It was Christmas morning when the first cracks appeared…and it was all my fault. Every year I stubbornly ignore the gaudy decorations that appear as early as October, and swear to do no preparation until at least the first day of December. And things have always worked out. Before I gave up working for a living I was a lot more organized (because I had to be); I had spreadsheets for cards and presents and more spreadsheets detailing every morsel of food to be bought, cooked and eaten. Then I’d have a few frenzied days of shopping and list writing, which all added to the sense of occasion – or at least that’s what I told myself! In the last couple of years though, I haven’t needed to be organized and so I’ve been flirting with danger – and this year I was caught.
As often happens there was no sign of any impending disaster. And when on Christmas Eve I smugly produced a Bailey’s Custard Tart to follow our Trout with Cannellini Beans and Chorizo, it didn’t occur to me that I was heading for a fall. The food was wolfed down and everyone was filled to the brim. Much merriment followed, helped along by copious amounts of wine and the Harry Potter version of Trivial Pursuit, which saw Michael and I being absolutely and unsurprisingly trounced. (Has anyone else noticed how their children, even though they are grown, responsible adults, seem to get much younger again at Christmas? Suddenly they crave Disney, Narnia and Harry Potter…or is it just my girls?) Anyway, so far, so good…now jump to Christmas morning and our customary cup of coffee…
“Mum, do you realize there’s no coffee? Is there a spare jar in a cupboard somewhere?”
What the…? No coffee? I need at least two cups when I get up, just to get me moving! Frantic searching of the cupboards told the truth of the situation; there really was no coffee. I was stunned – how could I have allowed this to happen? But after a few minutes of teasing by the rest of the household I saw the funny side of it. After all, everyone messes up occasionally…none of us knew it then but things were about to get much worse.
Every family has their traditions, especially at this time of year. Our particular way of doing things is to first delve into the stockings (whilst enjoying our coffee, but we’ll move on from there) and then have breakfast. Showers and getting dressed next, before tackling the main present haul. Now for some strange reason even though the star of Christmas lunch varies (this year we’d decided on duck) breakfast is always the same thing: scrambled eggs with smoked salmon; buttered toast; prosecco with orange juice. Everyone helps, whether it’s cooking, laying the table, pouring the drinks or tidying away the detritus from the present opening. So after we’d emptied our stockings we all went into the kitchen and that’s when we were hit by the second problem:
“Mum, where are the eggs? I can only find two.”
This stopped me in my tracks. Eggs? There’d been plenty when I’d last looked…before I’d made the Bailey’s Custard Tart…
In case you do things differently and have a way of scrambling eggs for five people that I’m completely unfamiliar with, you’ll know that two eggs weren’t going to be enough. Not even close.
“…and I can’t find any butter. Is there some in the freezer?”
What the blazes had happened? And was 10am too early to hit the bottle? I considered reaching for the sherry but decided that a clear head was going to be more useful. The girls were veering between assuring me that it didn’t matter, and snorting with laughter. I’m not certain whose idea it was to swap things around but we ended up agreeing that we’d have toast with the chicken liver parfait we’d made the previous day (which had been meant for the first course of lunch), and relegate the smoked salmon to lunchtime. This brought a new challenge: how would we serve it? Everything in the fridge or cupboards had been allocated a space on the time-table and was already earning its keep. But I had to make amends somehow and so there was only one thing to do; I would have to make blinis. It was a just punishment.
Which is exactly why, on Christmas morning, I was making a yeast batter. An hour later, having allowed it to rest, I was well into cooking the blinis before we thought of the next problem, which was – what would we put on top of them to go with the salmon? The fridge yielded half a tub of Philadelphia cheese, three cartons of double cream and a jar of mayonnaise. The cream had already been earmarked for the white chocolate & whiskey croissant pudding…oh but wait…that needed butter and eight ruddy eggs! When the girls had stopped rolling around they came up with a plan; they would finish the Baileys tart that had started all the trouble in the first place, and Michael and I could eat the Christmas pudding that I’d made back in October. Though at this stage I wouldn’t have been surprised to find that the pudding had been carried off by fieldmice.
All of this makes me appreciate the professionals even more; on 10th December we’d been to the Bear in Crickhowell for the singing group annual feast, the third year running that we’ve partied there. The Bear is an institution in Crickhowell, dating from the 16th century. According to their website, the inn was just one of four stagecoach stops on the route from London to West Wales, which led to the crossing to Ireland. The fact that it’s not only survived but flourished tells you just how good it is! We’d been greeted by the head waiter who said: “You’re the group that sings, aren’t you? Shall we add an extra fifteen minutes between each course for a song or two?”
Wonderful. As was the food – I stuffed myself on roasted butternutsquash soup followed by pheasant with red cabbage, parsnip pureé and roasted vegetables – and that was really enough; but foolishly I’d allowed myself to be tempted by the Christmas pudding served with clotted cream and armagnac custard. Really, how could I have resisted that? It was all delicious and served with the smiling efficiency that I’ve come to associate with the Bear.
It was a bit like a phoney war though – after we’d had this celebration it almost seemed as though Christmas was over and done with, which may explain why I’d taken my eye off the ball as far as my menu planning had gone. That and the fact that I’d been very pleased about the amount of hedgerow goodies I’d collected for decorations – clearly my success went to my head.
And then there was another distraction (you see how my excuses are building up?). The third week of the month we saw some pretty cold weather and at one point the garden thermometer read -7° centigrade, though it may well have been colder. It was the first hard frost we’ve had for a while and there were two major effects (major as far as we were concerned you understand, not on a global level). The first was that our boiler broke down, as I bored you with in a previous post. I’m sure this wasn’t actually caused by the cold weather but it didn’t make things any more comfortable. The second thing that happened, just as the boiler was fixed, was that part of the garden wall collapsed. This was a much bigger deal for two reasons; firstly it was going to cost us money to fix, which the boiler hadn’t (due to a home care agreement – ok, it costs money each month but nothing at the point of repair, which is good). Also (and much more worrying as far as I was concerned because I’m apparently an idiot) the wall in question is at least 500 years old and so this was an injury that made me quake in my boots. Though it was riveting to look at the rubble infill and think that nobody had seen or touched it for five hundred years…sorry, I had to get some history in there somewhere…
Luckily we managed to spot the local stonemason on the roof of the church, and after he’d climbed down and had a look at our wall he agreed to come and do the repair work for us in the few days left before Christmas. Astonishingly, the weather was dry and so he got stuck in. The second day that he turned up, we’d arranged to have lunch in Cardiff with ex-colleagues and also to pick up the girls, so I went out to the garden to let him know our plans. At this he stilled and looked at me with a slightly horrified expression before whispering: “Cardiff? You’re really going there?” I wasn’t sure what the problem was so I just said Yes, that was our plan. He shuffled his feet a bit then said: “Well…I mean, I don’t know…that’s ok with you, is it? You know, Cardiff…I mean, it’s over the mountain…how ’bout them roads an’ all…”
I began to wonder if it was safe to leave him on his own at this point. Michael had appeared as well and clearly thought the same as me. He took over, explaining that the roads were fine, we were used to driving to Cardiff (which is all of 25 miles away and you really don’t have to drive over a mountain to get there – you can go around it) and also in the city itself. The stonemason shuffled his feet and said “Hmm. You know best, I suppose”, though he obviously thought we were completely deranged. We left the garden with him shaking his head and muttering “Cardiff!” under his breath, as though we’d suggested flying to Neptune for the morning.
It was dark by the time we got back that evening and so our stonemason had departed for his own home, just half a mile along the lane. I think he was relieved to see us the following day. I mean, who knows what might have happened to us?
The repaired wall with pheasant…
So the wall was fixed and Christmas was on again. The girls were home – though there was a slight hiatus as Alex suddenly had news that she had an interview in London on Wednesday 21st. This meant that Lizzie and Katie arrived from London on the Tuesday and Alex travelled in the opposite direction the same day, to stay with a friend overnight and then go to her interview the next morning. Not exactly ideal, but there you are. At least she was back in time for Nine Lessons and Carols at St Ed’s on Wednesday evening – though I’m not sure she’d agree that was a good thing! And they all got to enjoy the great day itself, with coffee-gate…followed by egg- and butter-gate…but despite that nonsense (and maybe because of it) we had a really great Christmas.
Everything’s quiet again now – Alex is back in Cardiff (city of danger and iniquity over the mountain); Katie and Lizzie have left to spend the New Year with friends, Lizzie in Montpelier and Katie in South Africa with Garth’s family. Michael and I have been left in peace to finish whatever’s left in the fridge and drink our way through assorted spirits, half a bottle of Baileys and about five litres of different types of fruit juice as we contemplate the meaning of the season.
Which is, of course, that it is possible to make and cook blinis on two glasses of prosecco and no coffee.