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Christmas in Antarctica

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The lady in the cancer book shop where I regularly search the shelves for a good bargain as well as a good read, told me she was spending Christmas in the Antarctic. ‘Very expensive,’ she murmured. ‘Really?’ I replied, naive and astonished, thinking of a tough Christmas in Scott’s hut. ‘Surely not? Do you stay in a B and B?” I asked incredulously. “No, no,” she laughed, “a cruise ship.”

This I find fascinating… just over a hundred years after Scott’s dreadful journey and death, we now go to spend holidays in the big chill. Expensive… yes, I bet – with a grand Christmas dinner – turkey and roast potatoes, Christmas pudding and a full complement of wines thrown in on board the warm floating hotel.

On the other hand, I shudder to think of Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Christmas dinner with Wilson and Oates and Bowers and Evans at the South Pole. Scott recorded 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 and dried meat) Birdie Bowers, and Taff Evans (there were two E. Evans on the expedition) both felt so filled with warmth and human kindness after this extraordinary collection of unpalatable rubbish, that they decided that 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. Sadly there are even more ‘poor’ hungry children today in a world of affluence…

Bowers was responsible for the 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 on 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.

Scott’s men unwittingly starved to death. For most of the journey they suffered from hunger, and spent long reveries dreaming about food as they trudged through the snow and icy winds, watching each other like hawks as the pan of hoosh was handed round at night. There was no variety. Every night the same, pemmican, cocoa and biscuit. The cocoa was cooked in the same pan as the pemmican, so it tasted of pemmican anyway. Though they had planned their rations according to known standards of nutrition at the time, they failed to take into account the human body’s needs for vitamins.

The more I learned about this historic expedition which has stayed in the collective memory of the world, the more Scott’s society seemed like a bees’ tight-knit society, Scott himself being queen-bee. As in the bee-hive, there was no crime in Scott’s world, and very little discord – restraint kept most grievances tightly bottled up… Scott was king, as well as queen bee, distant, demanding, admired, respected, deferred to – to their disadvantage, sometimes. Oates wanted to take some of the weaker ponies as far south along their route as possible, to kill and leave to eat on the long Polar return journey, but Scott vetoed this idea. It could have saved their lives.

They kept themselves amused through the endless black polar days and nights with a variety of imaginative ploys…Apsley Cherry-Garrard was the editor of the South Polar Times, a publication typically initiated by Shackleton on Scott’s first expedition, and revived in 1911, type-written with illustrations consisting of line drawings and coloured sketches by Wilson. It carried, among other things, a flourishing letters to the editor page.

There was also a piano and a wind-up gramophone to amuse the lads, donated by HMV before they left. They read – Laurie Oates, nicknamed ‘Titus’ after the notorious seventeenth century conspirator of the same name, read ‘Napier’s History of the Peninsula Wars, Cherry -Garrard, the complete Kipling, Day devoured Dickens, while others read Victorian poets and popular novels. They played chess and backgammon and cards. Significantly Scott was always beaten at chess by Nelson, so took to playing with Atkinson, a man he could beat. Scott also organised lectures to occupy the sixteen – strong company, a diverse group ranging from a non- English-speaking Russian groom, to the scientists, sailors and adventurers. They were English, Norwegian, Canadian and Australian.

Cavalryman Captain Oates, who in spite of being taciturn, was a very potent presence and a penetrating observer, unimpressed by Captain Scott, spent a great deal of time trying to cosset his ponies, and many hours crouching with them in their freezing stalls, coaxing them to eat their in-edible rations, or rescuing harness, headstalls and any other object which the bored and ravenous animals were tempted to devour. Oates’s cronies who shared one side of the cramped hut while wintering at Cape Evans, consisted of Bowers, Cherry-Garrard, Atkinson and Meares, who were known as The Tenement Dwellers, anti- feminist, anti-scientist, conservative and spartan – and, one has to add – narrow-minded and philistine.

The other side of the twenty-five- foot wide hut were the scientists, who made a dainty attempt at home-making, mocked by Oates who called their space The Opium Den. They draped a curtain, scrounged from photographer Ponting, across their bunks to give themselves privacy. One added a branch acetylene light, another stained everything stainable with Condy’s fluid, making it a uniform red brown, the Norwegian, Gran, put red borders made from photographers’ material on their shelves, while another adorned his bunk with a piece of dark blue material which had started life as part of a Sunday altar cloth.

With all this, they danced together (the fiendishly difficult Lancers), sang together (at church services), reminisced together, and confided in each other (typically Oates’s confidences were about his old nanny in Yorkshire, and his commanding officer in India – Douglas Haig, soon to command the armies on the Western Front in WW1). Each man had his own duties, and shared the rest with every-one else. They were usually busy, or exhausted. No-one shirked or dodged. They looked out for each other. They too, were busy as bees, and the devil never found any idle hands. Each man knew his place in the scheme of things, and the hierarchy was as rigid and unchanging as that in the bee-hive.

Understatement was the preferred mode of communication. When they’re fighting for their lives and baling endlessly during terrible storms they use code words like “interesting ” and “exciting” to cope with their fear and their feelings. Oates writes to his mother about the Antarctic before he gets there: ” the climate is very healthy although inclined to be cold”. No-one ever seems to get cross or impatient, according to Scott, who records his own assessments of members of the expedition in his diary.

They relied on each other for company and comfort, succour and safety. They knew that their survival depended on each other, and perhaps in this way discovered for themselves the truth of the ideal society in which all life and all things and all men are connected to each other. No-one is separate from the whole, a truth civilisation has forgotten.

Writing in his book ‘The Worst Journey in the World’ of the expedition to Cape Crozier he made with Bowers and Wilson to collect Emperor penguin eggs, Cherry Garrard said ‘ And we DID stick it… We did not forget the Please and Thank you, which mean much in such circumstances, and all the little links with decent civilisation which we could still keep going. I’ll swear there was still a grace about us as we staggered in. And we kept our tempers – even with God.’ A bond of mysticism carried these three men through.

Tactful Dr Bill Wilson, secret disciple of St Francis, and known as Uncle Bill, was the advisor, peace-maker and comforter in the tiny Polar society. Birdie Bowers, bachelor, tiger for punishment, endlessly strong and tireless long after everyone else was fainting with exhaustion was the other closet mystic in the party – ” The purpose of life” he wrote, “… is to make a great decision – to choose between the material and the spiritual, and if we choose the spiritual we must work out our choice, and then it will run like a silver thread through the material… nothing that happens to our bodies really matters…

In spite of their failure to be the first to reach the South Pole – Amundsen beat them to it in a race they hadn’t bargained for – the triumph of their spirits over the terrible adversities they faced, has made their journey unforgettable. Scott’s biographer, Crane goes further, saying Scott’s “ letters, diary and last message extend our sense of what it is to be human. No one else could have written them; no one else, at the point of defeat and dissolution, could have so vividly articulated a sense of human possibilities that transcend both.” And in spite of their deaths, Scott’s scientific measurements, researches and discoveries were of enduring value to later explorers.

So at the edge of the world, on the edge of starvation, at the end of their tethers and at the end of their lives all four of the returning four Pole team members manifested courage, courtesy, kindness, decency and transcendent humanity … including heroic Oates limping out into the blizzard to die so his fellows might save themselves. These qualities are sometimes felt to be out of date in our modern times, but they are the qualities fostered by the Christian faith which is what Christmas celebrates, something sometimes forgotten in the general feasting, shopping, partying, gift giving and receiving.  I wonder how the Christian festival will be remembered on that passenger liner in the Antarctic – and how Scott and his men will be remembered too…

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’d made an extra pastry quiche shell, so I tried a new recipe, using pumpkin and kumara/sweet potato. Take a chunk of pumpkin weighing between four and five hundred grams, and grate. Grate a kumara, and mix them together in a largish bowl. Stir in half a cup of flour, and two cups of grated cheese. Beat six eggs with three quarters of a cup of cream, and stir into the mix, along with a tablespoon of mild curry powder and cumin each. Salt and pepper to taste, spread in a deep pastry shell and bake in a moderate oven for roughly 45 minutes. I served it with green beans and a few rashers of bacon for the resident carnivore! It was good cold too.

Food for thought

We are all visitors to this time, this place. We are just passing through. Our purpose here is to observe, to learn, to grow, to love… and then we return home.                           Australian Indigenous people’s proverb

 

 

 

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Let them eat ( Christmas ) cake!

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Poor Marie Antoinette. She never said it. But she’s suffered from that blighting propaganda ever since. What she needed, and still needs, is a good spin doctor to right her dreadful wrongs, but until she gets one, her name is indelibly associated with cake. (She was actually a devoted and intelligent mother, and I think I’d have gone mad if I’d been her, and known of the barbaric treatment the revolutionaries meted out to her eight- year -old son after she was beheaded during The Terror. Her son died two years later, by then completely mute, disease-ridden, covered in scars from beatings, and unable to walk. The past was sometimes as cruel as the present…)

But to return to the subject of cake. In the days when a woman’s place was in the home, and preferably in the kitchen, cake was part of that equation. I grew up in the fifties when women were still supposed to be there, and watched my stepmother struggle with the expectations around cake in those days. Her steak and kidney puddings had to be tasted to be believed, her steak pies with perfect pastry were sumptuous, as were her heavenly steamed ginger puddings and apple pies, but cakes were not her thing.

The pinnacle of cake-makings skills back then was the Victoria sponge. A pretty boring version of cake, and now long out of favour, but back then, the classic Victoria sponge was a firm cake cooked in two tins, and glued together with raspberry jam, the top sprinkled with icing sugar. Simple, but like all simple things, more difficult than it looks.

I would come home from school in the afternoon, and find my stepmother had had another go at a sponge, and was pretty down in the mouth, because as usual, it had sunk in the middle. As much as we were allowed to do, I fell on these failures, and revelled in the sunken, soggy, sweet middle – the best part of the cake, I thought. Sadly, years later, I discovered that my stepmother thought I was sending her up when I enthused about how delicious it was.

A few years later, living in Malaya, she was rescued from the kitchen by an amah who certainly didn’t bake cakes. Instead, like every other amah, she delivered a tea tray with rich tea biscuits and tiny Malayan bananas to the bedroom every day at four o’clock, to wake the dozing memsahibs from their afternoon rest in the tropical heat. With the pressure to produce the perfect sponge lifted from her shoulders, my stepmother began to be more interested in cake, and one holiday I came home from boarding school and was invited to experiment with making something called a boiled fruit cake – no creaming and beating, just a bit of mixing and boiling before baking.

So began the process of producing a cake in the tropics in the fifties. First the flour had to be sieved to get the weevils out. Every egg had to be broken into a separate cup to make sure none of them were bad, as indeed, many of them were. The rest of the makings came out of the food safe, which was a primitive cupboard made with wire mesh to ensure some movement of air in the sticky heat. It stood on legs two feet off the floor. The legs were placed in used sardine tins or similar, which were kept filled with water, to deter ants from invading the food.

The cake was simply a mix of all the ingredients and then baked. It wasn’t just soggy and sweet in the middle, it was soggy and sweet all through – just my sort of cake.

When I had my own kitchen, my ambition to eat cake was permanently at war with my determination never to get bogged down with the hard labour of creaming and beating that seemed to be involved in making a cake. But I found a temporary solution in the first months of my marriage – a cake that didn’t even have to be cooked – it was made from mostly crushed biscuit crumbs, melted butter and chocolate and finished off in the fridge. It was even a success with an old school friend who’d mastered the whole baking thing, and could even do a crème brulee.

But the real break-through came when reading the old Manchester Guardian, as it was called back then. Highbrow though the women’s pages were, Guardian women were not too cerebral to eat cake. And hidden away one day in a sensible article on cakes – nothing frivolous, just egalitarian, down to earth, common sense advice – I found the answer to cake-making. Instead of creaming the butter, or beating it with the eggs or the sugar, all we had to do was MELT the butter and stir it in.

This simple technique I applied to chocolate cakes, lemon cakes, you- name- it cakes. It‘s carried me through a life-time of eating cake and I’ve never even considered making a Victoria sponge.

But now I have another triumphant addition to my cake making repertoire – just in time for Christmas too. The NZ genius known as Annabel Langbien, who invented the three ingredient scones I wrote about, has also invented the three ingredient Christmas cake. This of course, is meat and drink to me, though being the over-the top person I am, (if half is delicious – twice as much must be twice as delicious!) I did actually embellish this gloriously simple recipe.

1kg mixed dried fruit, 2½ cups (600ml) milk or almond milk, 2¾ cups self-raising flour , 1 tbsp sherry, rum or whiskey, to brush (optional)

icing sugar, to dust (optional)

Place dried fruit in a bowl, cover with milk and leave to soak overnight in the fridge.

The next day, preheat oven to 160°C and line a medium (23cm diameter) springform cake tin with baking paper.

Stir flour into fruit mixture until evenly combined and smooth into prepared tin. Bake until it is risen, set and golden and a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean (check after about 1¼ hours and return to oven for a little longer if needed). Remove from oven and, while still hot, brush with sherry, rum or whisky, if using. Cool in the tin before turning out. Stored in an airtight container, it will keep for 3-4 weeks.

My embellishments included soaking the fruit in brandy and lapsang souchong cold tea, using a cup of almond meal and one and a half cups of  flour…plus a cup of melted butter, cup of brown sugar and three beaten eggs…then I couldn’t resist adding a teasp of vanilla essence, plus two teasp mixed together of nutmeg, cinnamon and mixed spice –  and then a good table spoon of golden syrup… (still simple, No creaming beating etc – just all mixed together and utterly delicious).

I ‘m also thinking of going the whole hog when I unwrap it to eat, and layering on apricot jam to hold some marzipan, and icing on top of that. Otherwise I would arrange crystallised ginger on the top before baking.

I also cooked the cake very slowly, for far longer than Annabel suggests – wrapping the tin in layers of thick brown paper.

I wrote the first half of this blog on 5 June 2012… but thought I must share the updated version with this blindingly simple recipe for Christmas cake.

 

Food for thought

Thought control is the highest form of prayer. Therefore think only on good things, and righteous. Dwell not in negativity and darkness.

And even in those moments when things look bleak – especially in those moments – see only perfection, express only gratefulness, and then imagine only what manifestation of perfection you choose next.

In this formula is found tranquillity. In this process is found peace. In this awareness is found joy.

Donald Neale Walsch   Conversations with God Book 3

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Eating for Easter

Image result for pics of hot cross buns

A beloved friend coping with laryngitis wrote to say she intended to cure herself by eating Easter eggs. An idea, which, as my delicious daughter would say, ‘had legs’, but which was not one which appealed to me.

My preference for Easter is hot cross buns, spicy, and with a good, sweet cross, heated up gently in the oven, and eaten with lashings of butter for breakfast on Good Friday.

Food marks the seasonal calendar as much as the religious reason for the various festivals. One of my favourites, Pancake Day, aka Shrove Tuesday, evolved in order to use up the butter, eggs and sugar which were no-no’s during the penitential Lenten days leading up to Easter.

In England, it was once known as a half holiday which began when church bells were rung at 11 am. and then pancake races were and are run in towns and villages all over the country, even today. Legend has it that in 1445 a housewife in Olney, Buckinghamshire was so busy making pancakes that she forgot the time until she heard the church bells ringing.

She raced out of the house to church, still carrying her frying pan and tossing the pancake so as to stop it burning in her hot, probably iron, pan. Today, the rules for the race are strict, and it’s mostly run by women, who must wear an apron and a head scarf, and must toss the pancake at the beginning and end of the race.

This jollification is not so different from the Lenten carnivals held in more extrovert Latin countries…. The word carnival evolves from the Medieval Latin carnelevamen  – “the putting away of flesh”, and this was the last opportunity to put away not just meat, but also the pleasures of the flesh, eating and drinking and celebrating before the hard, hungry, deprived days of Lent.

Easter, marking the end of the forty days of Lent, is, as everyone knows, never the same date every year, but is calculated according to a full moon, and what are called The Golden Numbers which are too complicated for me as a maths  dud, to even try to explain. (I have an antique Anglican prayer book printed in 1745, in which the golden numbers and the dates of Easter, have been worked out up to the year two thousand, which must have seemed like an infinite eternity to the mathematician who calculated these figures).

Then there was a brief opportunity to indulge the pleasures of the flesh on Mothering Sunday, which fell on the third Sunday before Easter. I remember as a girl picking wild daffodils to take to my step-mother on this Sunday, which has now evolved into another wholesale commercial festival with bought flowers, chocolates, and gifts of every description, including taking mum out to tea or lunch.

In the eighteenth century, servant girls were given the day off to visit their mothers, and were usually given some food or clothes by the ‘big house’ to take with them.  But long before then, joyous people had been celebrating Mothering Sunday with a simnel cake, a delicious confection with two layers of marzipan (not your pallid shop-bought stuff, but the real thing, almonds pounded with an egg white… sweet and rich). One layer went inside the cake for the baking, and one layer went on top to be toasted. Yum…

Apart from the Christmas feasting, there’s another delicious foodie ritual for those who observe the rhythms of the Christian calendar, and that’s ‘Stir-up Sunday’. This happens on the last Sunday before Advent, (meaning the coming of Christ) which means it’s five Sundays before Christmas… often the last one in November, but like everything else in the Christian calendar, it varies every year, and so is a moveable feast.

The name comes from a prayer that Christians have been using for over a thousand years, originally in Latin, and translated into Archbishop Cranmer’s beautiful English in 1549. It goes: ‘Stir up’, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”… but for centuries the stirring has also been associated with the making of the Christmas pudding. Stir-up Sunday means mixing all the spices, fruits, suet, sugars, in a big bowl, and everyone takes a turn in stirring the mixture, and usually making a wish. There are religious rituals too, but I’m talking food here.

Some families leave the bowl for a week to ‘mature,’ and also leave a bottle of brandy by the bowl, for passing family members to sling a slug into the pudding, and give it a stir. Eventually the flour and other ingredients are added, and then the whole thing is bundled into basins, wrapped and boiled and stored for Christmas.

We always had a goose for Christmas when I was a child, much more delicious than the turkey which has become fashionable since then. On Boxing Day, my father used to give me a slice of good bread covered in cold goose dripping sprinkled with salt and pepper. Few children today would ever know how utterly delicious this simple pleasure was. I tried to re-create it one Christmas in this country, but when the farmer’s wife told me the goose she had decided some weeks earlier to fatten up to sell to me, knew, and ran off all over the farm to escape her, I never ate goose again!

Which brings us full circle back to Easter, and those chocolate Easter eggs. Most people know Easter eggs have an association with a pagan goddess called Eostre, and the Easter egg custom percolated into Europe from Mesopotamia, and the Greek Orthodox church, but my interest is in chocolate Easter eggs. I discovered that a splendid old Quaker, Joseph Fry, started a chocolate business in 1759, and his sons later invented not only my favourite chocolate – Fry’s Cream in 1866 – but the chocolate Easter egg in 1873, getting on for a hundred and fifty years ago.

Quakers dominated the chocolate industry in England, Cadbury, Rowntree, Terry, Fry, were all owned by Quakers, just as so many banks were, including Barclays and Lloyd’s, and firms like Clarks Shoes and Bryant and May matches. This was because Quakers, as non-conformists, were barred from universities and the professions, but because their word was their bond, they prospered because everyone trusted them.

They became incredibly rich, which bothered them, so their money went into charitable causes, including the first model town Bournville, for Cadbury employees who were given free health and dental care amongst other advantages.

And the reason all these Quakers were in the chocolate business was because they invented chocolate drinks for the poor to drink, instead of beer and alcohol. This meant that the poor had to boil their water, a healthy practice in a time when water was not always pure, and the chocolate flavour was neither addictive nor debilitating, unlike alcohol.

Which is a good and Christian thought, that we all enjoy our chocolate treats because a group of high-principled men tried to find something delicious but not in-ebriating for us all to eat and drink! So yes, let us eat chocolate Easter eggs, even if they don’t cure laryngitis!

Food for threadbare gourmets

I’m still thinking in emergency mode, since our region is officially in a state of civil defence emergency as we endure Cyclone Cook.… and thinking of all the things I can do to improve the taste of tinned or packaged food, if necessary. I have a packet of pumpkin soup which I will jolly up with some chicken bouillon, a knob of butter and a little cream, and either some curry powder to ‘hot’ it up, or nutmeg to spice it.

Tins of tomato soup I jazz up with vegemite or marmite, about half a tea-spoon, plus the butter and cream. A tin of baked beans I’ll ‘improve’ by stirring in tomato puree, a slurp of balsamic vinegar, and some stevia to taste, even a little molasses…and then there’s tins of salmon – well I could write a whole book about ways to use a tin of salmon, but will curb my enthusiasm now, as we batten down our hatches. I’m posting this blog early, while we still have electricity.

 Food for thought 

Learn to wish that everything should come to pass exactly as it does.

Epictetus Ad 50 – 135  Roman Stoic philosopher, whose teaching sustained the late Rear-Admiral James Stockdale throughout his seven years captivity, torture and solitary confinement during the Vietnam War.

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Midsummer Christmas, dawn to dusk

 

100_0758100_0650100_0760100_0624100_0772100_0584100_0767100_0730It would be good to find some quiet inlet where the waters were still enough for reflection. where one might sense the joy of the moment, rather than plan breathlessly for a few dozen mingled treats in the future…
Kathleen Norris

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A peculiar Christmas feast and the 4th Wise Man

100_0742Polar 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 .”

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