He arrived as a feted and honoured guest, given pride of place in the middle of the room and decked in all the riches and finery that we had to offer. But since then he has been behaving like the sort of guest you can't wait to wave goodbye to at the end of the holidays. Offered to help himself to a drink, the bad guest avails himself of the whole of his host's drinks cupboard, wine cellar and bottles of single malt carefully stashed behind books on the shelves. Smiles become strained and a subplot emerges where the host seeks to find ever new and ingenious hiding places for his remaining supplies with an air of wartime conspiracy. Sometimes the bad guest will seek these out and, with great hilarity, proclaim the eccentricities of his host.
This was the sort of guest we had taken into our home. The first pint downed in under ten minutes, another an hour later; and again later that evening. No tree invited into our house had ever come so close to having a full-blown alcohol problem as this one. It wasn't until I heard him sipping loudly in the next room and actually heard him belch that I realised that our guest had gone too far this time. Rounding the corner quickly to try and catch him in the act I instead caught sight of Poppy (our black Labrador), head on one side scraping along the floor under the tree, lapping up the water from the cup of the Christmas tree stand. She slunk off to bed pretending to be part of the carpet.
You are making a store of food for Christmas which will last several days (hopefully) and that can be used in a cut-and-come-again manner. Like you I find a side of smoked salmon very useful at this time of year. You are also curing some raw salmon yourself in a mixture of salt, lemon and herbs. My cooking time at the moment is vying with the pressing need to whizz the hoover round and wash all the bedding so my list is fairly short now, along with the energy needed to do it all. I am looking forward to picking up the Turkey tomorrow from the farm up the road. I think it will have to live in the back of the Landrover for the next two days as the only safe place away from the dog and the cat. The fridge is full to bursting.
It is hard in the run up to Christmas not to feel under pressure from it all - whether it is your own endless lists which you either gradually tick off or discard as over-optimistic, and from the expectations of others; or even from your own traditions and shackles which you insist upon. Even you, normally so laid back and relaxed - or so it seems - are prone to a little stress.
'If I am going to lose it (and I do), then this will probably be the month. When there is too much going on, I have a fast, failsafe fish soup that seems to make life manageable once more.' The recipe is for 'Lifesaving soup' ( page 498). It involves miso paste and vegetable stock, a little Vietnamese chilli paste (an ingredient I have to confess I've not come across), some broccoli, salmon and prawns. I like the idea of food as medicine and we all need a bit of a life saver right now - that and a stiff drink.
Took my fiddle to the village pub here the other night. With the vicar doing an Elton John impersonation on keyboard we led the rabble in a round of carol singing. Someone had suggested, I think, that since there is a very steep lane in our village which leads down to a ford at the bottom, and some of the older ladies might not be able to get back up it, that singing in the pub instead was a good idea (at least that was the excuse I was given). Carol at the pub put on a simple hot supper with a donation to church funds from each meal sold. The pub was packed and it seemed to go down well anyway.
You arrive back home with a bag of clementines. Like you, they are the essence of Christmas for me. Often I am to be found head in the fruit bowl sniffing the zest as I peel. It takes me back to childhood every time when somehow they were a special treat to be found down the bottom of a stocking along with a single coin and a handful of presents. Stockings these days are definitely getting bigger and more elaborate than one of Dad's old walking socks.
You use the clementines in a recipe of 'Roast duck with apples, clementines and prunes' (page 492). The zest is added to the apples and the fruit mixture used as a stuffing for the meat. A second clementine holds the stuffing in place. This is such lovely seasonal recipe, and so simple, that I might have to add a duck to my order tomorrow. I have a beef and game pie waiting for the family enriched with more than a slug of something a bit special. It is a time to gather people round. Christmas is about togetherness and sharing.So put the stress aside and take time to just enjoy the simple pleasures of good food and good company.
Merry Christmas, Nigel.