Christmas kitchen – red onion marmalade

 

There’s a timely article in the paper today about foods to eat to help keep the winter blues at bay once the clocks go back. Oily fish, green vegetables and onions feature highly.

I’ve blogged about making red onion marmalade before and on a chilly Autumn day in October I like to have something to show for my time when I can’t make much headway in the garden. There are bulbs to plant, weeds to hoe and pruning to be done but the soil is so cold and wet that I’m loathe to trample piles of soil all over the lawn and the terrace ( I use the terms ‘lawn’ and ‘terrace’ in their loosest sense!).

This October’s red onion marmalade is 2 kilos of red onions sweated down for 45 minutes over a low heat with 140g butter , a good slug of olive oil (about 4 tbsp), a generous tbsp of fresh thyme leaves, a small handful of dried chilli flakes, salt, black pepper, 140 g muscovado sugar and a spoonful of ground gloves. Once the onions are soft to the touch (they should break easily if you press them with a spoon) add a 75cl bottle of cheap red wine, 350ml of red wine vinegar and 200ml port. Simmer over the heat until 2/3rds of the liquid has evaporated. Cool slightly and then pot into sterilised jars.

They should  be stored in the larder or a cool, dark cupboard where they will keep well for three to six months, by which time they will be long gone and you’ll need to make another batch. By Christmas it will be yumsome. I’m going to add some to a food parcel for my eldest who is away at Uni and mentioned ‘home cooking’ at least four times in his weekly phone call home yesterday.

The Importance of Rituals

 

Ritual plays a big part in our home. October Half Term is THE time for making the Christmas cake. Recipes come and go but the ritual of buying ingredients, soaking the fruit and mixing the cake two months before Christmas remains the same. Mary Berry’s version (above) with the odd twist from me is this year’s cake of choice. (I used homemade cherry brandy and a slightly different combination of dried fruit.)

There was a time when I had three little helpers in the kitchen. This year I have one away preparing for a university cycling competition, one upstairs doing his A Level coursework and one relaxing with friends before the next spurt of GCSE mock revision. They’ve all ‘checked in’ that the Christmas cake is in hand.

Being a Celt and a mother it’s not surprising that food plays a big part in our family life and that I share kitchen rituals from my own mother and grandmother with my own children and, one day perhaps, they’ll share the same ones with their own children. Of course they’ll change some; they’ll adapt some; they may even abandon some but that connection and routine is important to our well-being and sense of identity. If you want to read more about the importance of ritual and routine try this as a starting point.

 

Heralding the start of Celtic Spring

Waking up to a snow day to herald in Imbolc, the start of Celtic spring has reminded me that I’ve been keeping this blog for ten years exactly. At that time my youngest child was in Reception class; now my eldest is in his final year at school. Seminal years filled with happiness, tears, beginnings and endings, adventures, familiar places, old friends, new friends, and embracing life.  Much of this is documented in this blog.

Imbolc is one of the fire festivals and so it’s right that we will be huddling around the fire this evening to keep warm and spend time together.  There may be rugby six nations action too.  Imbolc and the feast of St Brigid isalso traditionally a time of visiting wells, spring cleaning the house and preparing to sow the seeds of the next harvest. That will have to wait until Half Term, although I may order a load of mulch to spread over the garden plot when the ground thaws.

Imbolc Blessings.

 

Twelfth Night – or what you will

We don’t tend to celebrate Twelfth Night. For a start I can never work out whether it is the 5th or 6th January. For a second I am partied out and crave peace, simplicity, even solitude after the Christmas and New Year festivities. For a third, there is the business of a new school term to contend with along with the accompanying dreams of not being able to locate a class….or my notes….. or a set of marked books. You get the idea? These dreams never leave me before a new term starts, despite nearly thirty years of experience at the chalkface (or Smart board, as it is now). Finally it isn’t long till Hen Galan, traditionally the Welsh New Year which I’ve blogged about before.

If you feel the urge for a get together this weekend then I’m told that a galette is the cake to make complete with bean and pea secreted within its lusciousness and paper crowns for the King and Queen of Misrule. Charades is the game of choice. Someone pointed me in the direction of Mary Berry’s Twelfth Night cake, All fine and dandy if you can bear to mush up pineapple, snip dozens of dried apricots into tiny pieces and quarter a mound of glacé cherries. Not my way of achieving New Year zen, I can tell you.

At Country Gate we will be storing away the decs, relocating the tree in the front garden for the local hospice to collect for chipping and composting and sweeping up the detritus of the last two weeks. Clean sheets on everyone’s beds, freshly polished furniture and a cup of hot chocolate by the fire tonight is a fitting way to bring the season to a close. I have however snipped a few budding twigs from the front garden to frame some forced daffodil bulbs in an old bowl and topped it with moss scraped from the shady side of the terrace to celebrate the end of Christmas. If you didn’t think about planting daffs in pots weeks ago then think of me as your fairy godmother. Hear this! You can pick them up for a couple of quid in most garden centres and even some supermarkets now. It’s a great way for children to spend that last bit of pocket money Granny gave them before she went home. No tooth decay, no sugar rush and a thing of beauty to bring them joy in the dark days of January.

Deck the halls

After a few days with my in-laws in London I’ve returned home with ideas for next year’s Christmas decorations. The angels in Regent Street were remarkable, the Christmas tree at the pop-up ice rink at Somerset House charming but by far the best, in my opinion, was the faux mistletoe fashioned from white baubles and ornate green metalwork topped off with silver glitter globes and Victorian lamps at Covent Garden. I’d like to do something similar on a smaller scale at home.

I even loved the oversized baubles fashioned from footballs covered in fabric scraps and braid made on the Christmas version of Escape to the Chateau. Such idealised guff needs to be taken with a healthy pinch of salt. It might well be styled to the max but there are some genius ideas among the sugar-coating. Even someone with my limited haberdashery skills let loose with a glue gun could succeed at this. Not that I could make it look as effortless as Angel Adoree. I know my limits – but my (un)walled garden is looking a lot more abundant in December than that of Monsieur Strawbridge. Smugness is never a good thing though!

Decorations have always featured highly at Christmas. I don’t remember a tree when I was very young. I’m not sure it would have fitted into our two – up, two-down cottage but there were candles, lots of greenery, holly wreaths and a multi-coloured pop up paper bell. Later, in a bigger living space there were a series of artificial trees – one of which my grandmother fell into after a drop too much Harvey’s Bristol Cream, necessitating a thirty mile round trip to A and E one Christmas Eve. I wonder what happened to the besmirched, lopsided angel/fairy who spent Christmas spread-eagled astride the tree-top in somewhat dubious fashion?

Our first Christmas tree was a tiny faux spruce artificial one acquired from the shop at Alexandra Palace when we lived at the bottom of the Park. We bought some lovely wooden beads and a few stars and baubles to decorate it at vast expense. They are still with us, although we donated the tree to a friend’s daughter for her bedroom some years later. Over the years the collection of tree ornaments has expanded. They all hold memories. I love unpacking them mud-December and laying them out on the kitchen table, reflecting on the best part of the thirty years during which we have acquired them. Some will leave with the children when they fly the nest. A more organised mother would have bought one ornament annually for every child until they left home. But I think they might prefer to choose their own. I’m sure they will choose their favourites from home to carry off at some point in the future.

Then, of course there is the set of hand-carved Russian Santa dolls which meant I went without lunch for a week to afford them, the beautiful ceramic nativity set and the Christmas bunting made by the mum of the lab technician at school. We bought nothing new this year except some lights to deck the laburnum in the front garden because of a December household reorganisation of furniture and books. (Yes there are cardboard boxes in the sitting room waiting to be sorted and/or charity-shopped in the new year). But next year there will silver globes, mistletoe and homemade oversized fabric baubles……..perhaps.

A Recycled Christmas

 

I know of people who take down their decorations on Boxing Day. I am not one of that breed. But there is an urge post-Christmas to use up leftovers, fill the latest bag for the charity shop and work out which day the bins are going to be collected.

We haven’t generated too much rubbish this year – experiences have featured highly rather than ‘stuff’, the young men of the house have large appetites, the Christmas tree is already booked in to be collected for chipping in January in aid of the local hospice and we have no sparkly wrapping paper, having decided to wrap our gifts in brown paper, string or ribbon, cinammon sticks, dried orange slices and greenery from the garden. All of this can either be reused, composted or will light and fragrance our log fire.

It’s good to start the new year without rubbish and clutter even though our decs will remain up until Twelfth Night.

Slowly easing towards the end of the year

Holy Trinity Church,Bradford on Avon taken by Simon Howell

Some Christmas traditions change; some remain.  But there will always be a craving to get outside, seek the light and to curl up later with some heat in Midwinter. This year there has been no trifle and no mince pie making, no holly and no huge get together with friends on Boxing Day. There has been a magnificent Christmas dinner, Monopoly and Cluedo, log fires, cake, crackers, homemade chutney and cheese and new books to enjoy.

Today we took ourselves off to Stourhead for a midwinter tramp around. Later I planted a new hellebore underneath the laburnum in the front garden at dusk, then scuttled back indoors for some heat in the form of cumin,paprika and chillies stirred through mashed sweet potatoes and steamed buttered kale for an easy supper.

 

Family time

christmas baking

December 23rd – Pyjama mornings, orange drizzle and gingerbread cookies

No rugby, cycling or football refereeing commitments for anyone. The tone today was uber relaxed. Nothing to stop me watching Watership Down with my daughter in pyjamas, munching toast and drinking coffee. Nothing to say I couldn’t finish the ironing whilst listening to the Archers  before getting dressed; no stress over baking gingerbread cookies and an orange drizzle with a pinch of cloves thrown in to celebrate the season and a quick dash to the shop for emergency icing sugar  during which I bumped into an old neighbour and we had a catch up, marvelling about how quickly our seven children have grown up. 

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