Tuesday 8th December saw the final meeting of the Food Interest Group in 2015 and we all agreed it has been a wondrous time of new friendships and fascinating discoveries about what we eat and drink.
Our topic for this month was ‘childhood xmas food memories’ and as you read this blog you will discover how it was for us but I do wish you could have been there as well to see our eyes light up as memories came flooding back, hear the laughter, sense the enthusiasm, and to find yourself wrapped up in the gentle nostalgia as well.
One of the things that also made this topic so absorbing and delightful to listen to was that it spanned memories from a very cold xmas in England to the exact opposite in tropical Australia as well as covering a temperate climate in NZ which all gave us very different concepts of what a childhood xmas meant to us.
Just to give you a glimpse in to the world of a xmas that may not be familiar to you I shall share some of the stories told. Xmas in England, as those of us who live in NZ know, is the polar opposite of what we have here and consequently, with its chilly temperatures and early darkened evenings it is celebrated in some quite different ways, and of course, we are all talking of childhood memories and so much has changed since then as well but I am sure that little children still get excited and wide eyed by Santa, presents, and food that only turns up on a very special occasion.
The meeting started with us all sitting around eating pomegranate seeds out of our own wee china bowls after their having been excavated out of the fruit with much hilarity. Firstly, we had tried to replicate Jamie Oliver’s oh this looks so easy just cut it in half and bash on the back with a wooden spoon and all the seeds will fall out. Not in my kitchen they didn’t – most of the seeds remained firmly entrenched whilst the glowing red jewel like juice splattered all over the bench in a very staccato pattern. So it was on to the originally used method, back in England at xmas time, of using a teaspoon to winkle each little ornamental seed out, in to a bowl this time though instead of popping them in to your mouth one by one as you sat by the blaze of a fire where the pomegranates, probably imported from Egypt, seemed so exotic and special. Christmas in England also provided an array of events designed to give you cheer in the depth of winter. One of these, the circus, not only had the animals, the clowns, and the acrobats to admire but also brought with it the introduction of candy floss, toffee apples, and street vendors with braziers selling roasted chestnuts. Inside the home xmas fare included Spanish wood ( a twig you chewed that tasted like licorice but also, to a child, has the exciting bonus of making your mouth go yellow, ) nougat from France, nuts to crack, mince pies, a sit down meal with ham and chicken as centre pieces, and a xmas pudding followed up with games after tea including Monopoly, Mah Jong, Roulette, and Escalado which is a great wind up horse betting game, and interestingly , was also played by one of our members in NZ.
Something that was instantly recognized as a shared memory was the adding of money to the xmas pudding but laughter ensued when it was realized how much money was put in the pudding had definitely not been standardized by the unionization of christmas rules. You could be eating a pudding with only one treasured 6p in the whole pudding, a pudding with a mixture of 6p and 3d coins, or a pudding with 6p coins and a secret wee stash of coins on the side just in case someone managed to miss out altogether. Some puddings were given the treatment of custard and others were flamed.
If you can shift your vision now to a hot tropical country where the day is long and xmas memories are very different. Here you would always find a cold xmas dinner because of the heat and whereas those of us in New Zealand considered finding an orange in the toe of your xmas stocking to be very special, in the Queensland tropics oranges were to found lying all over the ground and considered to be very ordinary. But an apple, now there was something to be brightening your day and was dreamed of in advance. Somehow, enough money was always found to be able to buy a large case of apples from the more temperate part of Australia and then kept hidden underneath the bed your mum and dad slept in as it was dark and relatively cool there but more importantly, it was the easiest place to police it from the thefting forays of a large family of children. And, as it was with everyone else, xmas always involved spending time with the wider family including an uncle whose rice pudding was legendary.
Those in New Zealand shared many of the same memories with an abundance of home grown potatoes and freshly podded peas. We also had ham and chicken ( and haven’t we forgotten what a luxury chicken was back then, ) roast lamb, boozy trifle, pavalova with toppings that changed as each year we grew a little older and new ideas were introduced – one year it would be kiwifruit, another year chocolate chips, and perhaps in another year you would find multi coloured non pareils providing rainbow colours that had, by Boxing Day morning, bled into a glorious kaleidoscope of every colour you had decorated the cream with. And of course there were lollies and nuts and chocolates and perhaps my memory tricks me a little but I do recall they all really did feel like special treats. The thought of a hot summer day also created discussion on our English Colonial heritage still casting its mantle over us with so many of us persisting in continuing to sit down to a hot meal in the middle of the day despite sweltering temperatures.
Being xmas, we all of brought along delicious goodies to eat and, amidst the chatter, enthusiastically sampled delicacies of smoked salmon on seed bread, strawberries, dried fruits, a selection of nuts, baby tomatoes topped with tapenade and fresh basil, and slices of an amazing looking bread made by a member. It was a traditional Spanish xmas bread called Twelfth Night and trust me, it was a treat not to be missed.
Presented in our wild card section this month was the dearest wee trinket box made of olive wood and purchased in Italy in 1926, some fascinating facts on xmas around the world ( who celebrates it and how celebrations vary from country to country and culture to culture, ) a book on breads around the world including recipes that made you want to go and set a loaf to rise immediately, and a book called “The Diet Myth’ which looks at the recent research and studies done on biomes in the gut and how they have a bearing on the way we respond to food and drink – fascinating stuff.
As the meeting concluded and we all rolled home replete it was apparent that these meetings over the course of the year have stimulated us to discover new things, provided a platform for us to have fun and to share what we know or have learnt with others, and left us with a profound respect for not only the people who work to produce high quality, flavoursome and nutritious food, but also a very deep respect for the environment itself and all the things that inhabit it.
To anyone reading this blog we wish you a very merry xmas and a wonderful year ahead wherever it may take you.