The feasts of Christmas past
My family of origin was not big on celebrations. My father would carve the (cold smoked) ham, but leave everything else to my mother, who did not love her place in the kitchen.
Christmas, for me, evokes memories of said sliced ham, mangoes, cherries and a Lions Christmas cake, which I loathed and never ate. For our friends in the northern hemisphere this probably sounds exotic at best, or an abomination, at worst.
When Christmas involved visits from extended family there might even be whole, cooked tiger prawns, fresh from the Tin Can Bay, piled high in a bowl with lemon wedges, salt and pepper, and maybe some Thousand Island dressing. Another bowl catches the heads, tails and guts and everyone shells their own. It’s not pretty, and your fingers stink of prawn for the rest of the day, but for my family, that was the definition of a decadent Christmas.
I don’t recall any hot Christmas dinners. Mum never saw the logic. December 25 is close to mid-summer in Australia and who wants to slave over a hot stove with the heat and the flies? Credit to Mum, there may have been the odd roast chook, but even she will admit that my grandfather, her father-in-law, was the true master of roast chicken, served with crispy (deep-fried?) roast potato, mushy peas with Gravox gravy, followed by vanilla ice cream and tinned peaches, or sliced fresh mango from his enormous tree. That was about as gourmet as it got back then.
Flash forward to Christmas with my own family. With a small food business we have access to some of the best local products available. Christmas at our house is definitely a celebration and I’ve since cooked dozens of roast chickens (locally pastured, unimaginably juicy). I have also been able to experiment with incredible products when we had them, like free-range duck and goose, glazed with marmalade and butter, saving their bones for an exquisite broth to sooth a potential New Year hangover.
Always there is Tassal salmon, a whole side, festive and delicious, whose leftovers can be enjoyed with eggs and hollandaise for Boxing Day breakfast, or tossed through a salad, or pressed into a terrine with leftover ham and roast drippings. A few years ago we were camping on Christmas Day, so I laid out a sheet of foil, made a bed of sliced sweet potato, laid the fillet on top and dressed it in olive oil, ginger, garlic, herbs and lime. Encased in foil, I cooked it on the camp’s electric barbecue in around 30 minutes with no mess. We only had to wash our own dishes.
Last year was typical, with all the usual trimmings, except I exploited my relationship with a local chef and acquired some beluga caviar. Gosh, that stuff’s expensive! It was sublime, served simply with burrata on a cracker biscuit (with a good sparkling wine). It stretched a long way, so our family of six, plus a few guests, got to eat their fill.
This year will be a new experiment. I’ll attempt salmon cured in salt and sugar to make gravlax (what do you think, should we smoke it? Too much fuss?). Dinner will be on Christmas Eve with roast free-range pork, butterflied, rolled and stuffed with apple and sage, served with roast potato and whatever greens we have left in the cold room. I’ll leave the technicalities of stuffing and rolling to the butcher so I can just concentrate on acing the crackling. Yes, there will be ham, and mangoes and cherries, because that is my history and remember, it’s summer. I've asked for a bottle of Seedlip non-alcoholic gin for Christmas so maybe I’ll add a gin cocktail. Here’s a recipe. Enjoy!
Generally, in my garden at this time of year, I have excess cucumbers that have grown over-size (because I’m too lazy to pick every day). So I make juice. If you don’t like cucumber juice, just muddle some cucumber slices with the mint and sugar, and use soda or tonic water instead.
In a cocktail shaker, add a handful of ice cubes and a few mint leaves. Sprinkle with a tablespoon of sugar and shake/muddle.
Add a full nip of gin, 1 tablespoon of lime juice and 1 cup of cucumber juice. Shake/stir until all sugar has dissolved.
Shave some skin off a cucumber with a peeler and add to martini glasses.
Strain your cocktail and serve. Makes two glasses (or one highball).
For variety, replace sugar with elderflower cordial. Merry Christmas!