Christmas. Less than three weeks to go. In which camp would you place yourself? The come all ye faithful, let's get carolling, gingerbread and spice, let it snow brigade? Or the not again, ridiculously over commercialised, well really it's only for the kids, bah humbug camp?
Either way I suspect that come the big day, (and probably for a good few days before and after) both sets will be doing one thing in common, namely eating and drinking. If you want to complain that those are two activities not one, let me narrow it down.
Feasting. For At Christmas We Feast. That's the title of the most recent but one* work from the keyboard of esteemed writer and food historian Annie Gray. Listeners to The Kitchen Cabinet will know that she is always referred to as Doctor Annie Gray. She has three degrees including a PhD from the University of York where she is a research associate. This academic background is reflected in 17 pages of bibliography and references: but don't worry, she wears her scholarship lightly.
I've read most of Annie's books, and, as ever, this is a delight, a festive confection of history and recipe, laced with humour. It is eminently readable. Many of us may think of Christmas as almost a Victorian invention. Annie takes us way back before that. She is at pains to point out that the old traditions with which we are familiar are essentially English. In Scotland, Christmas Day didn't become a public holiday until 1958, though we have been making up for lost time.
The chapter headings alone make you hungry. One can't say the same about the various suggested Bills of Fare for Christmas over the centuries, beginning at 1660 with 40 different dishes. How could so much food be consumed? For this reader, they induced feelings of nausea, not hunger.
Much interesting history. Wassail was originally a toast, not a drink, the appropriate response being, drink-hail! The development of many food stuffs is fascinating. Learn of the evolution of plum pottage to Christmas pudding, or of mincemeat from savoury to sweet. And of course, an examination of the Victorian influence, the reality perhaps a little different to the legend.
The section on post war Christmases is instructive, as we came out of the rationing era and domestic servants disappeared. There are the contradictions between new labour-saving convenience foods on the one hand, and, on the other, the indulgent TV excesses of Fanny Craddock, resplendent in evening gown, never an apron in sight.
Many of us believe that the roast potatoes are the key to a successful Christmas feast. In a very short chapter Annie gives us a concise history of the spud and its acceptance into Europe: she summarises the introduction of roasties and the debate on the best ways to cook them: and she ends the chapter with the fundamental truism, proof...that the simplest things can be the most difficult to get right.
You can tell this is an excellent work since her Classic Christmas Menu from 2019 is identical to the meal you can expect here at Johnston Mansions on the 25th. And Annie's own Christmas lunch menu?
Main course - 2 wood fired pizzas:
Pork sausage meat, prunes and chestnuts
Spam and pineapple
Aye, right. That aside this is terrific stuff, a perfect Christmas gift for book loving foodies, or food loving bookies (is this the correct word? - Ed? ). Well, you know what I mean.
At Christmas We Feast: Festive Food Through the Ages by Annie Gray
Profile Books £12.99 Hardback £9.99 Paperback
Annie's latest work is Call the Midwife: The Official Cookbook
On The Side will return in the New Year. Have a great festive season.