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A Dales Christmas dinner: in praise of local food

Friday 21 December 2007

Our countryside commentator John Sheard, who hopes that country folk will support their local food producers over the coming festive season, suggests we switch from boring old turkey to plump, rich and delicious wood pigeon

CHRISTMAS dinner this year has become something more than the year's highlight meal. In this weird and wonderful world, it have become a point of an often bitter debate, a target for the politically correct and - even worse - a concern for health conscious parents who worry about what to feed the kids on December 25th.

There are many reasons for this, not the least that outbreaks of avian 'flu in East Anglia caused the culling of thousands of turkeys - sadly, most of them free range - which has put them in short supply and, no doubt, made them more expensive.

turkey dinner
A Dales Christmas dinner: in praise of local food

Then there are the PC food faddists who count the air-miles their grub has travelled to their plates, who insist that the berries in cranberry sauce have been flown in from America and are therefore destroying the planet. No dates for them nor nuts (except hazel and cobs, I presume) or oranges in the kids' stockings. Do they realise the wheat in their breakfast toast probably comes from North American prairies?

For me, there is a third and much more important pressure at work here. That is my desire to eat locally produces food, thus helping local farmers, independent butchers, grocers and green grocers to continue their bitter struggle for survival against the supermarkets, some of which has just been fined more than £100 million for ripping off both their milk suppliers and their customers by hiking the price of dairy products.

So how about a Christmas dinner menu that it not only traditional - Charles Dickens himself would recognise it - local and, the bonus, very cheap: smoked trout from Kilnsey fish farm near Skipton, chestnut soup, casserole of wood pigeon, baked apple with honey and blue stilton and port (Wensleydale for Yorkshire Dales purists).

Sounds difficult? In fact most of this can be prepared a day in advance so that the wife can got to church and the pub with you, rather than stay at home slaving over the proverbial hot-stove (if, of course, any modern-day wife is prepared to do that?). Most of the following can be done on Christmas Eve.

First make X-shaped cuts in the chestnut skins and drop them into boiler water for a few minutes: this makes peeling them easier. When peeled, simmer very slowly in milk and a finely chopped shallot. When soft, whizz them until the nuts cream. Keep cool overnight, when heated through, serve with large knob of butter and a scrape of nutmeg.

I'll just wish you all a merry and tasty Christmas. Enjoy!

Brown a pigeon per person in butter, then casserole very, very slowly (this is ideal for an Aga oven) for three hours or more in red wine, a glass of port (and/or brandy), towards the end, throw in some whole peeled shallots and button mushrooms. Take out birds, allow liquor to cool, skim and use as sauce. On Christmas Day, rub pigeons with a little more butter and put in low oven half an hour before serving.

Core apples, fill gap with any mixture you fancy - chopped nuts, dried fruit or mince meat - douse with honey and a knob of butter, microwave for two or three minutes, testing to see when soft. This will produce its own delicious juice to be served with whipped cream.

And, again for the Yorkshire purists, I believe the creamery at Hawes has now produced a Wensleydale blue. On this, I break my own rule: Christmas Day would not be complete for me without blue Stilton and a decent vintage port.

Apart from the booze, all these ingredients are local so no-one has to count the air miles. It is an incredibly rich meal - but there are no nasty leftovers for Boxing Day and you will have supported local business. I could say bon appétit but no French here. Instead, I'll just wish you all a merry and tasty Christmas. Enjoy!

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