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“Made by The Hungry Elves” reads the label on the Christmas products made in our bakery. I go down to the kitchens to meet the elves in this headlong run-up to Christmas, promising not to stay too long or get in their way. Naturally, I am hoping for pixie-like woodland creatures, dressed in green, like tiny Robin Hoods, darting about and very possibly singing. Nothing like. Perhaps if I look at them through half-closed eyes? Still not. The cooks and bakers are family sized men who look as if they might be more at home on the rugby pitch, though obviously not if they were wearing their white coats and blue hairnets. They seem unfazed by the enormous December workload, for all the hundreds of mince pies, cinnamon stars, cakes and puddings, the saffron bread – these are made in addition to the regular fresh and frozen food and daily baking. It’s good that they have such broad shoulders because I don’t frankly think those undersized elves would be up to it.
There are myths and stories attached to all the special foods we prepare and eat at Christmas. I occasionally wonder what smoked salmon has to do with the birth of our Lord and whether it is strictly necessary for everything to be flavoured with cinnamon, orange peel and cloves, or a combination of all three. But there are longstanding traditions attached to the food we eat at this time of year, and particularly to the way we prepare it. Jealously protected recipes are passed down the generations, with variations made only in times of absolute necessity – such as during the war, when there was no brandy to flavour the Christmas pudding and had to be replaced with cold tea.
Christmas puddings have moved on over the centuries from Frumenty – wheat boiled up in milk – through various incarnations which included meat and plums, to a fragrant, spiced, alcohol-laden mixture which we serve blazing with blue flames and decorated with holly to represent Christ’s crown of thorns. And though it’s possibly the last thing anyone feels like tackling at the end of that mammoth lunch, we do tackle it, because even leaving religious considerations aside, our Christmas feasting is tied up with nostalgia and tradition and that’s the way we like it.
When my mother announced many years ago that since nobody ever ate the Christmas pudding she would make a nice orange jelly instead, there was a sharp intake of breath. Our children might urge us for 360 days of the year to move on and get real but any deviation from the Christmas formula will be resisted. One treasured character when my children were small was a feathered toy goose which bounced in the window on a spring, a tiny Father Christmas crouching on its back. When old age overtook him I took the pragmatic decision to throw him away. Huge mistake.
Another year I came over all New England and made gingerbread stars and crosses and hung them on the tree with (I am not even joking) gingham ribbon. The smaller daughter, just walking, tottered round the tree and took a tiny bite out of all the biscuits within reach. Twenty five years on, I only have to see a ginger star and I’m back there, with the little cherub in its nightie, its cheeks bulging with biscuit. Every Christmas for all the years of our life the memories will be added to other memories and we assure ourselves that amidst all the uncertainties of life, there will be a safe Christmas haven with the same smells, the same food and the same old jokes.
Which is why we so value those elves in the production kitchens who methodically and good-humouredly produce the seasonal treats we have come to love and expect.
In the short time I spend with with them, David makes Pear Frangipane tarts and puts them in the oven; he ices Christmas cakes, using his own special collection of cutters, and then it’s all hands on deck and we gather round a long table to roll and wrap the Sweet Fig salamis. These are an inspired mixture of figs and nuts, vodka, chocolate and spices – the usual suspects – and they smell overwhelmingly of Christmas.
© Lucy Deedes
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