No butter, no parsnips.
The first was Norway’s problem this Christmas, the second afflicted at least some parts of England.
Although outright shortages have become rare in these past years of plenty, Christmas shopping has become something of a lottery, or a game of chicken. Should I buy presents in good time, or wait to see if desperate traders slash their prices without waiting for the January sales? Will fresh food – vegetables, cream, bread, meat – be available on the last shopping day before Christmas or will retailers not risk being left with unsold stock when they will then be closed for two days?
Although I am quite unreasonably proud of the fact that I have finally learned that you do not have to lay in as in for a siege (the close down lasts at most two days now), that there is a limit to how many treats one can stuff down, & that it really will not be a disaster without X or Y, the disappointment can be sharp & nobody likes to be forced into last minute changes to the menu.
And so Friday it had to be for fresh food, & best go to the big supermarket, which will be open on Boxing Day so will not be running down on everything.
Obviously just following the herd.
It is a long time since I have seen the place so crowded, so many trolleys loaded to the gunwales. The atmosphere was interesting: happy but not overexcited, more a sense of purpose than the wild abandonment of spend, spend, spend.
There was no-one else going through the self-checkout tills, though on leaving the store I noticed that the bank of docking stations for the hand-held self-scanners was empty, every last one in use by those well-laden trolley shoppers.
But – no parsnips! And there were only a few boxes of Basic eggs left, & of course no lemon/lime flavoured fizzy water. Probably other things had run out as well, but they were the only ones that I was looking for.
***If memory serves, I have not cooked a turkey since I was twenty.
That was the year my mother had major surgery at the beginning of November. Even today one might be advised not to take on all that lifting of roasting tins in & out of the oven & large pans of sprouts off the top of the stove after only two months in which to recover, but in those days both surgery & anaesthesia were more brutal than they are now (or even when I underwent the same procedure twenty years later) & my mother was still spending much of her time in bed, & in pain, so I was summoned home to take charge of Christmas cooking & shopping. I think I coped – cannot remember any disasters, though if there had been any I suppose they would just be wiped from the memory bank by shame & embarrassment.
In truth I think turkey very overrated, certainly not worth it unless there are at least six (& preferably a lot more) of you sitting down to Christmas dinner. Small houses without larders also mean that it is much more difficult to know how to store, safely, the remains until finally there is only enough of the carcase left to make a big pan of reviving vegetable soup.
But years living in a country where turkey was just not on the menu, & then working in London, where you went to so many lunches, parties & do’s during December that you were sick of turkey by the time it got to Christmas, meant that we looked for alternatives. Especially as I was certain I could never reproduce turkey as deliciously moist & tender as it can be when cooked by experts, such as those in the carvery upstairs at The Albert on Victoria Street.
Over the years we have had duck, goose, standing ribs of beef & even, one year, bream, which was delicious but not really Christmassy in England. In truth though the favourite has always been roast chicken with all the trimmings – a good sized, well fed chicken (4lbs+) roasted according to the recipe in the Penguin Cordon Bleu, & deliciously thick creamy, clove scented bread sauce made from a recipe by Ruth Drew who, as the Happy Housewife, used to provide post-war listeners to Womans Hour with all sorts of tasty but economical ways of feeding a family.
Sadly this feast is no longer properly possible – giblet gravy is an absolute must & nobody, it seems, sells giblets any more.
This year we had decided lamb would be good. Yes, I know lamb is associated with Easter, but that is the very young membranous kind; at this time of year lamb is closer to mutton, real comfort food, especially if you can find it with enough fat left on. Half a shoulder, I thought, preferably a blade; I can cook that reliably.
I went first to inspect the chiller shelves to see what was on offer there, while really hoping that the butchery counter might have something better to offer. But there – on the shelves – was a fine display of really nice looking lamb shanks & I had a sudden vision of a good heavy pot full, slow roasting in the oven, filling the house with delicious smells until the meat fell off the bone & could be eaten with a teaspoon if you felt so inclined.
I could not resist.
But what to do for that necessary touch of sweetness, without parsnips?
It seems rather astonishing that these wrinkly roots, which in my childhood were regarded as cattle food, should have achieved such very great popularity. Although I have loved them for years, roasted or in a well curried soup, they do not really seem to fit in with today’s preference for everything ready prepared, since they have to be peeled close to the time of cooking. But popular they are, & seem to be one of the few items for which the market has underestimated demand this Christmas.
I could try again on Saturday, but definitely not count on finding parsnips so, with roast potatoes, gravy & sprouts also off the menu without them, Plan B was definitely needed.
An unorthodox inspiration – a variation of a Madhur Jaffrey recipe, basmati rice with dried apricots, plumped up sultanas & shaved almonds. Served with a mound of buttery lemon-scented green vegetables (leek, courgette, broccoli & fine beans).
Worked a treat.
Filling but not stuffing.
***The reward for enduring a very trying week of dark & miserable weather, albeit one ending with a pretty successful shopping trip, was a live relay of a truly perfect Messiah on Radio 3.
As a northern lass I can still appreciate a performance of The Messiah which gives it some real wellie – massed choirs, massive pipe organ and a brass band too – but these days I tend to prefer a style of performance of Handel which can really make the music dance with fewer resources thrown at it. The playing of Polyphony & a fine organist under conductor Stephen Layton, the flawless acoustic of St John’s Smith Square; lights down low, cup of hot chocolate; what more could one ask for to start the holiday.