Take a pinch of the past, mix in the present and you have the perfect recipe for safeguarding the future, says Maria Broadbent of Bury St Edmunds restaurant CASA
I know at this time of year there is a tendency to lose a grip on reality – the reality of how much money we have for gifts, how much food four people can physically consume in 48 hours or perhaps how much Christmas has become an environmental blackspot?
Now, I am categorically no humbug – I LOVE Christmas. I love seeing my family, catching up with old friends, choosing gifts, putting up decorations and preparing traditional foods. I am aware though that like much of our habits throughout the year, we get through an awful lot of single use stuff! The fact is, we are not just talking the ‘P’ word – there are many resources other than plastic which are needlessly used to make stuff we really don’t need and use just once.
Nostalgia has rose-tinted glasses and there are certainly frustrating memories from my childhood in the 70s of legs dropping off a Barbie doll or the tape getting caught up in the cassette player! So, I am not suggesting what went before was better than now, I do think though the wave of progress has been tsunamic and we have lost the good as well as the bad and the ugly.
Perhaps, and not just at Christmas, it’s time to pick ‘n’ mix? What was great in Christmas Past, in our youth, our parents and maybe even grandparents’ youth? Mix this with the best of Christmas Present and we have a Future Perfect (well nearly) Christmas!
Share the memories – get the pastry, mincemeat and the rolling pin out. Get the children to make Santa’s mince pie. Wrap your own pigs in blankets with sausages and bacon from the butchers – there really is no need for all the plastic and cardboard. Last month’s article had some simple Christmas recipes – but there are loads more online (I wish I’d had that in 1975 to get a ‘how to’ video on re-attaching Barbie’s limbs).
Make decorations – yes, small people still like making paper chains. Loo rolls for crackers? Oh, and the big kids, you know, the ones on the fizz. . . we like decorating gingerbread men. This kept myself and my sister quiet for at least two hours a couple of years ago!
If everyone is on their mobile device, sharing the moment with the world at large they are likely to miss the making of true memories. Setting fire to the Christmas pud, playing the games we had been given, squabbling over the choice of music – but enjoying listening to together. Hard to have a sing-a-long when everyone is streaming different music into their ears.
As the foodie I am, many of my memories are based around what we ate on Christmas Day and the days around it. Christmas morning was always egg nog, with sherry or latterly brandy was an option. You can drink and open presents! Smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels, cheese and ham croissants or a good old bacon butty have all made an appearance.
Pre-lunch, as a child would be an annual treat of twiglets and cheeselets. These came in a cardboard tub and would be put out in bowls on the coffee table and would instantly vapourise. As we headed into the 1980s, canapés appeared on the scene – more unusual ingredients began to materialise in the supermarkets. This was known as the Delia effect. Yet even then the shelves and fridges of supermarkets weren’t filled with processed, overly-packaged goods.
How did we end up viewing so many photos and videos of creating beautiful food, decorations and gifts? Instead of making our own creations – we repost, like, comment and share.
My challenge to you this Christmas and into next year is to reconnect with people, especially through food. To sit around a table not just on Christmas Day but every day – it’s the best way to maintain family bonds, health and budgeting. To shop, prepare and cook! The simplest of meals take no longer than fast food.
Origins of Christmas as we know it
Winter solstice celebrations date back centuries. Unsurprisingly, people have chosen to hold festivals around the time the days are at their shortest. The Northern European Yule Festival would have brought warmth, light and excitement to the dark days of winter. The Roman Saturnalia Festival was full of candles, gifts and, of course, eating and drinking! Saturn was the Roman God of time, agriculture and all things bountiful. The festival took place on the December 25th – the date of the winter solstice, according to the Roman Julian Calendar.
Many of the traditions that had their roots in these ancient winter festivities have found their way into our homes and hearts over the years. Regional and historic variations to the food, customs and the decorations we adorn our homes with are fascinating. As always when I write this article I unearth all kinds of nuggets of information. Mistletoe, for example, can be traced back to Nordic myths. It was also purported to be a powerful healing plant from the sacred oak tree and it was hung over doorways and signs of peace were given beneath it.
Yule probably has the most obvious connections to a modern Christmas and in Estonia and Nordic countries the etymological equivalent is still used to describe many elements during the Christmas season. In the UK, we eat a yule log – this tradition is believed to stem from Germanic celebrations and was one of the most widespread in early European Christmas customs. The original yule log was a huge wooden log intended to burn throughout the 12 days of Christmas, starting on Christmas Eve, with a little remaining to ‘carry forward’ to the following year. The purpose of this was that the log was deemed to have magical powers, including healing, protecting the house and even controlling the weather!
In France they call this a Buche de Noel and the log would have gifts hidden under it. The chocolate version of this continues the celebrations into modern day festivities. Quicker to make than a Christmas cake and in our house certainly more popular, especially with the children.
It is fascinating the way ancient traditions are interwoven with our modern Christmas. Christmastime and the celebration of the lengthening of the days has always focused on family, light, hope, warmth, feasting and spending times with loved ones. These traditions can continue in their truest form without the need for over-commercialisation and unnecessary strain on our bank accounts and the planet.
YULE LOG (vegan)
115g wholegrain self raising flour
115g self-raising flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
4 tablespoons cocoa powder
80ml olive oil
1 tablespoons apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
240ml almond milk
425g cocoa powder
500g icing sugar
150g dairy-free butter
2½ teaspoons vanilla extract
160ml plant-based milk
Preheat the oven to190°C
Line and grease a standard sized, deep-sided rectangular baking tray with olive oil.
Pour the flours, sugar, baking powder, cocoa powder and salt into a food processor and whizz them together so everything is well blended. (If you don’t have a food processor then simply sift into a large bowl.)
Add the oil, vinegar, vanilla extract and water to the food processor and mix together to form a cake batter. (Can be done with stick blender or with a wooden spoon and a strong arm!)
Pour the mixture into the prepared sheet pan and bake for 20-25 minutes.
To make the icing, put the cocoa powder, icing sugar, dairy-free butter, vanilla extract and plant-based milk into the food processor and whiz to a really thick, smooth icing (or put them in a bowl and whisk with the electric beater).
Take the cake out of the oven (the cake should spring back to the original shape when pressed lightly in the middle), leave it in tin to cool to room temperature.
Carefully liftthe cake onto a board and cut into 4 parts (cut at right angles to long edge), two parts should be slightly bigger to use in the middle. Stack on top of each other and stick the slices together using the icing – I used just enough and I also added a little cherry jam mixed with brandy!
Cut the edges of the cake until it starts to look ‘log-shaped’.
Smother with remaining icing and use a fork to texture the bark.
Sprinkle with snow (sifted icing sugar) and decorate to your heart’s content.
GINGERBREAD PEOPLE (vegan option included)
300g self-raising flour
Pinch of salt
3 teaspoons ground ginger
100g caster sugar
3 tablespoons golden syrup
4 tablespoons of a milk of your choice
Currants for eyes/buttons and cherries for lips
Preheat oven to 160°C . Lightly grease and line a baking sheet.
Warm fat, sugar and syrup gently together until melted – add the dry ingredients and mix to a firm consistency.
Tip out onto a lightly-floured surface and gently knead before rolling out and cutting. Place on lined baking sheet and strategically push in the currants and the cherries.
Bake for 10-15 minutes.
When cooked allow to cool slightly and then CAREFULLY lift on to a wire cooling rack. If you try to lift them immediately they will bend and break! You can now decorate with icing.
Melt good quality chocolate either in a bowl over hot water or carefully in the microwave – spread over baking parchment, sprinkle with edible glitter whilst wet. Allow to cool and snap or cut into shards.
MODELLING FONDANT ICING
500g fondant icing sugar – sifted
30ml water in a large bowl
Set aside 2 tablespoons of the icing sugar then take a quarter of the remaining sugar and mix into the water. Mix into a thick paste. Gradually add the remaining icing sugar until a dough like consistency ball is formed. The remaining icing sugar is for rolling out. You can add food colour at this point. Because you will only need a small amount of each colour, dip a cocktail stick into the colour and dab it on to small balls of icing. Mix and repeat
until you have the depth of colour you require.
You can create beautiful decorations by hand or using cutters.
10 easy tips for a greener Christmas period
1. Avoid buying overly packaged items – buy locally and for food stuffs take your own tubs and bags to bring home. Visit Clear to Sea on St John’s Street for inspiration.
2. Find interesting alternatives to single use items such as crackers – we used miniature bottles in tissue and string (we will save them to refill).
3. Wrap gifts in brown paper – if you have the time and inclination, why not get the kids to make a potato stamp and print their own designs.
4. Get creative – it’s easy to make gift tags from old cards and how about some homemade decorations?
5. Calculate food quantities – remember the shops are only closed for one full day. . . so you don’t need to stock up for the apocalypse.
6. Have plans to use up the leftovers – fry up the spuds (if you don’t like the concept of bubble and squeak count your brussels before you cook them!), make stuffing patties, curry, soup, Christmas pudding mince pies and there are 101 things to do with leftover cheese.
7. Try to make some gifts – chutneys, chocolates, biscuits, lavender bags, photo-inspired gifts. . . pinterest is a great source of ideas.
8. Potted and artificial trees – are a good alternative to chopping trees down every year.
9. Avoid using regular glitter – the tiny micro-plastics end up in the eco system.
10. Switch to LED lights – and aim to get broken and malfunctioning decorations repaired rather than binned!
Maria Broadbent is owner of Mediterranean restaurant CASA in Risbygate Street, Bury St Edmunds
Tel 01284 701313
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