Christmas food Aussie style

We had such a fabulous feast of food over Christmas that I couldn’t resist taking photos of it all. And it seems a shame to have a bunch of food photos and not write a blog post to show them off! This will probably be of most interest to my British family and friends, for whom the notion of a hot Christmas and all that entails is still something of a novelty. I hope the rest of you will find something to enjoy too.

‘Twas the night before Christmas and we all gathered at Watergums, a large, gnarly timber cabin by a platypus-inhabited billabong off the Barrington River, where half our party was staying for our festive family get-together. We sat around a big wooden table on the deck, a game of Scrabble in progress, surrounded by the heat and the din of cicadas. Dinner was Uncle Barry’s famous tomato bruschetta, followed by barbecued steak and chorizo sausages with baked sweet potato and coleslaw, topped off with peach trifle. Trifle is a particular Christmas favourite of mine. Granny always used to make our Christmas trifle, served in a beautiful crystal bowl. After Granny moved off the island my mother made it, to much the same recipe, and I always got to decorate the top with amaretti biscuits and tinned mandarin segments.

Christmas Day began with the traditional swim – not at Freshwater Beach where we go when Christmas is at Barry and Penny’s, but in the aforementioned Barrington River, down at Rocky Crossing, a couple of hundred metres from the turnoff to Lorna’s (my mother-in-law’s) farm. Back up at the farm, we breakfasted on Bourke Street Bakery croissants and mince pies before the Watergums mob arrived to fire up the barbecue for the turkey. The enormous free-range bird was swathed in two large pieces of pig skin before being consigned to the fiery innards of the Weber! At midday we judged the sun to be over the yardarm and broke out the champagne and orange juice, squeezed from oranges from Lorna’s garden, and also Lorna’s delicious homemade camembert.

It became apparent that the Weber was not getting up to temperature and the turkey would take longer to cook than previously anticipated. Meanwhile we tucked into the first course, supplied by cousin Cameron – three kilos of plump, sweet, Australian wild-caught tiger prawns with Penny’s Marie Rose sauce (mayo, tomato sauce, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and possibly other things I’ve forgotten).

Australian wild-caught tiger prawns

Australian wild-caught tiger prawns

Eventually the menfolk gave up on the barbecue and transferred the turkey to the oven to finish it off and brown it. The Weber may not have cooked the bird but it did turn the pig skin into fantastic light, puffed-up, crunchy crackling, albeit it hadn’t been salted since its purpose was not for eating. Didn’t stop us eating some of it, however!

Pork crackling

Pork crackling

Free-range turkey

Free-range turkey

Beside the turkey our spread included free-range ham (glazed by yours truly in apricot jam and stuck with cloves)…

Free-range ham glazed with apricot jam

Free-range ham glazed with apricot jam

…Lorna’s mixed salad with homemade lemon myrtle mayo from her grandmother’s recipe, Penny’s legendary Hawaiian salad (sour cream, tinned crushed pineapple, tinned mandarin segments, desiccated coconut and miniature marshmallows) and equally popular onion salad…

Hawaiian salad

Hawaiian salad

…my mixed tomato and home-grown basil salad dressed in olive oil and top quality balsamic vinegar…

Mixed tomato and basil salad

Mixed tomato and basil salad

…and a huge fruit platter including watermelon, pineapple, grapes, cherries, nectarines, lychees, mangoes and strawberries.

Fruit platter

Fruit platter

Cameron had stuffed the turkey with a sweet, herbaceous mixture of ripe pear, bread crumbs, rosemary and oregano from the garden, and an egg to bind. Photographing this array of food I was struck by the Summery colours, the traditional turkey and ham from ‘the Motherland’ set off by a brighter, more vibrant palette than you’d see on a British Christmas lunch table. Eating this array of food, on the other hand, I was merely struck by how delicious it all was and how quickly I could go back for seconds!

Our Christmas spread

Our Christmas spread

Following a considerable break to allow all this to settle, we squeezed in some pudding – steamed Christmas pud (made by Lorna’s neighbour in return for a homemade Christmas cake) with Penny’s fabulous passion fruit ice cream and my brandy butter. Traditionally my mother and I would make the brandy butter together, without the aid of electrical appliances (hence the need for two pairs of arms), adding as much brandy, teaspoon by teaspoon, as we dared before it threatened to curdle! It’s also de rigueur, as far as I’m concerned, to feed oneself a little brandy in the process.

As is the way with Christmas food there was plenty left over for lunch on Boxing Day, with the addition of a potato salad and finished off with leftover trifle, ice cream and my Stephanie Alexander Christmas cake. The cake was a triumph, even if I do say so myself; wonderfully moist and dense with fruit. Good old Stephanie – hers will be my go-to Christmas cake recipe for evermore.

Stephanie Alexander Christmas cake

Stephanie Alexander Christmas cake

So, our Christmas viands (which word, incidentally, earned Mr T and I an awesome score in Scrabble on Christmas Day!) were a true blue team effort, provided by all, sourced as ethically as our purses would allow, and cooked and presented with love. It felt – and tasted! – great to be a part of that. For me, food and family is what Christmas is all about, and this one certainly made the mark. Thank you, one and all!

My apple chutney - presies for the family

My apple chutney – presies for the family

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Cider with Maggie at Laurie Lee’s local

Following the wonderful wedding of a very dear friend in the Lake District I travel next to Gloucestershire to see my cousin’s wife. Having read my blog, Maggie wants to give me a typical Cotswold experience to write about, so after picking me up yesterday from Stroud railway station she takes me for half a cider at Laurie Lee’s local pub, The Woolpack, immortalised in his autobiography Cider With Rosie. Right on a narrow winding road in luscious countryside, The Woolpack is a little slice of very well-preserved history dating back to the early 1640s. We sip our cider in the adjoining beer garden and then wander up to the Holy Trinity Church opposite for a look at Laurie Lee’s grave with its simple headstone surrounded by giant daisies: Laurie Lee 1914 – 1997 / He lies in the valley he loved.

The Woolpack, Stroud

The Woolpack, Slad

Back at Maggie’s in her fabulous farmhouse-style kitchen we sip champers and catch up on all the goss while she makes dinner – a yummy Loyd Grossman Thai green curry with onion, green pepper (capsicum for my Aussie readers), carrot, green beans, bamboo shoots and gorgeous big juicy prawns.

Thai green prawn curry, chez Maggie

Thai green prawn curry, chez Maggie

In honour of Wimbledon starting this week there’s strawberries and cream for pudding, and we cosy up by the fire with Amber, their beautiful golden lab, and fall asleep to rubbish on the telly.

Strawberries and cream

Strawberries and cream, chez Maggie

Next morning, after tea, toast and Frank Cooper’s Oxford marmalade (the best marmalade ever) for breakfast, Tom, my strapping godson, appears having arrived home late last night from a holiday with school friends. Before Maggie and I leave to take me to the train station there’s the obligatory annual photograph of Tom and I together to demonstrate how tall he is; at six foot three inches he stands more than a head above midget Aunty Caroline. I must remember to wear my highest high heels next time I see him!

Toast and Oxford maramalde

Toast and Oxford marmalade, chez Maggie

The Woolpack
Slad, Gloucestershire
Visited 25 June 2012

A Pret sandwich and Vietnamese beef salad

Bizarrely, one of the foodie things I most look forward to on my trips to the UK is Pret A Manger sandwiches. This is especially the case at Christmas time when they do a Christmas Lunch sandwich – a heavenly combination of turkey, great slabs of herby stuffing, cranberry sauce, mayonnaise, crispy fried onions and some token greenery to obscure the fact that you are actually eating pure lard. Sadly, being June, the Christmas Lunch sandwich is having a well-earned Summer holiday so, on coming across a Pret at Marble Arch at lunchtime last Thursday, I choose the crayfish with lemon mayo and rocket. Pret is a very well marketed brand, in my opinion. Their promise is freshness and flavour and boy do they deliver. The soft, grainy bread is generously filled with plump, tender crayfish and peppery, unwithered rocket, and the lemon mayo adds the perfect zing. Plus, in a perfect example of internalising your brand promise, the staff are so damn perky and helpful that you really think that Pret must be an awesome place to work, and that does add to the enjoyment of the experience.

In the evening I cook dinner for Alex as a thank you for their wonderful hospitality. Laura is trying out a special diet that seems to consist mostly of mushed up aubergines so sadly she can’t partake of my culinary efforts. I make a Vietnamese beef salad from a favourite Nigel Slater recipe which I know by heart having made it so many times. Into a big salad bowl I put two ripe vine tomatoes cut into thin wedges, the equivalent of one large carrot and about 10cm of cucumber cut into matchsticks, some salad leaves (the recipe suggests watercress), a handful each of chopped fresh mint and coriander and one birdseye chili finely sliced (I leave the seeds in but I’m a chili freak). The only thing that’s missing that I didn’t manage to find at the shop is about four kaffir lime leaves which you’re supposed to de-vein, roll up tightly and then slice as thinly as you possible can. I love the flavour and fragrance that these add. I then prepare the dressing in a small bowl – the juice of a lime, two and a half tablespoons of sweet chili sauce, two tablespoons of fish sauce and a good pinch of sugar. All that remains is to cook the steaks – two lovely pieces of sirloin from the local butcher in Kew Gardens which earlier I’ve rubbed with some olive oil and sprinkled with black pepper. They’re not overly thick so I fry them in a very hot pan for just one and a half minutes on the first side and one on the second, grinding on some sea salt as they cook. After resting them for a few minutes I slice them into strips which are a lovely dark pink inside. I toss them into the salad along with the dressing and we’re ready to eat.

Vietnamese beef salad

Vietnamese beef salad, chez Alex & Laura

Alex is so enthusiastic in his compliments that I’m really quite chuffed I chose this recipe. It’s a bowlful of vibrant flavours and textures with the crunchy vegetables, tender rare steak and sweet-sour-salty dressing, plus a good chili kick that really gives our sinuses a workout. For pudding we have beautiful fat raspberries (only £2 for a big punnet from M&S – in Oz they’re extortionately expensive) with half-fat crème fraiche and a light sprinkling of white sugar. And over a few glasses of white burgundy followed by a fruity little sauv blanc from New Zealand, we reminisce about an enlightening (for me, anyway) visit I made to see Alex at Oxford University 20 odd years ago. As the cliché goes (and increasingly so, the older we get), how time flies!