Polar explorer Captain Scott and his team celebrated Christmas on their way to the South Pole in 1911. As a foodie, I find their feast a little lacking in… je ne sais quoi …
After his historic Christmas dinner with Wilson and Oates, Bowers and Evans, Scott recorded in his diary what he grandly termed four courses: ” The first, pemmican, full whack, with slices of horse meat flavoured with onion and curry powder and thickened with biscuit; then an arrowroot, cocoa and biscuit hoosh sweetened; then a plum pudding; then cocoa with raisins, and finally a dessert of caramels and ginger.”
Pemmican was the classic polar food, preserved, dried meat and fat… not my idea of gourmet nosh, but Birdie Bowers, and Taff Evans both felt so filled with warmth and human kindness after this extraordinary collection of unpalatable rubbish, that they decided when they got back to England they would: “get hold of all the poor children we can and just stuff them full of nice things,” in bachelor Bowers’ words.
I just feel the polar feast could have been warmed up with a wee dram of whisky perhaps, or even a swig of medicinal brandy. But then, I feel the cold.
Bowers was responsible for this jolly Christmas celebration, having smuggled the food over and above the allowed weights for the journey. Once the recalcitrant and desperate Mongolian ponies – who had suffered so terribly on the sea journey to the Antarctic, and who had then struggled endlessly in appalling weather and conditions with food they couldn’t eat- had been killed, every man carried his own food and equipment on the heavy sleds.
Bowers had always sneaked his night-time biscuit to his pony. On the night before they were all killed, Wilson, St Francis’s man, gave his whole biscuit ration to the poor creatures, like the condemned man’s last meal. This was the only time I cried during the film: ‘Scott of the Antartic’ with John Mills. I was twelve, and blow the men, it was the ponies I wept for.
Thankfully my Christmases have never been as cold as theirs, though it felt like it in the hall in which we rehearsed for the Nativity Play when I was five. I had no idea what a rehearsal was, or why we had been marched – or straggled would be a better word – to the hall just down the road. Neither did I really understand the story we were acting in. We seemed to stand around for hours in the unheated hall while teachers talked animatedly to each other, and shifted bodies and chairs around the stage.
I just knew that the white nightie thing I was wearing like all the other little girls, was freezing. To cap it all – like the other angels in their nighties – I had a boring triangle to keep chinging on. This was a watershed in my understanding of the world. I understood then for the first time, that boys had all the fun. Not only were they all dressed up as kings and shepherds, but they got to play drums and tambourines, trumpets and recorders.
I felt as aggrieved as I did when I first saw huge Persil ads, in which the dark haired woman had the grubby grey sheets, and a bright blonde had the sparkling Persil washed sheets. Apparently blondes were better than brunettes.
But that’s another story… a year later my grandmother took me to a midnight carol service. I was riveted. A boy sang the first verse to: ‘Once in Royal David’s City’ in an un-earthly soaring treble, and then read the lesson. At one point his clear voice rang out with the words “And Mary pondered these things in her heart”. My heart leapt. I had no idea what the beautiful words meant, but for many years I treasured them and pondered them in my heart too.
The next memorable nativity play was when my daughter was five, and she was playing Mary. I thought she was utterly precious as she gazed at the world with her big brown eyes, her little face framed by a blue head covering, her solemn gaze taking in far more than I ever did. I sat and watched her with tears running down my face and my heart nearly burst with love. And the same when my small son sang the solo so sweetly at his Christmas concert.
Much the same too at all my grandsons’ nativity plays, only not tears, laughter. My heart nearly burst with love then too, and lots of giggles, as the head mistress darted down from her pulpit to drag a little finger from some-one’s little nose, and then he simply used the other finger on the other hand and the other nostril as soon as she was safely back in the pulpit.
None of them were magnificently garbed magi, just lowly shepherds … but we all sang the sombre, beautiful carol, ‘We three kings of Orient are…’ My favourite wise man is the fourth one, and that old Christmas legend telling his story is one of the most beautiful Christmas stories, to my mind…
He had set out with the other three Magi, but on the way, they came upon a traveller who’d had an accident, and the fourth wise man stopped to help him. Seeing he would be a while, he told the other three to carry on with their journey, and he would catch them up. But he never did, for he kept meeting some creature or traveller who needed his help to get them to safety, and by the time he got to Bethlehem the kings had been and gone, and so had the Child he was seeking.
He spent many years following the trail which had always gone cold when he got there, to Egypt and Nazareth and elsewhere. He was constantly delayed by yet another needy person who asked for his help. The gifts he brought and the stock of gold he had carried with him for the journey, dwindled until he had hardly enough left to buy himself food.
And then he heard that Jesus was in Jerusalem. He hurried there, and arrived in time to stand and watch Jesus carry his cross through the streets. He had one final treasure that he was keeping to give to the One he had been seeking, a beautiful sapphire jewel. But just before Jesus passed, a Roman soldier began to assault a young woman. The fourth wise man intervened, and by now, old and frail, was unable to stop the soldier. Finally he offered him his last possession, the precious sapphire, his gift for the Messiah, and the soldier took it and left.
At that moment Jesus reached the fourth wise man, and he knelt and asked Jesus’ forgiveness for having nothing for him because he’d stopped so often on the way to help the hungry or lost or needy. And Jesus looked at him and said: ‘For as much as you have done it unto these, you have done it unto me.’
In other words… we are all one… so a happy Christmas-tide to us all, dear friends around the world of blogging.
Food for threadbare gourmets
When Christmas is here, our little purply-red plums are ripe, and though I gave this recipe last year, I think it’s worth repeating The plums which are only so-so for eating raw, are delicious when cooked. Every-one who receives a basket of these fruits also gets the recipe I use – borrowed from Nigella Lawson.
To a kilo of plums – more or less, use 300 ml of red wine – more rather than less! Nigella says stone them – I don’t bother, the stones come out quite easily when cooked.
Put the plums in an oven proof dish. In a saucepan boil the wine with two bay leaves, half a teasp of ground cinnamon, two cloves, one star anise, and 200g of honey. Pour over the plums, seal with foil or a lid, and bake for an hour or longer at 160 degrees, until they’re tender. You can keep them in the fridge for three days, and you can freeze them.
Serve with crème fraiche, ice-cream, or custard. I also think they’d be good with rice pudding on a cold day. The aromatic scent while they are cooking is so delectable that I’d love to catch it in a bottle and spray it regularly around the kitchen.
Food for thought
“My idea of Christmas, whether old-fashioned or modern, is very simple: loving others. Come to think of it, why do we have to wait for Christmas to do that?” Comedian extraordinaire, Bob Hope 1903 – 2003 His grandson said that when asked on his deathbed where he wanted to be buried, he characteristically quipped: “ Surprise me .”