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Food, glorious Christmas food

Friday 16 December 2005

Our countryside commentator John Sheard turns his back on news, good and bad, to get into the Christmas spirit and discuss a subject close to his heart: food, glorious food

The good news is that wild birds are living longer - up to 36 and still going strong is some cases - which is a good indicator that the rural environment is getting better (See News, Wednesday). The bad was that Tony Blair's boast of reforming EU farm subsidies has largely failed (see News, Thursday) whatever unlikely excuses the spin doctors come up with.

But it's Christmas, and I thought that we should examine a much more topical subject: food, glorious food. And as it is my turn to cook the family Christmas dinner this year (we take it in turns with the children) it a subject close to my heart as well as my stomach.

Eat, drink and be merry

It always takes my back to yesteryear, when I was nobbut a lad and my formidable Victorian-born grandmother was in charge of the festive victuals. She ran this annual project like a company sergeant major faced with a platoon of slack, lazy squaddies - and she prepared for battle months in advance.

Way back in September or early October, we kiddies would have been sent out to bring in the first crop of the coming feast. We would raid of row of wild chestnut trees on the fringes of the local squire's estate - real chestnuts, I mean, not conkers. These would be made into soup, stuffing or boiled along with the sprouts.

What the squire thought of this I do not know - he would no doubt be told but perhaps this was his early Christmas present to us - but the memory does beg this question: how many of today's children would know the difference between a wild chestnut and a horse chestnut? If, indeed, they even knew what a conker is?

Closer to Christmas, we would be sent off to see a local character of some disrepute who lived in a broken down cottage on the edge of the squire's wood and present him with a hard, bottle-shaped package wrapped in brown paper in return for a stinking sack which would contain Christmas dinner.

Later, we would have to pluck whatever was in that sack. It could be pheasant, partridge, hare, even a wood pigeon or two. The country was in the grip of harsh rationing at the time and you cooked what you could get hold of. I must have been ten or perhaps even twelve before I saw a turkey.

On the big day itself, our job - before church - was to go into the veg patch and pick a bucketful of Brussels sprouts, the colder the better. Gran would be delighted if they were still covered with hoar frost but that made life hard for tiny fingers. I wonder how many people today, never mind young children, have actually picked their own Christmas sprouts?

The game was first casseroled with fatty bacon and leeks in home-made wine - preferably two year old elderberry - then roasted for the last 20 minutes to give it a glaze, and served with Brussels and chestnuts, home-grown sweet as sugar parsnips, plus roast and mashed potatoes, the latter to soak up the unctuous juices from the casserole.

There followed hot, home-made mince pies with brandy butter (if Gran had managed to acquired some brandy) and the adults finished off with a livid purple drink served in liqueur glasses. For some reason, this made them laugh a lot.

I didn't find out for some 20 years what that purple stuff was but now you can buy that too over the counter. It is, of course, sloe gin and, I like this, a young Yorkshire farming couple have set up a thriving business selling sloes to the distillers - and even to chocolate makers!

So the old dishes still survive, except they come over the counter. You can now buy all the ingredients of a Pickwick Papers feast oven-ready. All I ask, as I have written many times before, is: please buy them from a local shop which buys its food from local producers. My only other request: eat, drink and be merry!

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