Quite how the decision to elect Charles, my brother, and I to cook Christmas Dinner for the rest of the family, was arrived at is a mystery. No doubt when the smoke has cleared and the stomach bugs have cleared up, there will be a proper and fulsome enquiry.
Cooking a meal for a large crowd of people, several of whom are better qualified to cook, and all have a particular opinion as to how; roast potatoes should be cooked, whether the Turkey should be started off breast down and making the gravy to name but three is not for the feint hearted.
Making the gravy! The deal breaker for any traditional English roast meal. You can make a litany of minor mistakes with the rest of the food but all will be forgiven if you get the gravy right. There are many different views about how to make gravy. How thick should it be? Do you use the water from the vegetables? What about the addition of alcohol? These were just two of the issues that arose yesterday. More about the gravy later.
Perhaps the top three most tips are;
- Don’t get too drunk.
- Keep people with strong opinions out of the kitchen.
Of course you can recruit folk to cut,peel, scrape and chop the vegetables. These are tasks that attract little controversy, are time consuming and require hard graft but little skill. Once these have been carried out, clear the kitchen. The Queens speech, Mary Poppins, anything to get the kitchen down to the bare essential crew. For these few these brave hardy souls are for the next five hours, masters of the universe.
But limit the drinking.
Drinking though it increases the enjoyment of the cooking process, usually results in a disaster in terms of the meal that is eventually served. The timings go awry and panic and errors accumulate resulting in a general fail in terms of the meal. And of course the cooks, drunk, perspiring, fractious and generally fed up only want to lie down, and usually end up not finishing the job. So all the credit goes to those who step in and turn a few pots off and a few on and generally do very little bit take all the credit. While the true heroes, are broken men, consigned to the sofa, to lie in a torpor, mouth open and snoring while others enjoy the fruits of their labours.
The problems that we faced were compounded by the oven. It was only just big enough for the Turkey, but not the roast potatoes, these would be left to the tender mercies of the Aga.
The turkey was prepared simply, and without fuss. It was raised locally and had been free range, so it deserved to be treated with respect and a lot of care and attention was spent on it. It proved to be worth it.
The problem was the Aga. It was not hot enough to manage the roast potatoes, so as Charlie commented it was time to adopt the triage philosophy. This mean’t shuffling the turkey about and putting the roasties and the parsnips into the hot oven. The act of transferring such a large and heavy bird was fraught with risks. Hot fat, the risk of slipping and of course uneven surfaces. But we were a team and despite the many transfers we got through this difficult stage.
So the turkey is resting. Some rather decent red wine is uncorked and waiting to be drunk and I am just washing down a rather decent vodka and wondering how the fuck we are going to make a decent gravy with very almost nothing to thicken it.
But we Fussell brothers are resourceful. We use initiative. We apply scientific logic to the problem. When this fails we have another large drink, and list out the limited meagre thickening resources that we have.
We have the juices from the bird and we have skimmed off the fat to leave the juices in a reasonably fat free state. To this has been added some of the vegetable water and a few mashed parsnips and potatoes. It is simmering on the Aga. I am about to comment, well to lament really the impossibility of making a decent gravy, when my mother comes in. She has her suspicions about how we are going to make a decent gravy. She hovers around asking awkward questions. She is persuaded to leave.
To relive the tension we have another round of drinks.
To the turkey and vegetable broth is added the best part of a bottle of very expensive red wine, I believe it was a Pauillac . And some Tomato sauce. It was the tomato sauce, a humble mass produced ketchup that saved the day.
We taste the gravy. It was good, very good. The tomato sauce had given it body and a savoury note that cut through the richness of the wine and the turkey juice. We were ready to go.
I should point out that while Charles and I were the chief cooks, the intellectual giants behind the whole enterprise, the inventors, the creative powerhouse, but there were others who contributed. To the vegetable choppers and slicers, Mr and Mrs Roger Fussell, Jean Hathorn, Charles Harthorn and Trisha Fussell, we salute you and raise a glass in grateful recognition that we did not have to do that back breaking and thankless task. Trisha Fussell also provided advice, support, refills and generally did anything she could to avoid the Queens speech. A special thank you. And of course Helen Fussell. Organiser supreme, hostess, calmer down and pourer of oil on troubled waters (well Pauillac anyway).
So that is it for another year. Another country house emerges unscathed from the battle to cook Christmas dinner. Another year drifts away.
Christmas has gone, all too quickly, but there is still time to wish you all a very happy New Year.