Dec 14 2006

Christmas is coming…

Christmas is coming…..

Dandy_humph_copy_2

…..and the goose is getting old! Silence fills the farmyard this year. Donkeys feed quietly. Fat lambs steal their hay.No turkey music, no gentle warbling sound answers me on this cold December morning as I potter about feeding, re-strawing chickens, fetching water, all the while bracing myself against the biting wind and the horizontal, sideways rain stinging my face. I drift away as I work dreaming of what it might be like to be in a steamy car in a traffic jam on the M25…….

A turkey free Christmas approaches and I find my heart filled with so many mixed emotions. Can I have forgotten already those pre Christmas sleepless nights; tossing and turning at two a.m. wading through the orders again and again in my head, adrenalin rushing, hands aching,.. Will I have enough small ones; will I have enough huge ones? If I give a fifteen pounder to the Smiths I could give that monster bird to the Joneses. Would they notice it was bigger than their order?….or maybe I could… oh well, never mind, anyway we’ll have whatever’s left…Finally I fall into a troubled sleep.

Mrs X has already telephoned twice to see how her turkey’s getting on, when I say it’s doing fine she’s horrified to think it’s actually alive! Oh, will everyone go home on Christmas Eve with the perfect turkey for their own very special family ritual. Relief and regret fill my heart, I loved it, I hated it;  the buzz of it, the being at the hub of it, the worry, the exhaustion, the relief as I saw the last smiling customer depart, the marvellous phone calls after Christmas.. …so many memories.

Do I really miss all that?

Turkey_1

This year I have time to prepare for Christmas in advance. Oh, what luxury! The cake is in the oven as I write. I thought I had lost my trusted old Margaret Costa recipe, copied years ago onto an old brown envelope, hardly readable now and spattered with years of crusty cake mix. But there it was tucked into the pages of an equally battered cookery book. Each year I mean to follow it faithfully, each year I change it just a bit, my own little private ritual.

I’ve revitalised an extra pudding made last year. It’s soaking up brandy and sugar syrup and looking promisingly dark and unctuous. Mince pies are in the pipeline too. Tomorrow I will make chestnut and prune stuffing for the turkey and a large Pork and Rabbit Terrine to liven up cold fare on Boxing Day. I shall make Apple Crumble with quince,April5_001_1 Shepherds Pie to warm cold grandchildren when they arrive. We’ll have Onion Gratin and creamy Butternut Squash Bake. The bread machine will work overtime producing dough for loaves baked in the range. I shall make pizza bases for quick snacks and quiche casesHedgerow_035_1  to fill at the last minute.

Maybe we’ll have some local oysters too or a big Bourride. I’ll see how the weather is and what sort of catch the fishermen bring to the quay.

Beamers_in_harbour

I have decanted the golden Quince Ratafia made in the autumn. The Sloe Gin is heavily scented and a wonderful rich ruby red colour. This year’s sloes were the biggest I’ve ever seen, the size of small plums. I’m even wondering if I can transform the gin sodden fruit into some outrageous fruit compote for New Years Eve!

Best of all we will collect a turkey raised by someone else!

Roast_turkey

This is our twenty fourth Christmas here.It was February 1982 when our lives changed for ever as we traveled west in search of lost friends. We found the friends and fell in love with a poor old battered farmhouse in a beautiful, silent valley. Six months later the farmer handed us a huge key to the front door. I gazed at it in wonder, just one enormous, rusty, unused old key; the key to a new life.

House_and_tree

The house was built in 1767 by the local Rector for his daughter. Over the last two hundred and forty years it has been home to either churchmen or farmers. Rumour has it that the Reverend Francis Lite, “Poet and Priest of Brixham,” spent some time here, maybe even writing that famous hymn, Abide with Me, in the house! The Deeds are lost so we shall never know for sure. We do know, though, that the family from whom we bought it had farmed here for some sixty years before us.

Tractorbw_1

Our arrival was eventful. Removal lorries broke down on the motorway, and too big for the narrow lanes, were unable to reach the house. All our belongings had to be decanted into a small hired van in the middle of the village right outside the shop; a good place for passers by to get a preview of who had bought ”Dorothy’s House“. Some slid by giving a sidelong glance, others were more vocal.

“OOH, purple sofa, fancy, look at that sideboard….there seem to be a lot of boxes, mind. Where are they from, then, and who are they? Townies? He’s not but still works up country, TV, Dorothy says.  She may be, though her family’s from

Devon

, but not these parts.… There’s children, yes, and dogs. They had a cat Cat_1 in the car too, didn’t they? Wonder how it’ll fair with that old thing she left. They don’t want it put down……hm, don‘t know what they‘ll make of it all .……” Despite this unwanted notoriety we were given the very warmest of welcomes. Over the coming weeks, months and years we have been surrounded by the most astonishing support, warmth and goodwill from our neighbouring farmers

Eventually that afternoon we were reunited with our possessions. Death watch beetle, rot, both wet and dry, and beautiful flourishing fungi meant we had no floor boards on which to arrange this furniture. All our belongings, packing cases, everything but most basic necessities, were stacked high in the farm dairy where they would remain for the next nine months. We began to forget about them; things that had seemed so essential simply weren’t missed.

The dairy is a cold north facing pre-Victorian addition circa 1820. There are deep slate shelves around the walls, each carved with a gully to hold the trickle of cold water that used to keep everything fresh and cool. Some of the old lead pipe work still remains. As the months passed and our furniture remained piled high I soon learnt that black mould is permanent and green mould can be brushed off. We decided not to attempt to use the upper floors, just too dangerous without floor boards. We camped downstairs, sleeping on plastic covered mattresses; children in one room, us in the other.

The children were ecstatic. They climbed around the house balancing precariously on the joists, exploring every corner of everywhere and bagging a future bedroom each. They spent hours happily picking wet wallpaper of the damp walls and counting the thousands of dead flies. They compiled a scrap book of the interior decoration, recording all details of yellow and orange staircase, pea green paneling in the little Georgian sitting room and the thick cream paint swamping the beautiful cast iron fireplace. Early_garden They explored the overgrown garden and made camps in the orchard. They tramped across fields arriving home wet and muddy with happy exhausted dogsEars_3   Katy discovered ponies, Tom discovered freedom.

There was no hot water upstairs and the lavatory perched on high near the kitchen had such strange plumbing that it was inclined to give those brave enough to use it a fairly substantial cold shower when flushed. Fortunately there was another one upstairs which was less eccentric, but journeying to it meant balancing on narrow beams. A friend came to stay and predictably fell through the plaster ceiling on her quest for relief.   

But best of all, I loved the old solid fuel Rayburn. It stood cream and battered in the corner of the kitchen. It hadn’t been used for years, abandoned in favour of a modern electric cooker. It was the only source of heat we had when we arrived. All the chimneys had been blocked up either deliberately or by years of nesting birds. So to cook our food, give us a little hot water and keep us warm I set about bringing it back to life. I scrubbed the old thing, bought some “nuts” and fired it up. If the wind was in the right direction it was a marvel but, as the hills rise up high behind the house, on grey days the smoke was returned unceremoniously to me down the chimney. It began to rule our mealtimes. Would it roar into life and cook lunch or would that cloud, hanging heavy in the sky, mean we must wait till supper time for the fire to draw. Gradually I came to love its funny little ways, we made friends and I cooked on it successfully for years!

Old_rayburn_sketch_1

The old kitchen had no sink or drainage of any kind. It was flanked on one side by a large larder and the afore mentioned old farm dairy and on the other by a modern breeze block extension. This latter housed a metal sink whose waste pipe ended in mid air. Water flowed first onto the floor then optimistically into a little hole and sometimes disappeared earthwards. It was a long, wet walk with a saucepan from Rayburn to sink. Cooking was a challenge.

By November the builders moved in and the restoration process began in earnest. The pantry vanished and so, rather sadly, did the mad, waterfall loo. Suddenly a large space appeared which would be the new kitchen. Walls came down, walls went up. Ceilings fell down, new ones replaced them. Heating and plumbing appeared; water, no water, heating, no heating. And, of course, things got so much worse before they got better.

The Christmas holidays arrived and after much discussion we decided to make a valiant effort and celebrate Christmas in the shell which was to be our home. We hung a curtain across the new bathroom door for Granny who promised to whistle to indicate her occupancy. New floor boards made her journey there less hazardous.

Rubble was shoveled up and barrowed out of the kitchen, the floor was leveled and concreted. A shiny new sink, complete with taps and hot water, brought a touch of luxury. What more did I need! The scene was almost set. A huge Christmas tree acted as camouflage and a few decorations cheered up the occasion.

Dear Rayburn came up trumps on Christmas Day, or the wind was in the right direction and the turkey was cooked to perfection. I polished the table and found enough chairs to seat friends and family and we all sat down to a traditional festive feast in somewhat unconventional surroundings.

My father, unconvinced by the whole business, gave me a long look and asked if I thought we had been altogether wise. I just smiled. I knew we still had so very, very far to go….it would be ten years before Paul left television and we could begin to farm in earnest….. but here I was with my beloved family and friends in a wonderful valley, in a dear old house in the beginnings of the most beautiful kitchen I had ever had. The forgotten chef within me sang! How could I possibly ask for more?

Here’s That Wonderful Old Christmas Cake recipe!

Cake2_2

The following quantity makes a big cake, sufficient for a 9”/ 23cm diameter tin. I usually halve everything and use a 7 ½”/19cm tin.

First oil the tin and line sides and base with greaseproof or baking paper. Lightly oil the paper.

Cake_tin 100_0058

Weigh out 275gms of plain flour into a large bowl; add a pinch of salt, ½ teaspoon of mixed spice and ½ teaspoon grated nutmeg.

Weigh out 175gms mixed peel, 175gms chopped glace cherries, 450gms sultanas, 450gms currants and 350gms raisins. Mix the fruit together in a large bowl and coat with a little of the flour.

Soften 275gms butter with 275gms soft brown sugar till light and fluffy; use a food processor if you have one. Add the zest of an orange and a lemon, and 1 tablespoon of black treacle. Beat in 6 eggs one at a time using a little of the flour to prevent curdling. Pour this mixture over the fruit; add the juice of the orange and lemon and 4tablespoons of sherry or brandy. If you prefer not to use alcohol substitute more juice or milk. Gently fold in the remaining flour.

Pour into the prepared tin, level and make a slight hollow in the centre. Tie brown paper around the outside of the tin to prevent the outside of the cake from browning too quickly. Cover the top with two layers of greaseproof paper.

Place in a preheated oven 170c/325f/mark3 for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 140c/275f/mark2 and continue to cook 4-5 hrs; long slow cooking.

The recipe, copied faithfully onto my old brown envelope so long ago, says “when the cake is cooked it will stop singing”! However carefully I listen I prefer to test with a skewer as well! When you are satisfied the cake is indeed cooked remove it from the tin, take off the paper and cool on a wire rack. It will keep for weeks at this stage in an air tight tin.

Finish it with home made Almond Paste and Royal icing.

One response so far

One Response to “Christmas is coming…”

  1. Edon 23 Dec 2006 at 4:30 am

    I’m not sure how or why I came across your site the first time, but I really enjoy it. I love the donkey photos and might try one of your recipes, but mostly I just think you have a nice life in a nice place.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply