Nigel Slater's tastes of Christmas past
Everything I eat at Christmas has its roots in Christmases past. Sometimes my own, sometimes imaginary. The cake I bake now is based on one I made with my mother when I was nine, albeit a lighter, spicier version. The first course I am producing this year - sweet and sharp sea bass - is based on the tropical fruits that appeared in our house at no other time of year (if there were passion fruits or a pineapple in the fruit bowl it must be Christmas); the main course is a simplified version of our traditional family roast dinner. Even the cocktail I will be drinking is based on the brandy we used to put in the pudding. I can trace almost everything on the table to a childhood Christmas treat.
The table groans with nostalgia. I only have to stick my thumbnail into the skin of a clementine and the Christmases of my schooldays come back as fresh and clear as ice. A sniff of the sherry, Marsala or Madeira bottle and it can only be one time of year.
The smell of clementines heralds the arrival of the festivities
When I was planning my menu this year I used the memories of those early Christmases as my guide. I wanted to make certain that when anyone walked into the kitchen they knew instantly what time of year it was. Even my flapjacks had dried fruit in them this year, the raisins, sultanas and figs that have gone into my cakes and puddings found a new home.
The trifle, so long an integral part of my Christmas got a bit of makeover this year. Not just for the sake of it, but to bring in more of the festive spirit, so a mincemeat sponge, a layer made of lemon and orange curd and some spectacular decoration. Any trifle I make has always been based on my father’s recipe. His contained Swiss roll, cream and rather too much cheap sherry. I doubt he would recognise mine but like almost everything I eat at this time of year, it comes from my childhood feasts.
I do think it is a mistake to produce any food on the day that is too far from what everyone is expecting. No one is insisting on an unshakable menu, what I find goes down better are the tried and trusted flavours and ingredients - just rearranged. So although you are getting a new twist and offering something they have never seen before, its flavours are steeped in tradition.
When I was a kid, we had a turkey that was so big it would barely fit in the oven. I now go for things that are smaller and more manageable, but then I can, because the meal is a more intimate affair now, with fewer extended family present. But what is crucial is that every dish contains the spirit of Christmas. I suppose what I am after is the essence of the season, those flavours, scents and textures that offer an unmistakable hit of Christmas. I want a feast that is unmistakably of the moment.
What are the most evocative flavours and aromas of Christmas for you? What childhood memories still make it into your Christmas dinner?
Nigel Slater's Simple Christmas airs Wednesday 21 December at 7.00pm on BBC ONE, (repeat - 24 December at 11.15am). Full list of recipes.