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

The best apple chutney

At this time of year my mind turns to Christmas and the things I should start making now so they have time to mature, like Christmas cake (which, of course, has to have brandy drip-fed into it for at least six weeks) and, for little presents, chutney. This fantastic chutney recipe comes from a book of my mother’s titled Preserving, published in 1971 as part of the Cordon Bleu series. It has been made for decades by my granny, my mother and now me, and is delicious with cold meats and hard cheeses.

(My mother has some fantastic cookbooks, incidentally, including the Supercook books which were serialised in the early 1970s. Collected religiously over a number of years, they formed an impressive encyclopedia that takes up about a metre of shelf space in the larder at my parents’ house. It is constantly referred to for certain recipes like chili con carne and Brunswick stew which were firm favourites of mine growing up and are always top of my request list when I’m visiting home now.)

A word about apples: In the UK you can get Bramley apples, otherwise known as cooking apples. The thing about a cooking apple is its high acidity and low sugar content which mean when cooked it a) breaks down to a mush and b) retains its flavour. In Australia it seems you can’t get Bramleys and the alterative suggested is Granny Smiths. They’re not the same at all (if you tried to eat a Bramley you would wince quite a lot!) but it’s the best we can do, I’m afraid. If anyone happens to know where you can get Bramley apples in Sydney, please leave a comment below!

Bramley apples

Bramley apples (photo borrowed from lovefood.com)

The recipe begins in rather startling fashion with ’36 large apples’! When I made this last weekend it became quickly apparent that I was only going to fit half that in even my biggest saucepan, so I halved all the quantities of ingredients which yielded nine jars of chutney, and I’ll make the other half this weekend. (I do have a 15L stockpot but it’s cheap and nasty with a very thin base and the last time I made this chutney in it it stuck to the bottom and burned. When I realised and mistakenly stirred like crazy to dislodge the burned layer – only serving to distribute it throughout the pan – the chutney tasted like a used ashtray and I had to ditch the entire batch. Time to chuck out that pan and get a good one.)

So, I’ll quote the halved quantities here for which you’ll need a pan at least eight litres in size with a good thick base. Peel, core and slice 18 Granny Smith apples. The quickest way to core them is to simply chop around the core from north to south pole in four cuts making a square. Chuck the cores or give them to your worms/compost container/pet rabbits.

Apple cores

Apple cores

Cut the pieces of apple into slices about 5mm (1/4 inch) wide and put them into your pan. Add to that ¾lb of sultanas, 1½lb of demerera sugar, 2oz of yellow mustard seeds, one sliced fresh chili, half a rounded dessert spoon of turmeric, 1oz of ground ginger, ¾lb of thinly sliced Spanish onions, three cloves of garlic crushed with salt, and one pint of malt vinegar. Mix well with a big wooden spoon (it helps to lever the spoon against the edge of the pan) and put on a medium to high heat. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring regularly to give everything a chance to get near the heat at the bottom. It will feel at the beginning as though you’ve got very little liquid in there, but as the apple starts to soften it gives up its juice and you’ll get something that looks a little like this:

Chutney making in progress

Chutney making in progress

Now it’s just a case of simmering it gently, stirring occasionally, for an hour and a half to two hours, or until it turns to a brown pulply mass like this (I might have gone an extra half hour, I think):

Chutney ready to go into jars

Chutney ready to go into jars

Meanwhile, sterilise your jars to prevent mould and bacteria forming. First set your oven to 150°C. If, like me, you’ve been hoarding empty jars, get them out, pick the prettiest looking shapes and give them a good wash, along with their lids (don’t use ones with plastic lids), in hot soapy water, rinsing well to get the suds off. This is also a good time to soak them for a bit and scrape the labels off so that you can decorate with your own labels later. Put the jars and lids in a big roasting tin and dry thoroughly in the oven for about 20 minutes.

When your chutney is ready, allow it to cool for five minutes (just so it’s no longer at boiling point) and fill your jars while they’re still hot out of the oven. I found it helpful to fill a jug with a ladle and then pour (or gloop!) the chutney into the jars, helping it with a wooden spoon. Put the lids on straight away and secure tightly, creating a good seal. Put the jars away in a cool, dark place (they don’t need to go in the fridge until opened) and leave for at least a month, in my humble opinion, before eating… if you can bear to wait that long!

Apple chutney

Apple chutney