We were at the butcher shop, 18 days before Christmas, buying enough for this week’s meals and also a month’s supply of dog meat. Before he even knew what we wanted, Wayne the butcher asked – “How are you going for pet mince?” Since I’d just cooked the last one, this was most prescient of him.
Then I spotted a leg of ham in the display cabinet. I nudged She Who Organises Almost Everything.
“Have you ordered the Christmas ham?
“Ah, no, I haven’t. Thanks for reminding me.”
Then She and Wayne got into a technical discussion about the preferred size, did she want the leg end or the other end and, did we want it scored (scored?).
“Yes,” says SWOAE, “And put the flap back on it. Please.”
SWOAE ordered an organic leg of ham last year and was disappointed. As I recall it was a bit dry and a sort of drab grey colour. So yeh, this year we’re going with the standard 4kg leg of ham, a jolly pink colour, which, as you may gather, is artificially added.
Our small Christmas family gathering is a co-operative affair. Everyone brings something. We are bringing the ham and the pavlova. Son Number One doesn’t know it yet, but he’s bringing Bon Bons and those nuggety chocolates with a French name.
Our sister-in-law will no doubt cook up one or more of turkey, duck, pork and chicken and my brother-in-law and/or nephew will go on a quest for prawns. Salads will mysteriously appear, with ingredients from our combined gardens.
One thing about Wayne the butcher, he makes sure the legs of ham are produced locally. None of this ‘contains ingredients from Slovakia’ or whatever. When did that start happening? In case you did not know, 70% percent of processed ham and pork sold in Australia is made in other countries (source: Australian Pork).
This week’s FOMM was inspired by this encounter at the butcher’s shop and a classic movie we watched on Monday night –”Babette’s Feast”.
A French chef, exiled during the Franco-Prussian war, is taken in as a housekeeper by a pair of pious sisters who live in a remote village in Denmark. After winning 10,000 francs in the lottery, Babette determines to spend it all on a French banquet for the village’s small, cloistered community. The strictly religious villagers deduce from seeing Babette take delivery of a turtle, live quails and crates of wine, that the banquet will be the ‘devil’s work’. But they make a pact to say nothing about the food, in which case they won’t be struck by a bolt of holy lightning. Something like that.
That strange, allegorical movie got me to thinking about the Christmas lunch/dinner and why we go overboard on rich food, most of which we only eat at this time of year.
Take Christmas pudding, for example. In recent years my niece has turned out a traditional boiled pudding from a 1930s recipe handed down by Nana Ruby. She has a little stash of sixpences which are hidden in the mix and latched upon by the children (who swap the coins for real money).
According to various accounts, Christmas pudding evolved in the 14th century in the UK, at that time, more of a porridge. In poorer parts of the UK it was regarded as the main Christmas meal.
Nutritionist Hazel Flight, writing in The Conversation, describes what was then known as ‘frumenty’. It was made with hulled wheat, boiled in milk, seasoned with cinnamon and coloured with saffron. It was associated with meatless days, lent and advent and was often served as a plain dish. Other recipes included beef, mutton, raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. Ms Flight says the Christmas pudding evolved further in the 17th century, thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and beer or spirits. The Victorians tweaked the recipe further to produce what we now know as the traditional Christmas pudding, usually served with brandy sauce, brandy butter or custard. (Ed: 21st century additions include lactose-free cream and/or icecream).
Ms Flight’s research into Christmas pudding uncovered the religious connotations. A Christmas pudding should have 13 ingredients – representing Jesus and the 12 disciples. Traditional ingredients in modern times include: raisins, currants, suet, brown sugar, breadcrumbs, citron, lemon peel, orange peel, flour, mixed spices, eggs, milk and brandy. Brandy is poured over the pudding and set alight. The flaming brandy is said to represent the passion of Christ. Assuming you have not set fire to the tablecloth or decorations and the flames have fizzled out, this is the best time to say Amen.
My Dad the baker put a lot of work into turning out Christmas goodies, including his famous fruit mince tarts. He would make up a dried fruit mix at least a month before Christmas, steep it in alcohol and leave it to mature. One thing about Candyland (the family bakery), there was never any waste. Everyone in town knew about the old-school baker from Scotland who produced high-quality cakes and pastries. By 2pm on Christmas Eve, everything had been sold.
In Australia, Christmas lunches have veered away from the British tradition of roasted meats and vegetables. Aussies favour seafood, barbecue-prepared foods, cold meats and salads, followed by pavlova and fruit.
SWOAE says she is going to top the pavlova with kiwifruit, one of the four common fruit toppings (passionfruit, strawberries or blueberries). I would like to point out that the kiwifruit did not evolve in New Zealand, despite its name. The fruit was originally known as Chinese gooseberry and had been grown on China’s mainland for centuries. New Zealand has appropriated the small hairy fruit and made it a national treasure. It grows well in the north of the country and can evidently be exported to Australia at a price that competes with locally-grown produce.
The fruit has been known as kiwifruit since Auckland-based agricultural company Turner & Growers shipped its first consignment to the US in 1959.
This example of cultural appropriation is one thing, but what about pavlova, the origins of which are claimed by both Australia and New Zealand? The meringue cake dessert was named after the Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova, who toured both countries in the 1920s.
New Zealander Dr Andrew Paul Wood and Australian Annabelle Utrecht met while debating pavlova’s origins on a mutual friend’s Facebook post. They started digging deeper and were surprised to find the history goes back a lot further.
They spent seven years piecing together what Utrecht described as a “culinary jigsaw puzzle”. A BBC travel feature said the pair originally planned to make a short documentary, but they realised the pavlova story was not just a trans-Tasman battle. They decided to write a book, Beat Until Stiff: The Secret History of the Pavlova and a Social History of Meringue Desserts.
This topic brings back a memory of Dad in the bakery performing his party trick. He’d take an egg in each hand, crack them and in one motion separate the white from the yolk – a perfect result every time. Egg whites are, of course, the classic ingredient to make meringue cake.
My contribution to Christmas lunch will be loading eskies in and out of the car and making sure I have a goodly supply of de-alcoholised wine.
Someone has to drive!
Footnote: It has come to my attention that some episodes of FOMM may be lurking in gmail’s promotions folder. If you manually transfer them to your inbox the email should then be delivered there.