Tuesday 25 December 2007

Peppermint bark beats humbug any day

As tradition demands, I start the day by opening all my presents in bed, watched by my loyal Border terrier. There’s a garlic press from my aunt, a ceramic salt and pepper set in the shape of a postman and an angry bulldog from my goddaughter, and what looks like a CD but which turns out to be a set of emergency collar stiffeners, buttons and cufflinks from a former girlfriend. A shame, as I’d been looking forward to listening to a stirring seasonal medley from the Swindon Catholic Ladies’ Sewing Guild and Glee Club. That’s it on the present front. On the one hand, the brevity of the ceremony leaves 23 hours and 59 minutes of Christmas Day free for other purposes. On the other hand, I could swear I caught the dog smirking. I resolve to withhold the squeaky toy I bought him when we were in Norfolk a couple of weeks ago.

It is actually a White Christmas here, as there is an amazingly thick frost, which would have made for some wonderful photographs if I had had the presence of mind to go out and take them, rather than sitting at my desk scribbling. By the time I do go out, however, there is no time for photography as I’m already late for an urgent appointment with a glass of champagne at the other end of the county. I am made even later by leaving the A1 every time there is a sign for “Services”, only to find the establishment in question shuttered and coned off. This would be perfectly understandable if there were no cars on the road; but, after many years during which I never ventured more than a mile or two from home on Christmas Day, I am amazed by the high volume of traffic. Clearly they have all been equipped with considerably more foresight than me, or the AA and RAC are going to be in for a very busy afternoon.

An improvised electronic sign by the roadside in Newcastle saying “CHECK YOUR FUEL” seems designed just to add insult to injury; but, while I do not really expect such joined-up thinking from the Highways Agency, it occurs to me that there might just be someone retailing petroleum spirit somewhere shortly after the next turn-off. So I take it, and find a BP garage on the West Road open and doing a roaring trade. This does little for my own peace of mind, as I know I have ample fuel to reach my destination. But it will doubtless gladden my hosts to be assured that I also have enough to get back home.

I’d been invited to lunch on the strict understanding that I’d be able to watch the Queen on TV; I had not appreciated that this meant we would not be sitting down to eat until 3.10. Still, a walk through the surrounding fields fills much of the time most agreeably, and the food was certainly worth waiting for. Indeed, I think I can safely say that it was the most delicious Christmas dinner I have ever eaten, and not just compared with the cottage pie I had at home on my own in the two previous years. We begin with some utterly delicious wild smoked salmon, which I had taken the precaution of bringing with me from Seahouses, then my host bears in a Tudor feast of three perfectly roast Gressingham ducks. He suggests that the simplest way to serve these between six people is simply to divide them in half, but rejects my helpful suggestion of splitting them with cleavers to the tune of David Rose’s The Stripper, in the style made famous by Morecambe and Wise. Much work with heavy duty scissors ensues.

The orange sauce, which has more of the qualities of gravy than usual, is utterly delicious. The duck is tender, the sprouts are cooked to perfection, and the home-grown parsnips and potatoes, roasted in duck fat, are simply wonderful. With it we drink a good 2000 claret.

A big fat man, digging his grave with his teeth; the Northumbrian approach to portion control.

It would clearly be impossible to eat anything else after this, so it is a source of lasting shame that I feel obliged to bring up the fact that my host and one of his other guests had been busily preparing the ingredients for a bread and butter pudding when I arrived. But I am glad that I was so shamefully greedy, as what emerges from the kitchen some 45 minutes later is quite simply the most delicious pudding I have ever eaten; amazingly light yet with a wonderfully crispy topping caramelized with a blow torch. Simply perfect. I then make another unfortunate discovery in the shape of a delicious American sweetmeat called Peppermint Bark.

My talented host, down to his last grand; his girlfriend wishes he had an upright instead.

After our host has been serenading us on the piano for a while, his girlfriend remarks dreamily, “You know, it’s funny: he plays the piano beautifully, he’s a fantastic cook and he produces ballet. On paper, he’s got to be gay.” I naturally respond with a needlessly explicit question of a sexually related nature, and very shortly afterwards I sense that my dog and I have delighted the company long enough. Though I’m not sure that that’s necessarily true in the case of the dog.

We drive back home, bearing with us as presents the softest cashmere scarf I have ever owned, and an exceptionally squeaky toy. Despite myself, I am almost beginning to think that I could get to enjoy Christmas after all.

It is somehow reassuring to find that the evening’s television is as predictably disappointing as it always used to be in my childhood, when the likes of Harry Worth and Terry Scott performed tired old sketches in Christmas Night With The Stars. I fall asleep to Penelope Keith emoting in a revival of a programme that should have been put to sleep and laid to rest rather than cryogenically preserved, wondering in what sense a person who can clearly only play one part can be described as an actor or actress.

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