Sunday, 2 December 2018

March of The Mince Pies

Dear Nigel,


Why cook at Christmas time when the farmers markets are heaving with so much of somebody else's homemade produce? Why indeed. And yes, I did pick up a lovely jar of fig and cinnamon chutney at the Christmas market at Chatsworth the other day - I am no different to anyone else. So cooking and baking for Christmas has got to be about something else; something undefinable but meaningful to you.

Each year I let the girls take charge of mince pie making. Like a machine, they knock out dozens and we freeze them in boxes to always have something in for friends and family calling. But often I am so busy cooking elsewhere that I opt for a 'quality' jar of mincemeat instead of making my own: just one more chore to add to the list, I tell myself. But this year I find I want to make less but 'more' - more meaning to the things I choose. I want to sit down to a glass of sloe gin and a mince pie that tastes different - one that I know and can taste has been made lovingly at home. There were some fine examples at the fair, to be sure, but I am looking for the space that goes into the taste - before you bite in - that whistles memories through your head, half-heard carols and laughter and voices echoing from all points of your past, all zooming in to that split-second gap, and gone in a trice as the taste bursts over your taste buds and you are back in the present once more.

The making of the mincemeat fills a quiet evening for Sophie and I. We listen to music and weigh and stir in a relaxed manner, talking about nothing in particular in muted voices. It is very pleasant, calm and a lovely thing to do together. I light candles and the cat crawls over to sleep on the wooden chair. She sleeps on a woollen cushion that is her favourite. I made it from a sleeveless fair isle top that I never wore, and did up the buttons and sewed into a cushion cover. For the cat, it turns out. She is as languid as we are; like mercury stretched along a bench she melds. Would that we could all relax that deeply, as a cat.

The recipe we follow for the mincemeat is your 'Classic brandy mincemeat' (pg 65). You are obviously in a more philosophical mood too as you make your own mincemeat. You say, 'the task takes barely an hour. I spin it out because I like the smell that is filling the kitchen. The scent of Christmases, past. Better than that, of Christmas to come.'
As I sit here munching on one of the 'rejects', I realise how different it is to the mincemeat I have made in latter years. I am used to a heavily orange and cinnamon based mincemeat (no idea who's recipe), but this is like the ones I remember from years and years ago - more appley and with a more balanced spice base of clove and nutmeg too. It is heavier on the tradition front, and, with all the new 'interpretations' of the mince pie that seem to pop up everywhere, and on every supermarket shelf, I have almost forgotten the taste. I grind the cloves in a pestle and mortar and they shine through the gentle apple.

Like my children, the best part of Christmas for me comes before. It is the whole tingle factor that drew you to write 'The Christmas Chronicles'. The lighting of the Advent candle, paper calendars with doors without chocolates (or expensive bottles of perfume and Gin these days, I see! - another marketing opportunity)

So in this vein we like to go and watch the switching on of the Christmas lights. This year, in the neighbouring town of Ashbourne. We take my second son, Chris, his fiancee and my baby Grandson Leo. There is no TV star or minor celebrity to turn on the lights; just Santa and his real remarkably well-behaved reindeer. They pose for pictures with children young and old and Santa forgets to ask Sophie what she'd like for Christmas. She is unimpressed by this, but they seem to be sharing a private joke anyway.

Ashbourne is a lovely sleepy little town, come alive with a few dotted strings of lights and a huge Christmas tree in the
market place, on the cobbles. The girls go shopping with a long list of presents to buy and very little cash. They are very inventive, my children - a useful trait Santa would do well to emulate in this age of austerity - he may be feeling the pinch too.

The older children go off Christmas shopping for themselves, instead. This is what adults do, I notice. They go out shopping for other people and come back with a stack of goodies for themselves. Advertising in the shops encourages us to 'Treat yourself' - why? Is no one going to buy you a present this year?

I start making the Christmas cards with a photograph taken this time last year. We
were Knee deep in snow in a Winter Wonderland scene. There were sledges and woolly jumpers and a small baby kitten wrapped in the warmth inside, nestling down beside the fire. This year it's been blanket fog lately and hard to feel in the mood for Christmas, at times. I travel over to the candle lady in Tissington who refills my candle bowls for me each year, and there is blanket white fog, like a scene from a Sherlock Holmes serial. Murder in
Tissington. You can almost hear the horses hooves as the carriage swings round the corner and in through the main gates of the Hall to Sir Richard FitzHerbert. My children like this annual pilgrimage because there is a wonderful old fashioned sweet shop tucked up a little lane, like stepping into 1940s. David, who owns 'Edward and Vintage' is usually wearing exactly the kind of tank top I made into a cushion, and other 1940s regalia. We love it, and David is always very attentive to some of his most regular little customers. The Internet is great because it allows small rural businesses like these to survive when 'passing trade' is a poor joke.

Stuart delivers a load of logs for the woodshed and I spend a happy morning stacking them and saving the bark wrappings that flake off for kindling.



Dinner tonight is an old favourite of yours from a few years back that I make often. It is 'Lamb stuffed sweet potatoes'. The sweet potatoes are baked and the filling of minced lamb, onion, red chilli and fresh mint leaves has become a regular mid-week highlight in this house. Will, particularly, asks for it when he comes over. It is a recipe where using the right ingredient - ie. lamb mince and not beef - makes all the difference. It is an ideal dish to keep out the damp and the London smog and the clopping of horses hooves...



Love Martha x

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