The Pheasant Philsopher’s Christmas Diaries: Party Punch and Mulling

No Victorian Christmas party was complete without a gleaming punch bowl full of inhibition-removing deliciousness. In richer households, these bowls would be silver or silver gilt, with matching chased cups and ladle, in middle class houses cut glass or crystal was offered, whilst lower down the social pecking order china, wood or pewter was most often used.

The tradition of Punches, although at their height during the 18th and 19th centuries, could well have emerged from an even earlier tradition, one of which dates back to Saxon times, and perhaps earlier; the Wassail cup. This was a communal vessel, passed around a party to the shouts of ‘wes þú hál’ old English for ‘good health’ or ‘be healthy’ and was often brought out during Yule or Christmastide, filled with warm spiced ale, mead or more usually cider, it was also drunk to bless the orchards and ensure a successful harvest.

Mulled Wine also has much older roots too, Roman and medieval Europe offered wine sweetened with honey and spices known by the name ‘Hippocras’ which was often served warmed in the colder months – the spices were placed in a conical strainer and steeped in the wine – the name derived from famed Greek physician Hippocrates who is said to have invented the strainer to filter water.

Mulled Wine

serves 6

1 bottle good red wine

50ml brandy

2 cinnamon sticks

40g root ginger, peeled and sliced

6 cloves

40g brown sugar

1 orange sliced

1 cardamom, crushed

Gently warm all the ingredients together in a heavy pan – careful not to boil!

Wassail (Cider Cup)

Serves 6

1 litre still cider (or scrumpy if you’re brave enough!)

50ml Apple brandy (calvados)

50g honey (depending on personal taste and type of cider used)

1/4 tsp grated nutmeg

1 cinnamon stick

15g root ginger peeled and grated

2 star anise

2 dessert apples, sliced

Mull the ingredients together over a low heat to allow the flavours to infuse and serve with a cinnamon stick

An 18th century Fruit Punch Recipe

Peel six lemons and, using a pestle and mortar or strong bowl and the end of a rolling pin muddle in 375g white sugar and leave to sit for a couple of hours.

Juice the peeled lemons and set the juice aside

Pour 500ml of dark rum into a jug or bowl, add 250ml of brandy and 1.5 litres of water. Add the lemon juice, sugar and lemon, then leave for a further two hours before straining and serving with lots of ice


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Easy Entertaining.

I am extremely proud of my Welsh heritage and although there aren’t many exclusively ‘Welsh’ traditions, we do have some excellent recipes to satisfy the hungriest of guests over the Christmas period.

Feeding a party is quite a challenge, but sometimes, especially in the colder weather it’s nice to offer guests something a little more substantial that the usual mince pie and canapés. In fact, cooking a large pot of something delicious is far easier, creating less stress and allowing more integrated time with your guests.

Entertaining at Christmas shouldn’t be stressful. Make sure you have a really good cheeseboard, lots of decent bread and a generously filled pot of casserole, soup or stew. Obviously, mulled wine is essential, as is mulled cider, but a great casserole filled with slow cooked beef, game or a really good Cawl, the hearty Welsh lamb and barley stew which is served traditionally with Caws (cheese) and Bara (bread), is sure to satisfy the pickiest of guests. The beauty of many of these dishes is the simple fact that they look after themselves, require the cheapest cuts and are full of the most delicious flavours.

Beef Stew with suet dumplings, the Gascon favourite Poule au Pot or even a hearty vegan lentil and brassica stew – these are perfect for the cooler weather – they freeze well and hold well, allowing guests to dip in, at will over the course of the evening.

Entertaining shouldn’t be complicated, the company, candles and generously poured wine is the true focus of the evening. Sometimes the simplest foods prove the best, after all, we are heading for the most indulgent period in the culinary calendar so why not tuck into some family favourites – these comfort foods can be eaten without excuses – the diet doesn’t start until January, remember!


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Stories of Stilton

There are certain things that I order every Christmas, which admittedly, are rather indulgent; whole cheeses, specialist drinks, charcuterie and chocolate. These are the items which make the Christmas period extra special, impresses guests and, in their own way creates family traditions – without exception I always seek out a really good Stilton, but I opt for a whole ‘baby’ cheese, even I would be pushed to consume a whole standard Stilton!

Christmas and Stilton go hand in hand, served with Port after pudding, the salty voluptuousness of this very British cheese compliments the sweet port admirably. Stilton is one of the few cheeses in the UK awarded  PDO (protected designation of origin) status and has it’s own protected logo. It can only be made in Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire although its true origins are a little more sketchy . The village of Stilton, which is now in Cambridgeshire, and where the name originated in the 18th century, is not within the PDO boundaries, therefore no cheese made there can be sold as Stilton. Believed to have originated in the early 18th century, Stilton is synonymous with the famous Bell Inn, which, in the 1720s allegedly produced the best cheese in the town. This was most likely the work of early entrepreneur and hotelier Cooper Thornhill who ‘discovered’ the cheese in Melton Mowbray and negotiated exclusive re-sale rights. His hotel, situated on the Great North Road proved an excellent location from which to deal in Stilton and its fame spread.

IMG_6600Stilton should be left to breathe before serving, and, although today we scoop the gently rippled, blue cheese from within its rind, before spreading it on crackers, oatcakes or crusty bread, originally it was served in a rather more unusual fashion. Daniel Defoe, wrote in 1724, that he passed through Stilton, a town famous for a cheese which is known as English Parmesan. The cheese was brought to the table with mites or maggots surrounding it, so thick as to require a spoon to consume – these were eaten alongside the cheese -so next time you and your friends consider why Stilton is spooned, you may want to share that rather ‘interesting’ nugget of culinary history.

So what makes a true Stilton cheese? Stilton is made from local pasteurised milk and is an un-pressed cheese, the distinctive blue veining comes from the insertion of steel rods during the maturing process, which allows the air to get into the cheese and react with the cultures. It must have the flavour profile of Stilton and hold a fat content of approximately 35 %. It is ripened for 9-12 weeks and must conform to the traditional conical shape. Celebrated in poetry and song, the Stilton will long be a part of our Christmas table. Delicious with pears or melted into cream for a British take on Fondue, Stilton is a versatile cheese which, quite rightfully, has its place at the centre of the Great British Cheeseboard – although, a word of warning, Stilton is said to cause bad dreams if eaten too soon before sleep – and pouring port into the recess left after scooping the cheese out is considered very uncouth indeed!


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Day 2, The Butcher’s Order

Today I’m turning my attention to planning my Christmas butchery order. Last year I chose one of Holt-Wilson’s Monmouthshire Turkeys and I was extremely impressed with the bird – it served far more mouths (with leftovers) than recommended, and was firm and img_1976flavoursome – not gamey, but rich and a real treat! I do feel that we so often over estimate the amount of turkey needed – after canapés, starters, fish courses etc you should really be looking at no more than 80g or so per person for the main course, and of course there’s only so many ways one can prepare leftovers.

img_1984Every year I also order a large gammon for Boxing Day, ideally rare breed and most certainly British, as is my bacon and my sausages. I prepare my stuffing separately, the sausage meat cooked with cranberries and orange, whilst the sage and onion goes into the Turkey neck. My sister, who always joins us for Christmas, doesn’t eat pork so a vegetarian stuffing is preferred, I usually add pears to the sage and onion, and roast a few to serve as a cranberry sauce alternative.

My Boxing Day gammon is studded with cloves and sliced clementines and glazed with a little maple syrup and eats well with hot with creamy mashed potato or cold in doorstop sandwiches with plenty of peppery mustard.

img_1983Another tradition in our household is the preparing of Duck Rillettes, this recipe comes from Gascony, where we spend the summer at our holiday home, and is great for those who find liver pâtés a little squeamish. I serve it with a good chutney on crisp toasts and it always goes down a treat – and there’s lots left over for cold plates. I will be sharing my recipe for Rillettes a little later December, and I also have a bit of cheaty method, for those who are really short of time.

One of the simple pleasures of Christmas Eve is queueing at the butchers, knowing that your order is taken care of, and enjoying the friendly banter and festive atmosphere and here in Monmouthshire we are spoilt for choice!

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The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Stir Up Sunday

Originating in the early 18th century, Stir Up Sunday is the day traditionally designated to undertake the making of the Christmas Pudding.

Always kept on the last Sunday before Advent, it is said that Stir Up Sunday originated from a passage in a sermon in ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ translated from the Roman Catholic ‘Excita Quarsumus’ and read on the last Sunday in November.

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”

However, whilst I consider myself spiritual, but not tied to one particular religion, I see it as a day to have fun with the family, make wishes whilst stirring, and generally set the scene for the beginning of the Christmas festivities. It also allows at least 4 weeks for the Pudding to mature in a dark cupboard before being brought flaming to the table on Christmas Day.

Traditionally made with 13 ingredients to represent the 12 apostles and Jesus, my Christmas Pudding recipe is adapted from the doyenne of English cookery Eliza Acton, whose recipe was first published in the 1840s. Under the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), with Prince Albert’s Germanic influences, Christmas became the spectacle it it today, with so many of our Christmas traditions filtering down from this, most famous of couples.

Although the roots of Christmas Pudding’s are deep set in The Middle Ages – where meat and fruit was combined with spices in many recipes – the sweet, sticky, boozy concoction we know and love today is very much a product of post-reformation Britain.

Packed full of moist vine fruits, suet, mixed peel, spices and, of course, booze – it is synonymous with Christmas Lunch and, love it or hate it, no Christmas meal is complete without it. Traditionally, every member of the household takes a turn to stir the pudding and make a wish. My Great Grandmother would take her industrial sized Christmas Pudding to the local brewery to be steamed in the great vessels used for brewing and my grandmother, who is now almost 108 still enjoys taking a turn stirring the pudding and making her wish.

Historically, a selection of silver tokens are stirred into the mix – most often a sixpence (silver is by nature anti-bacterial so no poisoning worries there, although it does make for somewhat of a choking hazard) and the finder of this would “enjoy wealth and good luck in the year to come”.

Christmas Pudding

Serves 6-8

75g plain flour (or gluten free)

75g breadcrumbs (I like to use wholemeal)

175g suet (beef or vegetable)

175g chopped figs

175g sultanas

50g diced mixed peel

1 large apple, grated

1 large orange, zest grated and juiced

150g dark brown sugar

1.5 tsp mixed spice

1/2 tsp sea salt

100ml Armagnac (or any spirit you prefer)

3 eggs lightly beaten

Method

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl, making sure that every member of the household gets to stir and make their wish!

Pour into a greased pudding bowl – I use a 21 cm Pyrex bowl – cover with a dampened new tea towel or muslin then tie securely with string.

Place on a trivet in a large lidded pan and pour water 3/4 of the way up the side

Bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 4 hours, topping up the water when necessary

Cool and store in a cool, dark and dry place – I keep my pudding in the bowl, in a large tin – you can ‘feed’ it with spirits but if you are planning on bringing it, flaming, to the table too much additional alcohol can prove dangerous.

On Christmas Day, repeat the steaming procedure for 1 and 1/2 hours then serve with your choice of Brandy Butter, Custard, Cream or Vanilla Sauce – not forgetting the obligatory sprig of decorative Holly!


An Advent-aegous Purchase

 

In just over two weeks we’ll all be opening that first, exciting door on the advent calendar and this year there are dozens of options to choose from. Not just for children, in recent years advent calendars have exploded in a plethora of extremely grown-up delights. From affordable luxury to extreme indulgence, these will surely satisfy all the adults in the family.

Here is just a small selection of my favourites.

Pukka Tea Christmas Calendar 

What’s more relaxing than sitting down on front of a cosy log fire sipping a delicious herbal tea? The Pukka Tea calendar offers a variety of flavours to suit all aspects of the festive season. An affordable treat at £9.99

Hotel Chocolat Grand Advent Calendar 

Who doesn’t indulge in a bit of naughtiness over the Christmas holidays? This calendar is jam-packed with Hotel Chocolat’s  excellent and innovative products, from truffles to cocoa gin – it’s got something for everyone and at £68 proves rather good value.

Master of Malt: Whisky Calendar

For the Whisky lover, the Master of Malt calendar offers 24 delicious tipples to get you through the cold winter nights and put a little fire in your belly, at £149.95 it is rather more indulgent but Christmas comes but once a year!

The Spicery Curry Legend Advent Calendar

Curry, every day until Christmas? Yes…24 curry recipes hide behind these quirky little doors and the calendar comes with four spice blends, all of which combine to create delicious flavours proving that curry doesn’t have to be confined to boxing day – an economical buy at £29

Honest Brew Craft Beer Advent Calendar 

Well, if you’ve selected the curry calendar, here’s the perfect complimentary choice. A plethora of craft beer from around the globe. I can personally recommend this one, there  really are beers for all occasions and at £139, it’s not too bank breaking either.

Joe and Seph’s Popcorn Advent Calendar 

Popcorn, a movie every night? 24 bags of yummy popcorn make this a perfect gift for the film buff in the family. With flavours ranging from Banoffee Pie to Toffee Apple and Cinnamon, through White Chocolate and Strawberry, this sweet treat is available for just £25

Fever-Tree Ultimate G & T Advent Calendar 

G and T, and T done well is Fever-Tree. With 12 gins and 12 mixers, this calendar is perfect for the gin lover of the family. Offering a selection of the better known British gins, this retails at £60 and will really get you into the festive ‘spirit’

Fortum and Mason Rare Tea Wooden Advent Calendar

The beautiful offering from Fortum and Mason comprises 24 elegant round pots filled with exotic and rare tea. At £145 it is certainly aimed at the luxury market, however the wooden calendar offers a wonderfully nostalgic twist and can be re-used for years to come.

The Snaffling Pig, Pork Crackling Advent Calendar 

For the low carb fanatic, the Pork Crackling advent calendar from The Snaffling Pig costs £17.50 and offers 24 packets Great Taste winning crackling . This A3 offering will surely impress the snacker in the family and combined with the G and T or Craft Beer calendars, it’ll certainly satisfy that ‘nibbley’ itch.

 

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The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries

Christmas really does seem to start earlier and earlier every year, even more so for food writers. This year I’d like to share with you how I personally prepare for the festive season. Starting on Stir Up Sunday, the day traditionally set aside for preparing the Christmas Pudding,  I’ll be offering recipes, tips and ideas relating to all things festive – from Christmas celebrations in other countries to homemade gifts, decorations and easy entertaining ideas as well as a minute by minute guide to Christmas Day itself.

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I believe that Christmas should be a relaxed affair, a time to spend with friends and family, not constantly in the kitchen – a time for mindful thoughts and seasonal rituals. I’ll be catering for 16 on Christmas Day and it doesn’t phase me one bit, I have a stack of foolproof, simple recipes to turn to,  and by preparing ahead of time, and planning carefully, I know that I can enjoy the big day whilst making time for me, and leaving all the stress behind.

So please, do join me from the 25th November for a daily dose of seasonality.