My parents, now 85 and 87 (long may they live!), rented a gorgeous grade 2 listed farmhouse in Suffolk for Christmas. It was pretty bloody expensive, so we only went for three days.
The house was perhaps 16th century, with an enormous bath, old creaky floorboards, through which you could actually see the downstairs, so no sound insulation. There was a four oven aga, a herringbone terracotta floor, 13 bedrooms, two Christmas trees, old wooden beams and a wood burner in an inglenook fireplace decorated with dark green foliage. We only lit the wood burner once. For me the place was too hot. I’ve lived without heating for over a year now due to the prices and what happens is you get used to it. I can’t go anywhere centrally heated now, I just die of stuffiness.
The journey down was difficult: four of us including baby seat, plus presents and food in a Fiat 500. I tried to find a roof rack but they aren’t made anymore for a standard Fiat. I spent over three hours with my knees doubled up over the salmon.
On Christmas Day after breakfast, we drove ten minutes to Southwold Pier Beach. Some brave local swimmers shrugged off their (imitation) Dryrobes (real ones are so expensive) and ran down into the thrusting waves of the North Sea. I saw two older women from Framlington having their Christmas dinner, a picnic, on the beach, an annual tradition. I wish I lived near a beach, there is a story every 100 yards.
We played games every night. One of the favourites being the ‘cheese alphabet’ game. Each person has to name a cheese, going through the alphabet. My dad started to make up cheeses. I got the letter ‘x’. There aren’t any cheeses beginning with x.
We didn’t watch TV once. My little sub-section of the family, my daughter, son in law and granddaughter, tried to watch Maestro in the screening room. The big screen didn’t improve the experience. All of us fell asleep. The film was a self-indulgent bore. Why do critics give a film a good review when frankly it’s just crap? I think it’s because the critics are part of the industry, owing more allegiance to their mates in movies than the audience. I don’t want to know about Leonard Bernstein’s tawdry private life (being unfaithful to his wife with various young men). I don’t want YET another film about how Boy Genius just had to behave like a total shit to his wife and how hard it was for him. Sick of these stories– it’s been done, a million times. Bernstein’s family said something along the lines of ‘We learnt more about Bradley Cooper than Leonard Bernstein’. You bet. I wanted to find out about how West Side Story came about – the sublime music, the lyrics, the dancing, the process. I’m more interested in the genius than the boys.
In our family all of us are cooks in some capacity: I’m a chef and food writer, my sister-in-law is a cookery teacher having worked in catering, my niece is FOH manager for a group of Bristol restaurants, my daughter has helped me with supper clubs and is a very good cook in her own right. Food is in our DNA, starting with my great grandmother who had a restaurant in Islington.
I did a roast potato taste test before the big day. In an Instagram poll I held, most people favoured Maris Pipers for roast potatoes, while others chose King Edwards. I bought every type of potato from my local Tesco supermarket. I cooked them all the same in small enamel trays, with olive oil and salt, in the Aga. In the Aga you don’t need to par-boil. The Aga both steams and roast, so you have fluffy light insides and crispy outsides. All they need is a little rattle in the tins halfway through.
My ‘scientific’ research led to the following conclusion: yellow or red potatoes are the best. In America they recommend Yukon Gold for roast potatoes. Tescos sold Golden King, which is perhaps a UK equivalent. These won first place and the generically named ‘red potatoes’ came second. Third were King Edwards, fourth were Maris Pipers. I also tested some baking potatoes (does getting the correct variety of potato really make a difference? yes it does), salad potatoes and mini potatoes. You wouldn’t think they taste that different, but they do.
We all brought food and drink: champagne galore, Glen Moray Twisted Vines whisky aged in cognac barrels, an almond wine from Marsala, Trivento Malbec red from Argentina. On Christmas Day my sister in law cooked a three bird roast; my daughter and I did the veg– roast potatoes, parsnips, Brussels sprouts with chestnuts and nutmeg jammy carrots.
Over the course of three days we stuffed ourselves: cheeseboards including the truffled triple cream Benville, fruit cheese, panettone, my struffoli, nuts, sweets such as orange and lemon chocolate coated almonds from Sicily, sugared pine nuts from Spain, a puffed pastry scaled salmon en croute with an olive paste, a whole ham, studded with cloves that looked like something off the cover of Delicious mag. My niece made a hazelnut cream Italian trifle. My other niece, fashion stylist Rachael Rodgers and her husband, composer/DJ Luca Venezia, who’d flown over from Berlin, created an American influenced brunch of Brick Lane bagels, smoked salmon, mackerel paté, and American stye cheese ‘muffins’. Rachael looked elegant, her finely arched brows and long neck, graceful in a chiffon ballet skirt, leotard and golden glittery ballet shoes #balletcore – while leaning over the Aga – she never broke sweat. Fortunately Luca is exuberant enough to deal with our loud Italian- Scottish-Irish family (my mum represents the English side and has far more class).
Being a family of big personalities (aren’t all families a bit screwed up?) we had some rows beforehand, mostly regarding the food WhatsApp group that my sister started. We weren’t sure if it was going to work, but for the sake of my parents I put my warring relationship with my sister to the side for the duration. (Don’t worry, we’ve resumed hostilities since).
We all did ‘secret santa’. This wasn’t entirely successful. My dad whatsapped asking –what size are pillow cases in Berlin? – that being a massive clue. I blabbed about buying things for Bristol. My mum couldn’t handle the process, so gave me cash. The luckiest was whoever got to buy presents for Ophelia, my granddaughter, who got a designer T-shirt with a baguette recipe. (Why are children’s clothes so much nicer than adults?) And my dad bought her a red car. Children make Christmas don’t they?