Christmas

For my children: clementine cake

A long time ago I had an idea that when our children left home I would give them a recipe book with all their favourite meals in. Like many parenting resolutions, that one didn’t work out too well (I lost heart when the few I had written up fell victim to a computer that erased my hard drive.)

Still, better late than never but this time I’ll write them out here, away from bolshy hard drives and in a place where others might enjoy them too. It’ll be an occasional series of ‘inheritance recipes’, those meals that became a regular feature of our life together while we were all growing up and that perhaps they will want to pass on to their families in the future.

The first is the one that always says to me that Christmas has arrived in our home. The kitchen fills with warm, citrusy aromas that gradually waft up the stairs, heightening the sense of anticipation as the Big Day gets nearer.

It’s Nigella Lawson’s clementine cake and I’ve been making it every year for more than a decade. Like many of our family’s favourite recipes, it comes from her first cookbook How to Eat. Published before Lawson was regularly on television, the book is full of dishes that you want to make again and again, and that actually work in the context of your everyday life.

I regret the one-dimensional portrayal of Lawson that has developed since she became a TV star. I actually bought How to Eat all those years ago because I was intrigued to find out what kind of recipes a Booker prize judge would write (she was on the panel in 1998).

I wasn’t disappointed. I love the way this book is written. It’s intelligent but down to earth, competent but not threateningly so. The language is as enjoyable as the food. ‘Purple-sprouting broccoli is avoided by those who think that good food has to be fancy,’ she writes. ‘Clearly they don’t deserve it.’

Of a baked custard she says: ‘When you eat it, it should be just warm, soft and voluptuous, like an eighteenth-century courtesan’s inner thigh; you don’t want something bouncy and jellied.’ I do wonder whether this one sentence sowed the seeds for the way most people seem to think of her now, but in context it is a brilliant description that conveys exactly what the cook should be aiming for.

Like a lot of Lawson’s recipes, the clementine cake is expensive both in terms of the ingredients and the length of cooking time. Foodbanks and hunger have, rightly, been in the news almost daily for the past week and I hesitated before I cooked it this year.

But to my mind some occasional feasting is an important part of what it means to be human and in the end I decided that something that is so resonant for our family, not to mention delicious and easy, should continue to be part of the way we celebrate Christmas.

So here goes, kids: inheritance recipe #1

Nigella Lawson’s Clementine Cake
From How To Eat (Chatto and Windus, 1999)

4-5 clementines (about 375g weight in total)
6 eggs
225g sugar
250g ground almonds
1 heaped teaspoon baking powder

Boil the clementines in plenty of water for two hours. (Put the lid on the pan: the year that I didn’t, it boiled dry and I spent a couple of hours on Christmas Eve trying to remove caramelised clementine from the base of a very expensive pan your great-uncle Lyn gave us as a wedding present.)

Drain and, when cool, cut each clementine in half and remove the pips. Pulp the whole lot, including the skins and pith, in a food processor. (Apparently you can do this by hand but get a food processor if you can afford it: it’s the one kitchen gadget I wouldn’t be without.)

Preheat the oven to gas mark 5/190 degrees C. Butter and line a 21cm Springform tin.

Beat the eggs, then add sugar, almonds and baking powder. Mix well, adding the pulped oranges. Here’s a good Nigella sentence: ‘I don’t like using the processor for this, and frankly, you can’t baulk at a little light stirring.’ Hear, hear.

Pour the cake mixture into the prepared tin and bake for an hour. A skewer should come out clean. After about 40 minutes, rest a piece of foil or greaseproof paper on the top of the tin or the cake may burn. Cool in the tin.

clementine cake

 

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the Magnificat and the shopping centre

To prepare for Advent this year I read the Magnificat, that famous song of Mary that is recorded in Luke’s gospel. Soon after that I went to Broomhill, an area of Sheffield almost halfway between where we live and the city centre. I hadn’t been for a few weeks and I was shocked by the changes I found.

Together, the two experiences combined to convince me (and I know I’ve been slow) that it’s impossible to take Advent seriously and continue to shop like a typical Western consumer.

This is what I found in Broomhill.

on a roll

This used to be an independent sandwich shop.

Blackwells

This was a bookshop.

Williamsons

This is an excellent hardware store which has been trading in Sheffield for fifty years. It’s moving to the bookshop premises because they are smaller. Not because it is short of things to sell but because the landlord refused to renew their lease, preferring to hand it to Sainsbury’s instead. (I do not know why Broomhill needs a Sainsbury’s only a few doors away from Eurospar in one direction and Tesco in the other but that is what it will get.)

Cream

This was a coffee shop.  It had, a seasonal menu that changed regularly and it stocked local food, such as the excellent Our Cow Molly ice cream.

Our Cow Molly is part of a family-run dairy farm that was set up in 1947 and now numbers eighty cows, which graze on top of one of Sheffield’s famous seven hills. When the current owner’s grandfather started the business sixty years ago, a bottle of milk had the same value as a loaf of bread or a bottle of beer. Now the big traders have forced the price of milk so low that hundreds of dairy farmers are going out of business. ‘We didn’t want to be next so Our Cow Molly dairy ice cream was born!’ explains their website.

The owner of Cream has sold the lease to Costa Coffee, a global chain that already has several branches in Sheffield, each serving an identical menu. Just to be sure, I emailed Costa and asked them whether individual branches were allowed to stock locally sourced food. They replied: ‘The store will have to stock the same products as the rest of our stores in line with our company policy.’

This globalised, one-size-fits-all way of doing business is wrecking our world. It’s destroying individuality, creativity and local resilience. It places power in the hands of a few and forces the rest of us to do things their way. The global food industry in particular is one that screams injustice, whether that’s in the treatment of small scale producers, the conditions in which animals are kept to ensure low prices or the terrible havoc wreaked on the land by large scale agricultural practices.*

In the Magnificat, a pregnant teenager sings of themes that recur throughout the Bible: of justice and equality and of God overthrowing the power structures of the world. ‘He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,’ cries Mary. ‘He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.’ **

When I read the Magnificat this year, I felt more than ever the dissonance between joining in Mary’s celebration and continuing to spend money without thinking about where it is going. I buy more stuff in December than at any other time. I don’t want my money to contribute to wrecking the environment and putting more power in the hands of people who have too much already.

So as a family we have drawn up some criteria for our shopping and present-giving this month. As far as possible, we will try to buy and give things that meet at least one of the following criteria, things that are:

:: locally produced, or
:: recycled, or
:: sold by an independent retailer, or
:: organic, or
:: fairly traded or
:: hand made originals

We won’t be shopping at big retailers that shirk their responsibility to pay corporation tax. In general I won’t be shopping at supermarkets but I’m making an exception for our local Co-op. That’s partly because the Co-op sells more fairly traded goods than any other supermarket, and also because there’s a small branch only five minutes’ walk from our house. I’m absolutely convinced that if it went out of business we’d get Tesco or Sainsbury’s moving in and tightening still further the grip they have on our buying choices.

I know this isn’t perfect. I know to my shame that we’ll probably still consume more in one month that some families in other countries do in a year. I know loads of people of all faiths and none have been doing this kind of thing for ages and we have been slow to get going. But it’s a start. It’s only by beginning that we’ll find out where to go next.

Joanna Blythman’s books are especially helpful for understanding more about the food industry.
** Tom Wright’s Luke for Everyone really helped me understand the revolutionary nature of Mary’s song.

twenty-four

When I was a child I found it absolutely thrilling to open the ‘number 24’ on my Advent calendar. That final window was bigger than the rest and it alone had two doors instead of one. Some years the tension got too much and I would cheat and take a peep several days early.

I’m not sure why I was so excited, since those two flaps always revealed the same thing: a little symmetrical tableau of the holy family, complete with well behaved ox and ass. Usually there was a halo of light emanating from the ‘manger’ – actually more like a cradle than something that animals would eat out of – and sometimes there were stars and angels in the sky, bathing the scene in a yellowy wash.

Many years later, I can see how this sanitised version of the nativity feeds the tyrannical view that Christmas is a time of perfection. Perhaps as a child that is what I wanted; as adults we need to be ruthless about confronting the fact that it is impossible.

We might laugh at these blatantly posed images but the same messages still bombard us today, whether it is from the endless parade of TV chefs doing Christmas specials, or the smug and slender models who smile out of the windows of every high street clothes store.

At the risk of stating the obvious, the primary sources suggest a radically different scene for the first Christmas. I do not think it was very neat and tidy in the outhouse where Jesus was born. It is unlikely that a teenager who had just given birth looked particularly glamorous. Not all of Mary’s relatives would have been thrilled that she’d conceived out of wedlock.

I hope everyone reading this has a brilliant Christmas, but if your turkey is dry or your children squabble, or if you’re secretly feeling really sad inside, just remember this: nobody ever said on their deathbed that they wished they’d made more effort to live like an advert.

twenty-three

Well, Advent is supposed to be a time of waiting and today was certainly an object lesson in patience for those of us who had opted to order our turkey from a particular local farm. It would have been easy to get cross about having to stand in the rain and freezing wind, but this being Christmas it is a bit easier to look on the bright side and I found myself really rather proud to be British today. I mean, is there anywhere else where people would queue in these conditions without a murmur of complaint? I would be interested to know.

On a more serious note, as someone who thinks buying local food is really important I was a bit frustrated that this farm hadn’t arranged things better. Sure, the converted among us will always suffer for the satisfaction of having a free range turkey that was raised yards from where we eventually paid for it, but I would have had trouble convincing a sceptical neighbour that this was better than being warm and dry in a supermarket. The staff kept saying ‘sorry about the weather’ as if there was nothing they could have done about it, but there was a large, almost empty barn where we could have waited.

I’m sure this little fellow wouldn’t have minded some company.

seventeen

Julian and I have been in our current house longer than any other since we were married. One of its main advantages is that it is within walking distance of a beautiful valley that is criss-crossed with footpaths. Regularly walking these paths has been a great way of reconnecting with the natural world, something we really missed when we lived in London.

Every season has its landmarks in this valley, whether it is the wild garlic that sprouts all along the riverbanks in spring, or the way the horse chestnuts gradually shift from green to orange, the first heralds of autumn.

Not all the landmarks are entirely natural, though. If you take the path up the valley at this time of year, you come to a cherry tree that has mysteriously grown decorations. I have asked several people but still have not managed to find out who hangs these baubles. Some of them are quite high up: it is obviously a task requiring considerable effort.

Every year I enjoy the surprise I get as I round the curve in the valley and see the tree sparkling with baubles for the first time. I like to speculate that they are a way of remembering someone special, perhaps a friend or a family member who loved these paths as we do and whose memory lives on in the joyful spontaneity of a decorated tree that grows in the wild.

fifteen

Chill out my friends, there’s no need for trepidation / Got a message for the world and it’s elation information.*

Just loved this interpretation of the Nativity story from the vicar of a church in Devon.

 

* More usually translated: ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.’ (Luke 2: 10)

thirteen

So today I have a Christmas card dilemma.

Last year, we decided to send ‘real’ cards only to friends and relations who are averse to modern technology. Everyone else got a cheery email and a pdf of our annual Christmas letter. We saved a lot of money on cards and stamps and used most of it to twin our toilet. Toilet Twinning is a most excellent charity that is tackling the shocking fact that forty per cent of people in the world do not have access to a safe, clean and hygienic place to go to the loo. (Just think about that. I have been at home, at university and at work today and have used at least five different loos, all of which were regularly cleaned and came with handbasins as standard.)

In deciding to make electronic contact at Christmas, we also felt we were making a very small contribution to cutting back on the amount of paper and card that is consumed at this time of year.

The problem was that the majority of people we contacted this way did not respond. It was as if our failure to send a card meant that we were deleted from their Christmas lists. Like a lot of people who are past the first flush (whoops, no pun intended) of youth, we do have quite a few friendships which rely on Christmas cards to keep them alive. I know that might sound as if they are not important, but actually they represent relationships that we don’t want to abandon. They were born out of significant shared experiences and while they may have abated since we had our children or moved ‘up north’, they could easily revert to being more active as circumstances change.

So yesterday I went out and bought several boxes of cards from the local Oxfam shop and tomorrow I will go and spend a fair bit on stamps at the Post Office and we will probably stay up far too late writing these cards in order to catch the last date for second class post on Saturday.

It is so difficult to cut back on consumption at this time of year and not appear Scrooge-like. I would be interested to hear what other people do. Were we being mean when we sent the emails and pdfs? Is the consumption of paper offset by the benefits of using charity cards? Are Christmas cards in fact a dying tradition? If you regularly communicate with distant friends via Facebook or Skype, etc,  is there even any point in them any more?