Don’t read this if you like Christmas.
It starts with the word itself. I’ve always been unable to get past the fact of it. Easter, I can deal with, because the word Easter has nothing to do with Christianity. I’m actually the kind of person who wishes Birmingham City Council had tried to ban the word Christmas, as reported by the fake news media (Daily Mail, in the main), because as a non-Christian I’m unhappy being forced to have anything to do with it. Happy humanism. I almost wrote, happy humanismas, but even that would be using the ‘mass’ part of Christmas and then where would we be? Words are disgusting.
Then again, happy holidays doesn’t trip easily from my tongue, either. Nor cool yule, super solstice, or any of the other substitutes. Even in French, joyeux Noël, or bonnes fêtes, do not come easily. What even is “Noël”? Turns out it comes from the Latin for ‘birth’, so that’s definitely out. And bonnes fêtes is just happy holidays but with more accents. None of this works, because misery that I am, I find this kind of phatic communication impossible. It’s on the same level as how are you? or good morning. It’s that feeling that you are in a play and you have been handed a script written by an idiot. I wonder if Shakespeare was an introvert?
The only thing I like about this time of year is the giving of presents. The rest of it, the overindulgence in food and drink feels like hiring a car for a wedding. The practice dates from the time when most people didn’t have a car, so hiring one made it a special occasion. In a world in which the average family has three cars, hiring one for a wedding is an anachronism. In a world in which we (I) overindulge in food and drink all the year round, ramping it up for Christmas is simply ridiculous. Everybody talks about the food, but nobody really focuses on the actual experience of feeling uncomfortably bloated for hours on end.
It’s worse if, like me, you are the kind of person who never enjoys a meal you have spent hours preparing. I fucking hate it. The responsibility. It’s not even that I’m a perfectionist (I am the worst presenter of food), but I’m so conscious that in cooking multiple dishes for ten people there are so many potential points of failure. It doesn’t help to be doing it for certain members of my extended family, who are the kind of people who wouldn’t even think about it until the afternoon of the day it was supposed to happen, if it were left to them.
There’s nothing I enjoy cooking or eating at this time of year, but this year I found particularly difficult because someone had given my French brother in law a haunch of venison (roe deer, or chevreuil), and (passive voice) it was decided that we would have this for the reveillon, the big/endless Christmas Eve meal that is Christmas Dinner in France. This main part of the meal is always left to me; the other stuff, the smoked salmon and foie gras, the buche etc. is somebody else’s problem.
Now, there were a number of problems with the venison. I hate cooking big joints of meat, for one, and I especially hate the kind of meat that some people like to eat rare. I’d no more want to eat a slightly bloody burger or a blue steak than I’d want to eat an uncooked pizza or a raw chicken breast. So that was a concern, because I knew there would be a few people around the table who would expect a traditional roasted joint, that once sliced would reveal a pink middle.
Another concern was that there is virtually no fat on a haunch of venison. Which meant that my alternative of cooking it long and slow at a low temperature might have ended in a dried up husk. Nevertheless, this was the risk I decided to take. I took the basic pulled pork method (a dry rub of salt, sugar and smoked paprika) and combined it with goose fat. To make assurance doubly sure I poured a bottle of brown ale into the roasting tin with some softened shallots and garlic cloves. Covered the lot in a double layer of foil and cooked it for seven hours at 130°C.
The result was not like pulled pork but was tender and easy to slice with a good flavour and lots of nice gravy. Not being sure about the gravy, I’d also made an orange sauce. This might not have been what people were expecting, but it seemed okay. I’m not keen on gamey meats, but the flavour wasn’t too strong.
That was one source of tension. The other involved the roasties and the parsnips. My French relatives don’t eat parsnips and always act like you’re trying to feed them 1940s food. They also do not know of the Maris Piper. I did butter/honey roasted parsnips and proper roast potatoes. The only other thing I did was a red cabbage and apple salad. All of this was enjoyed by all — apart from the cook, who hated every moment of it.
Being in France for Christmas has let me off a lot of hooks. I can sit quietly and let things take place around me. The champagne corks pop, the presents are opened, and time passes. You might think I would at least enjoy the champagne, but you would be wrong. This year, I was designated driver, which gave me an excuse not to have much of it.
If things were left to me, the dinner would be on the table by eight o’ clock and we’d all be home in bed by midnight. But that’s not how the reveillon works. It’s supposed to go on into Christmas morning, it’s in the name. So I have to wait for a cue to put things in the oven. The meat just needed reheating, but the potatoes and parsnips needed to go in and the salad needed to be combined and dressed. But, again, I’m dealing with the kind of people who don’t think like this. They would decide they were hungry and then have to wait an hour to eat, meanwhile filling up on snacks and crap because they were hungry. So imagine me on Christmas Eve: just watching the clock and fretting, waiting for signs that people might be inclined to eat in about an hour. Not helped, by the way, by my brother-in-law, WHO CANNOT COOK questioning my every kitchen decision. “Won’t re-heating the meat make it too tough?” he asked me several times, when he understood the plan. NO IT FUCKING WON’T. “Why are you mixing apple with cabbage?” “What are these white carrots?”
The next day, Christmas Day, we had an evening meal which is actually my kind of food. There was leftover foie gras on toast, some sautéed potatoes, and a green salad: perfection.
I’m glad it’s over. We’re at the neighbours for friture de carpe later: another thing I’d rather eat for Christmas dinner.