Christmas, in recent decades, has become a little stretched out of shape, all of us pulled this way and that by the pressure to buy endless stuff and put on a perfect, sparkling performance of gifting, decorating and entertaining.
At its worst, it descends into a festival of waste, of expense and ephemera, epitomised by panicky supermarket trips, heaps of plastic and fractious tempers.
In our hearts we all want a festive season that’s the opposite of all that, particularly after last year, when we weren’t able to see the friends and family with whom we were hoping to spend Christmas.
For me, the essence of this and every Christmas is best expressed by bringing people together, and giving them just what they need to cast their cares aside and talk, laugh and eat.
Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and his River Cottage colleague of 16 years Lucy Brazier (pictured), share their advice for a stress-free Christmas
Some of this still involves planning and doing and buying — but those activities should always be secondary to the people themselves. A quiet, frosty walk with someone you love, a mince pie and a chat with an old friend, an indoor (or, better still, outdoor) gathering with neighbours to toast the season with a few special snacks laid on — these are the things that will truly comfort and enrich us after a long, busy, stressful year.
If we can frame that with simple gifts and beautiful, natural decorations, then who needs more?
There’s a tendency to hunker down indoors at this time of year. And that is certainly part of the appeal. But a festive bonfire or outdoor Christmas Eve drinks are also invitations to covet and ways to host larger gatherings without a sit-down, three-course lunch for 15.
As Lucy Brazier, my friend and River Cottage colleague of 16 years, points out, we must not forget the natural season within which Christmas sits.
The beauty and seasonal abundance of December is all part of the joy of Christmas, whether you breathe it in on rosy-cheeked winter rambles, bring it inside in the form of fresh greenery, or stock up on Brussels sprouts and vivid orange clementines.
Remember the simple pleasures, she bids us — the satisfaction in sending a homemade card or the joy of bottling up preserves and gifting them to others.
If you enjoy meat, now is the time to indulge, with plump poultry and well-aged beef ready to be relished. If you’re clever about it, a turkey can not only provide a sumptuous Christmas Day ‘turkey au vin’ (see recipe below) but a post-Christmas Day curry without any waste.
Hugh (pictured) said there’s no reason why we can’t have family and friends over to enjoy a fire in the garden at Christmas
I hope this is starting to sound like the sort of Christmas you want to enjoy: one that is simple, natural and joyful, rooted in the season as it turns through the solstice, allowing time to celebrate but also time to talk and to rest.
In these few special weeks, let’s put aside our concerns and come together with those we hold dear, to light the candles, pour a drink and share the good things . . .
GATHER ROUND A COSY FESTIVE BONFIRE
Getting outside at this time of year can mean being wet, muddy and cold. But catch a day when the low winter sun makes the frost sparkle, the air is fresh or the first snowflakes fall and it’s enchanting.
Fresh air at this time of year is good for us, too. Some may need encouragement to hang around outdoors, so give them something as motivation.
The promise of food and drink often does the trick, and an outdoor cook-up, whether in the garden or a winter expedition to a wood or beach, is a brilliant way to catch up with groups of friends without one house bearing the burden of hosting. Bonfires don’t have to be limited to November 5 — there’s no reason why we can’t have family and friends over to enjoy a fire in the garden at Christmas, too. Or spark up the barbecue or a fire bowl.
A one-pot supper you’ve made earlier, such as a stew, curry or soup, can be reheated over the flames. After dark, the most atmospheric time, you can bring your cookout to life with fairy lights, blazing torches and festoons.
Ask guests to come prepared for the weather, with wellies and big coats. It is such a joy to be outside on a cold, clear night, wrapped up around the fire, chatting and waiting for the stars to come out.
Hugh (pictured) said making two dishes from one bird gives you a welcome head start on the big feast
COOK UP A NO-WASTE CROWD-PLEASER
Roasting the perfect turkey is tricky, with breast meat still succulent yet the dark meat properly cooked. And the bigger the bird, the harder it is. Then there’s the giblets and the gravy.
But I’ve found there is an easier way: two dishes from one bird that pleases everyone and gives you a welcome head start on the big feast. Plus, it helps tackle food waste, which can be a particular problem at Christmas time, when there’s a glut of ingredients.
My turkey au vin embraces legs, wings and the neck and gizzard if you like. This leaves the crown (the breast on-the-bone) ready to roast fast and easy on Christmas Day. The all-important gravy is the full-flavoured liquor from the slow-cooked au vin dish.
Just like the classic coq au vin, this is better made the day before and left overnight in the fridge.
Ask your butcher to prepare the turkey for you: you want the legs as drumsticks and thighs, and the wings whole.
SPEEDY ROAST FOR THE BIG DAY
On Christmas Day, fast roast the remaining turkey crown — this takes one hour and 45 minutes based on a 5 kg turkey — allowing perfectly cooked breast meat and golden roast skin to be served with the tender legs in their rich, winey gravy.
On Christmas morning, gently reheat the turkey au vin in the sauce and serve everyone the tender leg and wing meat (on or off the bone), alongside the white carved meat from the crown, with lots of the liquor/gravy/sauce to accompany both.
By getting ahead and cooking the legs the day (or two) before, you have a lot less to stress about on the big day.
If there are fewer people, you can feast on the turkey au vin outdoors on Christmas Eve, or if you prefer to use the legs and wings for a curry, you could cook that in advance and either freeze it and save it for New Year’s Eve or bring that out for your Christmas Eve bonfire.
Hugh’s delicious turkey au vin
Serves 6–8 (based on a 4–5kg turkey)
Saucey tweaks (optional):
Heat the oven to 140c/fan 120c/gas 2. Heat 2 tbsp of the oil in a frying pan, add the bacon and cook, stirring, until it takes on colour. Move to a flameproof casserole dish or saucepan.
Now brown the turkey pieces in the frying pan, turning to colour them evenly. You’ll need to do this in two batches. Transfer the turkey to the casserole dish.
Add a dash more oil to the pan and brown the onions, carrots and celery; add those too. Put the garlic in the frying pan, then pour in the cider brandy to deglaze, scraping up the bits, and carefully add the wine. Pour the hot booze into the turkey pot, adding the herbs and salt and pepper.
Cover and cook in the oven for at least 2 hours until the meat is tender and almost falling from the bone. (Or simmer very gently over a low hob.)
Strain the liquor into a separate pan so you can tweak your ‘gravy’. If you want more depth, add a dash of soy and a splash of coffee, but not so much you can taste them. If you want a touch of sweetness, add redcurrant jelly.
If you are happy with a thin jus, pour it back over the turkey now. If you want it thicker, bring to a gentle simmer and add the roux, a small piece at a time, whisking as you go. It doesn’t take much to thicken the sauce, so go carefully.
When you have sauce perfection, pour it back over the turkey and leave to cool. Keep in the fridge until the Christmas feast.
With the festive food and party mood that’s buzzing around the house over Christmas and New Year, it can be a little more challenging than usual to squeeze in some alcohol-free days and give an overloaded digestion a rest. So that’s when I ask kombucha, a Far Eastern fermented tea brimming with beneficial bacteria, to up its game, by adding it to a number of seasonally oriented and celebratory dry cocktails that your gut will thank you for.
These recipes work best with a tart, homemade green tea kombucha. Or you can use a shop-bought version that is ‘natural’ or subtly aromatised, rather than heavily flavoured with spices.
Chilled Mulled Kombucha
This lightly spiced, tangy kombucha blend is refreshing but still festive — a great ‘dry’ tipple for evenings when you or your guests aren’t drinking.
Bash the ginger with a pestle or rolling pin to release the aroma, then tip it into a heatproof jug or bowl and add the spices. Pour over 500 ml boiling water, add the sugar or honey, stir and leave until completely cold.
Strain out the spices and chill the infusion. Once cold, combine with the chilled kombucha. Serve in tumblers, with a floating star anise, if you like.
Replacing the sparkling wine in a buck’s fizz with effervescent kombucha creates a fruity, booze-free but nicely dry alternative.
Pour the kombucha into a champagne flute, top up with juice and serve straight away.
Easy way to go green: bring the outside in
Here, LUCY BRAZIER, who’s worked with Hugh for 16 years, shares her top festive tips . . .
LUCY’S SPACE-SAVING NATURAL ‘TABLESCAPE’
There isn’t always space on the dining table for all the food, let alone a table arrangement. The solution? Forage for a large broken branch, leave it to dry out in the shed to give insects a chance to relocate and then hang it above the table and decorate with trailing ivy, paper cut-outs and fairy lights.
You will need strong twine to hang the branch, and florist’s wire can be helpful for securing decorations. And beeswax candles on the table in a mix of sizes will cast varied levels of light.
FORAGE WITH FRIENDS TO MAKE A MOSSY WREATH
While out for a winter walk with friends, forage for greenery to make a wreath when you get back. Collect moss, holly, ivy and fir for the base. You’ll also need a 35cm diameter ring — you can buy this or make it yourself from wire, or even weave one using willow branches.
Once home, you’ll also need a hook (or person!) to hold the wreath up during the assembly. Liberally cover both sides of your ring with mossy handfuls, securing it by tightly winding the twine around the moss, and avoid leaving gaps.
Make small bunches of your base greenery, choosing three varieties, and repeat the bunches until you have eight to ten. They should cover the base, without encroaching too much into its middle or over the edge.
Working in a clockwise direction, fasten each bunch to the wreath with wire. They should overlap slightly.
Now poke extra foliage such as bay, rosemary and berries into the wreath, ideally tucking into the existing wire.
Finish off with decorative touches, such as pine cones and seed heads.
LINEN NOT PAPER NAPKINS — AND NO CRACKERS
‘Paper’ napkins are not always recyclable — many actually contain plastic fibres. Linen napkins, which don’t need to match and can be picked up cheaply in charity shops, are better for the planet and so much nicer to use. A piece of ribbon with a name tag around each napkin will make guests feel special.
The foil, glitter and plastic items found in Christmas crackers, unless they are sustainable, will end up in landfill. As an alternative, make an envelope for each guest, including a handwritten joke and a tiny gift such as a packet of seeds, a sweet treat, plus a (homemade) paper hat.
Adapted by RACHEL HALLIWELL from Christmas At River Cottage by Lucy Brazier and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall published by Bloomsbury, £22. © Lucy Brazier and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall 2021. To order a copy for £19.80, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20. Offer price valid until December 25, 2021.
This content was originally published here.