‘Audubon’ looks forward to the Feast


If there is a problem with Christmas, it is that we are often hidebound by tradition. Every time the discerning cook tries to introduce some slight variation – in the food, the drink, or the timetable – the attempt is met with a chorus of dissent reminiscent of General Synod experimenting with generosity.

Consider the period immediately following your return home from Midnight Mass: obviously, you will have left some freshly-made mince pies in the oven, with the timer set in order to bring them up to temperature as an indigestible late-night snack, washed down with a glass or two of some suitable digestif. Calvados is hard to beat, especially if you use this tinkered-with version of Mrs Beeton’s receipt for your mincemeat. You’ll need 5oz of raisins, 8oz of currants, 4oz of minced steak (fillet for preference, but at a pinch rump), 8oz of suet, 5oz of dark brown sugar, 1oz of candied peel and 8oz of chopped, peeled, and cored apples. Mix all these ingredients well, before adding the grated zest of half a lemon, a tablespoon of lemon juice, and a scraping of nutmeg. Finish with a couple of fluid ounces of calvados and then pack into suitable, sterilised jars, making sure that you press down firmly so that you exclude any air. Leave to mature, preferably for about a fortnight.

So you can arrive home from church to the smell of delicious pies, looking forward to disturbing the neighbours with that track from Messiah. At which point you discover that your house guests (the sort who don’t do church, especially in the middle of the night) are watching a sentimental piece of pap on the TV, thus precluding any Handel. Worse, they have helped themselves to the mince pies! Hopefully they will be unwitting vegetarians, in which case try to keep a straight face.

Fast-forward to Christmas Day itself. If a Mass of the Dawn is available, the cook might consider getting to the altar then. The rest of the extended household can then be despatched to the Mass of the Day, leaving the staff to crack on undisturbed with all the work. There are, after all, bottles that will need opening.

If you favour turkey and its accompaniments, then I fear you will find no help here. Turn instead to Google and institute a search for “Rowley Leigh Christmas Day” in order to find an article written for a certain national newspaper by the then-chef of Kensington Place back in 2000. He sets out all the instructions and timings you will need, suitably punctuated with the melodious words “Treat yourself to another drink”.

Why not ditch the turkey? After all, do you really want to spend the whole of the Octave wearing plastic gloves, trying to find inventive things to do with 10lbs of uneaten cold poultry? Why not opt instead for a little game? One partridge per person will suffice. The day before, whilst listening to King’s College on the wireless, cut the legs and wings off each bird [Shoot them first. Ed.] and fry in a slick of olive oil, along with, perhaps, a chopped shallot, a clove or three of garlic, a carrot and some fresh herbs and black peppercorns, until they take a little colour. Add a generous glug of white wine, or red, or rosé. Or cider. Or beer. You get the idea. Then add some well-made chicken stock, to cover. Bring to a gentle simmer and leave to murmur for about an hour and a half. Drain, reserving the liquid, and ditch the vegetables. When it is cool enough to handle, discard the skin, bones, and gristle until all that is left is exquisitely tender meat. Moisten with a little stock, and consign it and the rest of the liquid to the fridge until the morrow.

Next day, accompanied by a loud recording of Dieu parmi nous, attend to the rest of the birds. You’ll need about 40 minutes, so there is ample time to open presents and overdose on smoked salmon and bubbly once the hordes have returned from church, before you need don your apron. Pre-heat the oven to Gas Mark 4 and pack the crowns of partridge into a suitable roasting receptacle. Bring yesterday’s stock to the boil and simmer to reduce, tasting all the while, until it ticks your particular taste box. Roast the birds for precisely 23½ minutes and then set aside to rest. In a saucepan, gently heat the reserved leg meat. Quickly remove both breasts from each bird and arrange artfully on a festive platter (if you must) and surround them with the now scalding hot – but still beautifully moist – leg meat. Decant the sauce into a suitable vessel and serve. Warn your guests that, because you have not had to spend half an hour carving, this meat will be hot! Some sprouts and bread sauce would work well, as would some very small chunks of potato roasted in goose fat. Come to that, so would chips.

As for leftovers, there won’t be any. On Boxing Day – once you have been to Mass for the Protomartyr – start again with something different. A new tradition will have been born – and what better way could there be to celebrate anew the birth of the Christ Child? A very happy Feast to you, when it comes.