Waiting to leave the plane at the end of a recent flight, I listened as a steward carefully explained the British idea of Christmas to an American business class passenger. “If we’re honest, it’s just about eating and drinking,” she began. The passenger smiled and, encouraged, she went on: “It starts early. You’re on the sherry or the champagne by 11 o’clock, if not before. By three, everyone is drunk and tired, and that’s when the arguments really begin.” Playfully, she then punched the air, after which she set about adjusting her enormous bun – an activity seemingly designed to announce that her cultural mission was fully complete. Alas, I couldn’t help but notice that the passenger was no longer smiling. He looked like someone had nicked his Economist and replaced it with Heat. The plane doors finally opened. “Have a good one!” the steward called after him, as he all but sprinted towards passport control and a large bottle of vitamin-enriched mineral water.
If it was down to me, Christmas would begin with the finest salted anchovies on toast
Hmm, I thought, wheeling my own bag in the same direction (though I was after coffee, not Evian): the trouble with Christmas is that, even without a mid-morning Bristol Cream or three, it’s all too easy to enjoy oneself a bit too much – and thus to end up not enjoying oneself at all. Fixated as we are on the idea of pleasure – this applies not only to Christmas – a part of us no longer seems to know what real pleasure might involve. Sometimes, of course, it steels over us fleetingly, as lovely as the smell of pine needles after rain: we suddenly grasp that our fantasy lunch might really be, say, some seriously good macaroni cheese with a little salad on the side. But no sooner have we uttered this notion out loud than a chorus of determined voices will pipe up (and sometimes – traitor! – even our own voice): oh, but we always have turkey/goose/roast beef. Rebelling against Christmas is deemed anti-pleasure – the act of a grinch – even when such a rebellion has solely and specifically been mounted in the cause of pleasure.
This drives me nuts. As someone once said, never get so caught up in the extraordinary that you forget the ordinary. Quotidian delights seem to me to come into their own at Christmas, not least because they involve both less effort in the kitchen and less potential for disappointment. If it was down to me (and this year it is), Christmas would be a mostly store cupboard/freezer/pre-prepared affair. It would begin, for instance, with a breakfast of the finest salted anchovies on toast – there’s something so bracing about anchovies first thing; they seem somehow to clear the way for all that will follow – a dish that would then be followed by a long interregnum during which I would graze (forget the homemade salted caramel truffles etc) only on the odd bit of Turkish delight and possibly a few liquorice allsorts.
At about two o’clock, I would throw some fresh ravioli – filled with butternut squash, from Lina Stores in Soho – into boiling water, to be served with a few frazzled sage leaves, lots of pepper and melted butter: the work of mere minutes. Another lull would then follow. At dinner time, I would eat pot-roasted pheasant, my number-one bird, with roast potatoes and (maybe) something green. However, should such a dish have come to seem, in the course of the morning, like far too much trouble, I would simply do sausages and mash instead.
Finally, late at night in front of the telly, I would have a slice of runny brie and a bowl of vanilla ice-cream, over which I might just pour some random alcohol. (Well, you’ve got to do something with all that ginger wine and sloe gin, haven’t you?) Would I be drunk by three o’clock? The thing is that it wouldn’t matter much even if I was. I am a benign, affectionate drunk but, in any case, with food like this, such things as concentration, timing and all other forms of kitchen faffing are entirely unnecessary. An argument would only arise should someone dare to enquire after the whereabouts of the turkey, or wonder aloud why I hadn’t got all creative with a load of brussels sprouts.