The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: top tipples

    Stocking the drinks cabinet is a chore we must all undertake at this time of the year, whatever your personal preference, relatives and friends’ preferences must also be taken into account and that bottle of Creme de Menthe hidden at the back of the under-sink cupboard surely cannot last another year.

Interestingly, some of the drinks, traditionally more associated with Grand – ma thanIMG_4234 grand night out are making a bit of a come back – sherry anyone? Sherry and Mince Pies were once the height of sophistication and today we have such a wonderful choice that all palettes can be catered for. From the dry Manzanillas to the syrupy deliciousness of Pedro Jimenez, the world of Sherry is as diverse as any fortified wine. A dry, crisp Fino served with salted Marcona almonds is the stuff of dreams and even Bristol Cream has its place.  Port is also ‘on trend’ this year, there are ruby, tawny, white and rosé varieties and even some of the budget supermarkets are peddling out some pretty decent offerings in this department including vintage examples.

Gin is still ‘in’ and flavoured Gins are everywhere – I am a little suspicious of some of these brands – a ‘flavoured’ gin where the flavour is added after distillation is a IMG_4368completely different entity to those gins infused with unusual ingredients within the distillation process. Rose and Violet gins, distilled with real petal infusions are heavenly, Parma violet ‘flavoured’, not quite so delightful. The Negroni, last summer’s ‘it’ cocktail will still be on many menus, as will the more conventional choices.

Baileys is only bought at Christmas in this household, and the first bottle is usually gone within the first week – the uncool classification is lifted unanimously at this time of year, there is no disgrace in indulging – I suppose it’s the British equivalent of Egg Nog, and yes, I do know that it hails from Ireland. My local version of Baileys, Penderyn’s (Welsh Whiskey) Merlyn cream liqueur  is equally as delicious, and ultimately, probably offers a good deal more street cred.

A bottle of Madeira for gravy, a bottle of Southern Comfort for my Christmas Day trifle IMG_4170(recipe to follow), a bottle each of gin and vodka, two bottles of whisky; a decent single malt and one for ‘medicinal’ purposes, and a bottle of two of spontaneous purchases, these are often by Chase, in our household, and are usually added to Champagne to serve with canapés before lunch – the elderflower is particularly exquisite. Finally, a little bottle of vibrant Chambord  black raspberry liqueur makes the list, which is particularly excellent stirred into a fresh raspberry sauce for duck.


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: the fruity side of Christmas.

IMG_6657Proudly displayed on my wall, above my desk, is a bill of sale dated November 3rd 1845. It relates to the sale of fruit, preserves and pickles and is signed by my great-great-great Grandfather, who, along with his wife were the proprietors of a ‘Foreign and British, fruit, oil, Italian and fish sauce warehouse’ in the elegant York Buildings in Bath. The gently sloping hand tells a tale of rare delights – hot house grapes, imported Oranges, Battle Pickles and bitter almonds…all of which apparently cost a small fortune – 5 shillings being spent on hot house grapes in one transaction (at a time when the average weekly wage for a woman was exactly 5 shillings). These were luxury items which were bought to impress guests, indulge the culinary senses and demonstrate a ‘knowledge of the world’ and it made my family’s fortune.

Today, our Festive cupboards, fruit bowls and fridges are filled with items not too far removed from these – although perhaps, nowadays, Battle Pickles have been replaced by Branston Pickle. I still enjoy oranges at Christmas, my childhood love of satsumas is something I’ve mentioned here before – the bowls filled with the easily peeled fruit which I was told were ‘better for me’ than sweets, the way I peeled them in one and the memory of the sweet citrusy juice. Although hothouses are no longer common in the UK, our imported grapes aren’t too bad at this time of year and although I would consider myself a seasonal eater, mostly enjoying local produce, Christmas is a time to branch out a little and treat myself to some imports. This year I will be buying Sable Grapes, perfect with a good cheese board; Medjool Dates, a million miles away from those horribly sweet sticky boxes which came with plastic twig-style poker, and of course, lots of citrus fruits. Cranberries have IMG_5326always fascinated me, I love watching videos of the cranberry harvests in America, the flooded fields – there are so many ideas for them besides the usual relish and ‘with Brie’ panini options – people often forget that they are a fruit, and can be used in puddings, ice-creams and baking. I also like adding cranberries to my stuffing and I’ll be including recipes for ‘all the trimmings’ closer to Christmas. Pears are also are firm favourite – poached pears with a rich chocolate sauce makes a delicious, and simple dinner party pudding, whilst served with Gorgonzola or a good, sharp British Blue cheese, like a Stickleton, it pulls both to an entirely new level, try a drizzle of honey and a handful of wallet on the side too – exceptional!


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Variations on the Mince Pie

Every year, I do my utmost to avoid Mince Pies until, at least, the second week of December.  The description ‘warm mince pie’ always sounds far better than the factory produced supermarket offerings which frequent gatherings, events and parties at Christmas.

I believe that making your own is simple, far more satisfying and, it will certainly impress guests. Taking a pretty box tied up with ribbon to a friend’s house always proves successful. Which brings me onto the subject of making time for baking. Christmas is one of the socially busiest times of the year, and there are hundreds of recipes out there for homemade pasties, tried and tested – however I’m going to suggest using shop bought pastry – it’s time saving and perfectly good. The ideas below are based on shop-bought shortcrust, puff and filo – all include little upgrades to insure a perfect pie anytime. Mincemeat is something else which can be made at home, but it needs maturing, and unless you’ve made a batch in the summer (which I always forget to do) you come a little unstuck at Christmas. I often buy a really good quality ready made mincemeat and add to it, a couple of ‘twists’ here and there and you’re good to go. I have put together four very simple, but effective ideas – ensuring that the house will be filled with delicious Christmas scents, and you’ll still have time for that last minute shopping!

Fruity Mince Meat Crackers

Using Filo Pastry makes a crisp, lighter pie. I mix a jar of mincemeat with some chopped pear and chopped apple, this firms the mincemeat up nicely and provides more substance per bite. Take six slices of filo pastry, brush each piece with melted butted and layer three together, repeat with the next three slices, then cut in four rectangles (making 8). Place a spoon of mincemeat horizontally across each one (allowing a couple of centimetres clear either end), then roll into a sausage shape. Pinch in the ends to make little cracker shapes. Brush with melted butter.  Bake until golden brown (on a non-stick baking sheet) and serve with a good sprinkle of icing sugar mixed with a little cinnamon.

Marzipan and Mincemeat Swirls

Take one ready rolled sheet of puff pastry (or shortcrust) and unroll onto a floured board. Spread 1 400g jar of good mincemeat over the pastry. Grate 80g of marzipan onto the mincemeat. Roll the pastry horizontally until you have a ‘Swiss roll’ then pop into the freezer until well chilled – it will keep very well in the freezer until needed – simply take out and slice into disks of 1cm, place on a greased, non-stick baking sheet, brush on some beaten egg yolk, then scatter with silvered almonds and a little shake of  icing sugar. Bake at 180 degrees c until golden brown and serve warm

Pimped Up Pies

I’ve taken a little Italian inspiration for my Pimped Up Pies. One of my bugbears, when it comes to Mince Pies is avoiding a ‘soggy bottom’ – I have tried several methods to help prevent this, this is one of the most successful. Line a patty tin with ready rolled shortcrust pastry. Scatter 1/2 tsp of polenta into each pie then follow with 1/2 tsp of ground almonds, this forms a ‘pillow’ for the mincemeat. Mix one 400g jar of mincemeat with 1 tablespoon of Limoncello, add three of four chopped dates, and finally, the zest of one medium lemon. Fill the pies and top with pastry lids brushed with beaten egg,  bake until golden brown and served scattered with icing sugar and grated lemon zest.

Little Bakers Pies

Making Mince Pies with children is one of the family friendly aspects of the festive season which makes memories – we all remember helping our parents or grandparents in the kitchen; very clean hands, far-too-big apron. So why not get out the pastry cutters and top your pies with festive cut-outs, they can be decorated afterwards with silver balls, coloured icing or other treats. All you need to do is line a patty tin with pastry, put in a little mincemeat and let the little ones create. These also make great presents for family members too!


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Down Memory Lane

Growing up in the 1980s there were so many things which ‘made’ Christmas. One of the main questions being, were your family ‘Team Quality Street’ or ‘Team Roses’? My parents were firmly ‘Team Roses’, whilst my paternal Grandmother was ‘Team Quality Street’.Of course, this was in the day when a tin of chocolates was really made of tin and extremely generously filled with all the family favourites – however, the Strawberry creams were always left until well after the new year though, and often consigned to the bin as they were far too sweet.

I always enjoyed visiting my paternal Grandparents in the run up to Christmas; the left hand cupboard in the G-Plan sideboard would be slowly filling up – there would All Gold, Black Magic, Mint Matchmakers, Chocolate Orange, Chocolate Brazil Nuts, After Eights (with their own silver plated ‘trolley’), a tin of Quality Street and some York Fruits, always the gift of choice between my paternal Grandmother (Nan) and maternal Grandfather, who was rather challenged in the tooth department – I don’t think anybody ever actually liked York Fruits – finally there were those little lemon and orange slices, covered in sugar, in a little round box.

My Nan’s Christmas Cake was generously enrobed with almost rock hard ‘snow’ icing, topped with a 1950s plastic Christmas tree, a gold plastic ‘Season’s Greetings’ sign, and a pink crepe paper ruff adorning its middle. There would be a Bird’s Trifle with multi coloured sprinkles and homemade Chocolate Eclairs, the tins for which, I still have in my kitchen cupboard.

My maternal Grandparents, who lived in a tiny Victorian cottage near Newport, then in Gwent, celebrated Christmas in a far more relaxed way. Grandma would make cakes and plenty of mince pies, they would roast a chicken and enjoy the TV – there were no Christmas Trees or decorations save for one or two made at school by myself. Christmas was kept quietly, a few treats would be bought but Grandma was, as is still at 107, very thrifty.

Today, with so much choice all the year round, we have perhaps lost the magic of those days, the annual traditions which signified the opening of the season – although even now I wait in anticipation for the first satsumas to arrive, I still buy the bag of mixed nuts – although the carved wooden bowl which would sit with the nutcracker on the nested G-Plan tables in my Nan’s front room is long gone – I am still partial to a Bendicks or Elizabeth Shaw mint, although my tastes have naturally diversified, and a selection box (always one of my presents from my Gran) still appears in my son’s stocking.

I think, at Christmas, we do try to cling on to nostalgia and tradition a little more, especially as we get older – even though things probably weren’t better in the ‘olden days’, it’s still a comfort, to us, to believe they were!


The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: The eternal quest for the best Hot Chocolate!

One of the annual traditions in our household is putting up the Christmas decorations on the first weekend in December – this is accompanied by lots of steaming hot chocolate and, of course, homemade gingerbread biscuits.

I fully admit that I am a bit of a Hot Chocolate perfectionist. So often, when I order the ‘Special Hot Chocolate’ on a menu I find myself disappointed – it’s always either not hot enough, not thick enough, not creamy enough or the worst crime, just not chocolaty enough!

This has led to a multitude of experiments at home, trying everything from Spanish recipes, to cocoa powder based recipes with cream and even butter, custard based recipes and, of course, all the brands available at both the supermarkets and delis.

I finally concluded that Jersey milk and real chocolate makes the best and simplest Hot Chocolate – perhaps with the addition of a glug of Baileys or rum for the grown-ups, and there are no end of small additions to make my basic Hot Chocolate extremely festive and child friendly. Winter without Hot Chocolate is like Christmas without Santa, and when the colder weather comes, there’s nothing more satisfying than making a real ritual out of its preparation.

Recipe:

Per Person:

50g of good chocolate (dark or milk or even white)

150ml jersey milk

I make mine in a Pyrex bowl over a pan of simmering water, combing the ingredients with a small whisk, never allowing the bowl to come into contact with the water. This creates the most indulgent drink, patience is the key here, slow and steady wins the chocolate race.

This is a very rich drink so serve in small cups with your choice from the following toppings and additions:

Family Friendly

Whipped cream and grated chocolate

A couple of drops of peppermint extract, whipped cream and a little crushed stripy candy cane

1/4 tsp cinnamon per serving

1/4 tsp ginger per serving

A couple of drops almond extract, cream and toasted almonds

Whipped cream and crushed smarties

marshmallows, drizzled with warm chocolate sauce

Whipped cream and drizzle of warmed salted caramel sauce

Vanilla extract and a grating of nutmeg

Adults Only

A tablespoon of your choice of liqueur per serving, some of my favourites include:

Tia Maria, whipped cream and crushed coffee beans is delicious

Cointreau, cream and grated Terry’s Chocolate Orange

Baileys, whipped cream and chocolate flake

Whisky and a sprinkle of ginger

Amaretto, cream and crushed Amaretti biscuits


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!