AS I browse my books – and, these days, trawl the net – looking for Christmas recipe ideas, getting more anxious by the minute, I can’t stop a wry smile. I think of how, in my mother’s day, there was no need for such time-consuming labour. The two central items of the most important meal of her year were a roast chicken and a bottle of white wine (Sauternes, if I remember correctly). Throw in sprouts and potatoes, with a tin of mandarin slices with Carnation Milk to follow, and Bob was our uncle. Simples.
Back then, chicken was a luxury that cost an arm and a leg, and most families only had it on special occasions. Turkey wasn’t on the radar. Incredibly, our butcher-bought chicken, with Paxo sage and onion stuffing, fed six people (admittedly four of us were children). Stock for soup and gravy was made from boiling the giblets on Christmas Eve. Food waste was taboo and it was second nature to use the whole bird. The white wine wasn’t for adding to some fancy recipe; it was our parents’ annual treat.
Recipe books weren’t part of the kitchen kit. Why would they be, when dishes were so straightforward that even a child could make them? Every kitchen did however possess the Be-Ro recipe book, a slim paperback given out free with flour and dedicated to the necessary art of baking.
Now my many favourite cookbooks are crammed with the torn-out recipe pages of weekend supplements whose Christmas specials began last month, the better to expand my ever-growing repertoire. After all, Christmas is no longer focused on the one meal; it can last a fortnight. Wrapped around the day itself is the neighbours’ get-together, necessitating canape ideas; Christmas eve with friends, where we always like to do something different from the year before; Ne’er Day with family, where everyone brings a dish, First Foot foodie gifts, and so on. Each demands a different set of recipes.
It seems there’s no end to new ideas, new ingredients, new flavours. Lime leaves, lemongrass, curry leaves, pomegranate seeds, sumac, fresh ginger and green and black cardamoms now crowd my kitchen. Influences pour in from the Middle East, Scandinavia, the Far East, France, Italy, the US. How would my mother have coped?
I like to dip into them all, filleting ideas, though this means putting aside serious time. I still haven’t tried most of them – including the delicious-sounding Mexican Tres Leches cake recipe by Sam Clark of Moro: The Cookbook (Ebury, £16.50) that I’ve been hoarding for years, instead of simply heating a Heston Hidden Orange Pudding from Waitrose. I know exactly where to find Nigel Slater's onion and tomato tarts recipe, ideal for canapes (Appetite, Fourth Estate, £19). A better organised friend actually photocopies her recipes (mostly Yotam Ottolenghi, who demands many ingredients) and neatly files them in individual clear plastic envelopes, sitting the folder alongside her cookbooks.
Another friend has chucked the lot. I bumped into her while shopping for Christmas food the other day (actually, I was frantically seeking yet more new ideas). She’d thrown out all her cookbooks because, she asked, what was the point of them when all she did was go online to find the recipe she wanted, and follow it from her laptop in the kitchen?
I nodded sympathetically, but silently disagreed. Going online precludes the joy of grazing. It takes you directly to what you think you want, but it ends the possibility of discovering something new or unexpected, and doesn’t allow one to multi-task (that is, picking up ideas for the next entertaining event).
Now I follow a mix of established chefs and cooks – and even some bloggers, an increasing number of whom are finding themselves in print.
Newly-published books such as Jamie Oliver’s Christmas Cookbook (Michael Joseph, £26), Marcus Wareing At Home (HarperCollins, £20) and Classic Koffmann (Jacqui Small, £30) act like an appetiser for the real thing. Exquisite modern food photography does help stimulate the creative juices. Wareing’s marinated mackerel with crab, apple and smoked hazelnuts and Ottolenghi’s duck breast with beetroot and ginger (Ottolenghi: The Cookbook, Ebury, £26) look so much better in the book.
Sometimes, though, it’s a relief to turn back to my stalwarts. The peerless Nick Nairn’s New Scottish Cookery (BBC Books, £19.99) for his crab tart, Yotam Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem (Ebury, £27) for the roast chicken with clementines, Shirley Spear’s Three Chimneys Cookbook (Birlinn, £25) for the skirlie mash, and Sarah Raven’s Cooking for Family and Friends (Bloomsbury, £30) for the tarte tatin.
With a sigh of relief, I do sense a general desire to return to tradition. Good quality ingredients, sourced locally and simply presented, are back in vogue. So, once again, I will be using the whole bird, cooking nose to tail, and baking everything from scratch – even if it does take time. And since mother’s not here, I will continue to need my cookbooks to teach and inspire me.
*This article first appeared in The Herald