies, pudding, cake, biscuits, chocolates or whatever is a wonderful thing to do for several reasons.
#1 It’s economical. This applies particularly to foods like stuffing and gravy which are really made from scraps and these days I tend to make mincemeat and Christmas pudding from whatever is knocking about the house rather than buying a set of specific ingredients. Even if you push the boat out and buy pricey ingredients, you will end up spending less than for the equivalent ‘luxury / handmade’ article bought from the shops . . . and end up with something far, far superior.
#2 You can choose your ingredients. Many people (including a lot of the children I taught in the past) don’t like certain festive foods because of particular ingredients or flavours, so if you make your own, you can tailor dishes to suit different tastes (as well as to any specific dietary requirements, of course). If you’re not a fan of sage, leave it out of the stuffing; if nuts upset you, don’t put them in the mincemeat. If you can’t stand Christmas pudding, make something else for dessert, something that will delight you and make you purr. You can also be a choosy consumer; having spent a fair bit of time perusing the ingredients lists for a range of ready-made or packet mix Christmas foods (I know, I should get a life), I’m pretty horrified at how many of them contain palm oil. We have managed to produce delicious stuffing, mincemeat, pastry, pudding and cakes for centuries without it so why is it so necessary now? It is an ecological nightmare and I refuse to buy anything that contains it until 100% of it is guaranteed to come from a sustainable source that doesn’t harm people or nature; yes, it’s a personal thing (and I’m certainly not trying to preach here) but principles matter ~ even at Christmas! Gravy is another one. A good quality piece of well-seasoned meat will release wonderful juices which put over heat, sprinkled with flour and whisked with vegetable cooking water or homemade stock makes fabulous gravy. Gravy granules and stock cubes contain a list of ingredients that puzzle me and it seems especially curious when certain brands describe them as ‘real ingredients.’ These include things such as monosodium glutamate, hydrolysed vegetable protein, permitted flavourings, maltodextrin, modified starch, flavour enhancers, emulsifiers, disodium 5’ribonucleotides, colouring, potassium iodate, sodium inosinate and guanylate. Real ingredients? Really? Give me meat juices, flour and vegetable water any day ~ plus a splash of wine or dollop of cream if I’m feeling decadent. So what if homemade gravy is a bit lumpy or lacks the colour and gloss of this commercial stuff? It’s Christmas, time to be kind to ourselves and choosy about what we put in our bodies.
#3 It’s enriching. I’ve said before how creativity is empowering and this is true of making foods and dishes yourself rather than being a consumer. I’m not sure how we arrived at a point where it’s possible to pretty much buy an entire Christmas dinner off the shelf but I think that many people deny themselves a hugely important and beneficial sense of achievement and pleasure by not having a go at making at least a few bits and pieces at home, especially when much of it is so simple. Take stuffing, for example, which ~ trust me ~ is the easiest thing in the world to make. Start with a large bowl of breadcrumbs: these are best made from stale bread (we freeze bits and pieces until we’ve gathered enough), and if you don’t have a food processor, just rub it, crusts and all, down a cheese grater. Lumps are fine, no finesse required! Cook a chopped onion in butter or oil until soft and stir into the breadcrumbs along with plenty of salt and pepper and a pile of chopped fresh or dried herbs of your choice. At this point, you can also add anything extra you fancy such as chopped fruit, nuts, mushrooms, celery, spices or citrus peel. Go crazy, it’s your stuffing! Bind with an egg, adding a drop of hot water if the mixture is dry, and you’re done. Yes, it takes a few more minutes than opening a pack of ready-made fresh stuff or pouring boiling water onto a packet mix, but it’s so much more satisfying and the result will be truly delicious. It used to make me smile when we still had sprogs at home how the last few crumbs of stuffing were what everyone fought over.
#4 It’s fun and inclusive. No-one should feel stressed about feeding themselves and others at Christmas (well, at any time, to be honest); no-one should have to get up at 5am to stick the turkey in the oven and then spend the next few hours fretting about it; no-one should end up being a frazzled martyr in the kitchen while everyone else is busy being festive elsewhere. For many years, I have used Delia Smith’s reliable recipes as good starting points in the kitchen and her famous 36-hour countdown to Christmas dinner has undoubtedly helped many people cope with the complexities of feeding a hoard. However, I do smile at the few ‘free’ minutes allowed for the cook to enjoy a glass of pre-lunch bubbly between turning the chipolatas and boiling the sprouts. Apologies and big respect to Delia but my take on that one is this: open the bottle earlier, pour everyone a glass and give them a pinny to go with it. Get all hands on deck and everyone involved, or at the very least, stick a few seats in the kitchen and invite everyone in. With appropriate supervision around hot and sharp things, there is no reason why children can’t get busy, too. Yes, it may well be chaotic and noisy and cramped, but that’s the whole idea. Play some music, chat and laugh, let the fun start here . . . sociable cooking is a truly wonderful thing to do.
#5 It gives you control. This might sound like a strange one, but the more inclined you are to do your own cooking for Christmas, the more confident and in control you will be. That allows you to choose which bits of tradition you are going to keep and celebrate, which you plan to change and which to ignore. For years, I persisted in making a traditional Christmas cake decorated with frosted icing and reindeer frolicking through a forest of fir trees until I asked myself why I was doing it. Since Roger doesn’t like fruit cake, I don’t like marzipan and icing and the littles were more interested in the plastic tat on top, it seemed like a pretty pointless activity. Discovering a wonderful recipe by patissier Eric Lanlard for a rich and luxurious cake full of dark chocolate and topped with jewelled glacé fruits (not a plastic reindeer in sight) was a eureka moment and I never looked back. Where a Christmas pudding is concerned (previously always made at the end of October), nowadays I tend to leave the decision to the last minute ~ to make or not to make? It depends totally on how we feel and I have to admit, I’ve yet to notice any difference between the properly matured version and the ‘throw it together on Christmas Eve’ number. We have never subscribed to the idea that Christmas dinner must be on the table by a specific time, preferring to drift slowly towards it in a relaxed fashion (easier if there’s no giant turkey involved). When we had children at home, there was never any chance of eating at lunchtime as is often the tradition, since late morning would find the cooks and their helpers wandering about in pyjamas and the vegetables still growing in the garden! These days, with just the two of us, we tend to go for a long walk somewhere, armed with a flask of coffee and mince pies, then prepare our midwinter feast together when we feel like it . . . and yes, that bottle of bubbles is definitely opened before we start.
#6 It gives you possibilities for simple gifts. One of my grannies used to shake her head over the excess of expensive Christmas presents that had become the norm, saying that in ‘her day’ people were happy to give and receive small handmade gifts such as a pair of knitted gloves or jar of homemade jam. I’m definitely with Gran on that one: homemade foods can make lovely, personal gifts which tend to be acceptable to everyone and are far more meaningful than anything bought. There is a wealth of possibilities: preserves like jams, jellies, marmalades, butters, pickles, chutneys, bottled fruits, oils and vinegars, biscuits, shortbread, gingerbread, chocolates, truffles, small puddings and cakes ~ a double layer of foil wrapped round a large tin makes a brilliant mould for mini Christmas cakes. There are many beautiful ideas for wrapping and presentation (eco-friendly being the best, of course!) and if something homemade lacks the predictable, banal perfection of a commercial product, then so much the better. It’s an individual and unique gift, made with truly ‘real’ ingredients and something you won’t find on any food label ~ love.
#7: It reduces waste. With this one, I’ve come full circle from where I started with all those wasted sprouts. If we have a close connection with food and a better understanding of where it has come from and how it is produced then we are less likely to waste it. It’s not so easy to throw a pile of mince pies away if we have spent time and energy making them ourselves, rather than plucking them off a supermarket shelf. Making your own Christmas foods tends to enourage meal planning and shopping lists which in turn lead to less waste. It’s not just the food, either; if we are sourcing ingredients ourselves, we can make eco-friendly choices where packaging is concerned, too. The inclination and ability to use leftovers is also hugely important. I once watched in horror as the entire remains of a Christmas buffet of bought ‘luxury’ foods ~ including a side of smoked salmon ~ was swept off the table into a bin bag because the hostess refused to use leftovers; that food would have fed my family for a week or more. For us, leftovers from any meal are a wonderful opportunity to be creative in the kitchen and, at the very least, form the basis of tomorrow’s dinner. It’s amazing how a bit of roast meat, cooked vegetables, stuffing, gravy or whatever can be transformed by sheer culinary alchemy into heartwarming dishes (some sort of pie topped with creamy root mash is always a good crowd pleaser). Cooked meats, mince pies and Christmas pudding can be frozen perfectly well and safely for future meals. Leftover mincemeat makes a fabulous filling for baked apples, or a wonderful surprise at the bottom of an apple pie, crumble or Eve’s pudding; you can bake it into muffins or even stir it into your porridge. Many people have an aversion to boiling up bones but it is a simple thing to do and for me, does full honour to the life of the animal in squeezing out and valuing every last drop of nourishment. It yields wonderful stocks to use in soups, stews, risottos and gravies and can be successfully frozen for future use.
New research suggests that almost a third of Britons don’t know how Brussels sprouts are grown, as in they have no idea what a sprout plant looks like in a field or garden. Perhaps if as a society we could connect more with food properly at a very basic level, literally go right back to the roots of food production and understand the whole holistic picture beginning with the soil and weather, then we would be less inclined to be wasteful. Perhaps we could be more aware of what we are eating and make better, healthier and more informed choices at the point of buying. Perhaps we could rediscover the joy and freedom of being engaged and enthusiastic cooks rather than passive consumers. Perhaps we could come to an understanding that Christmas doesn’t have to be built around excess and waste. I don’t know. Maybe I’m dreaming . . . but having finished a post I nearly didn’t write, I am at least feeling more optimistic about the possibilities. I sincerely hope that those of us fortunate enough not to need the support of foodbanks this Christmas will cherish every precious mouthful and do complete honour to our festive food, ourselves and the planet. Happy Christmas cooking, everyone! 😊