Playing with my food

I seem to recall, from the long lost days of my (chronological) childhood, that this was considered a terrible crime.  I don’t recall precisely why, though I feel it may have been part of a Manichean attempt to partition the world into things that were, and were not, suitable objects of play (in its transitive verb form).

After the passage of many years and my transition into (notional) adulthood (and actual antiquity), I have come to realise that despite my parents exhortations I am still playing with my food.  The nature of my play may have changed but I am still very clearly playing.

GofaDM has previously described the transmutation of the Fish Supper into the Frankenlunch: though, in many ways, this relates to the before-times when I wanted to leave my evenings free to go to gigs and other cultural delights with other people.  For the moment, my evenings are all too free and my culture largely delivered through a screen – but I have hopes that the days of face-to-face culture will return again before I become too decrepit to enjoy them.

While they lasted, the Frankenlunches provided the excuse to play with all manner of new recipe ideas with the pretext of providing others with a somewhat more elaborate meal than is either my, or their, typical fare.  As the host (and/or a terrible show-off: you decide), I also felt the need to provide some sort of entertainment as I was cooking and this was most easily accomplished as part of the cooking process itself.  Part of this ‘entertainment’ was an extension of my normal habit of commentating on my life but I did extend it to incorporate the live creation of fresh pasta via the mangle-like mechanism of my Imperia machine.

However, in our current world of short attention spans, a mere pasta machine was never going to be able to continue to command attention when an audience can so easily click-away to more compelling content.  It was thinking in this vein that I used to justify to myself the purchase of a new toy – a cook’s blowtorch – to up-the-ante for the second (in the official numbering) Frankenlunch. This was used in the making of crème brûlée, which could be made perfectly satisfactorily, if more slowly and less theatrically, using a grill – but where’s the fun and danger in that?  Being in possession of a blow torch, I try to get as much use from it as possible and now use it in lieu of matches when in need of a flame.

For Frankenlunch #3, I further increased the risk by actually setting fire to a banana (and the caramel sauce in which it was reclining) using rum and another new toy: a short wand that produces a flame at its tip.  This purchase was predicated on a health-and-safety brief as, with my new toy, my body would be slightly further away from the fire and so at reduced risk of being flambéd along with the banana.  In this it was a success, though I would have to admit that a couple of tablespoons of rum (even doubled or re-doubled) is unlikely to create the sort of conflagration that the more alarmist flambé recipes I read seemed to anticipate and was never likely to need the bucket of wet sand some advocated.

At this stage, lockdown began and it seemed that the Frankenlunch would have to be abandoned until it was permitted (and safe) for 4 or more people to gather around a small dining table to enjoy good food, copious alcohol and silly conversation.  However, people seemed unexpectedly keen to continue holding Frankenlunches on a distributed basis and so was born the Quaranstein.

For a Quaranstein, I prepare a menu of four courses that can be prepared using minimal exotic kitchen gadgetry (and in this context, a whisk has, so far, been considered exotic) and with ingedients that seem to be readily available in our depleted supermarkets.  The menu is circulated in advance to allow everyone to acquire the necessary elements of the meal and work out any necessary substitutions (for the avoidance of doubt, wine gums make a poor substitute for most ingredients).   On show day, we cook each course at the same time – using Zoom – with me providing some sort of leadership as a nominal ‘head chef’ (or at least somewhere for any excess of buck to come to rest): though generally with less swearing and throwing of things than that might suggest.  Having cooked each course, we can then eat together again using the power of video conferencing.  At the most recent Quaranstein, I included a wide-angle view of most of my flat to provide some context to my fellow chef-diners and the sight of a man sitting down alone to eat a meal with only a laptop for company is rather a haunting and, frankly, depressing one: and so, naturally generated much hilarity.

At the first Quaranstein, I took my role as the Keith Floyd de nos jour a little too seriously and become a little tipsy by course four (I wish to stress that I could still lie on the floor without holding on).  This did lead to a rather unfortunate loss of control of the multiple cameras I was Zooming to provide decent coverage of the process.  Different versions of me ended up tesseracted across time with each camera showing me at a different stage in my past (or future, depending on which was the ‘real’ me).  This took a while to resolve as I largely failed to work out which PC was currently hosting and could be used to restore a semblance of control: eventually, I had to change T-shirt so I could work out which was the ‘current’ me.  For the second Quaranstein, I was more careful to manage my ‘glugging’ and went for a simpler AV set-up which seemed to work rather better.

To my surprise, the Quaransteins have worked rather well with all participants managing to sit down to eat each course at roughly the same time, and each remotely produced course has come out pretty consistently (and not as a series of variations on amorphous forms of carbon).  This is despite me encouraging flambéing at the first Quaranstein and the use of blowtorches at the second: I’m not at all sure I have the public liability insurance necessary to cover this level risk.  Lucikly, injuries have only been minor: so far…

I find Quaransteins more stressful than Frankenlunches: so many more variables and so much less control are added to the widely held expectation that I have the faintest idea what I’m doing (rather than winging it as usual).  Nonetheless, they still very much count as me playing with my (and now other people’s) food and have been oddly rewarding.  Quaransteiners (myself included) have started adding courses ‘discovered’ during one of the lunches to their standard repertoire of meals…

It will soon be time to start planning for the June Quaranstein: how can I add some entirely spurious risk – perhaps an explosion – to at least one dessert?  Can I think of a starter that does not use halloumi?  Only time (or possibly a rare non-COVID related news headline) will tell…

Cook’s tour

As a child my interest in cooking was rather limited.  I was aware that it took place in order for food to appear on the table in front of me at regular intervals.  I also knew that for certain processes, hanging around the kitchen could enable pre-meal scraps to be scrounged from the process: the licking of spoons and the like.  I was always especially fond of the delicious ‘scum’ that formed on the top of the jam: oddly, no-one has ever seen fit to market this as a product and I haven’t made jam in nearly 30 years…

It was when I left home to go to university that I came to realise that food did not just arrive by magic.  I also discovered that the pre-made food available from the supermarkets of the mid 1980s was terrible.  As a result, I had to learn to cook in a hurry – and using very basic equipment.  Initially, I had little more than a mini-oven/grill but could still create moderately interesting food.  I remember somehow making omelette Arnold Bennett: though I seem to recall using tinned tuna rather than smoked haddock (I don’t think haddock had learned to smoke in those far off days: they are probably vaping now…).

In my second year at university, I had access to a single ring and a slow cooker.  This significantly expanded the scope of my culinary creations.  I can clearly remember making orange and lemon flavoured sponge cakes in the slow cooker: they had a slightly different texture than a more traditionally baked cake, but were moist and very tasty.  From my third year, I had access to a full kitchen and I have retained that access ever since.

I will admit that I am a lazy cook, I usually want to eat NOW and don’t like getting my hands dirty if at all possible.  This means I am generally reluctant to make dishes that have very long lists of ingredients or long preparation times, especially those that need to rest, soak or chill for extended periods.  There are also some processes that can be used in cooking with which I would feel less than confident, especially those that require fine motor control given that my hands and general mobility are somewhat agricultural in nature.  I also have very out-of-date (i.e. mid-80s student) views about the cost of ingredients which surface in unexpected places, e.g. I would usually think twice about the bootless extravagance of any recipe needing more than two eggs and view tinned cherry pie-filling as a luxury product.  However, I will spend ridiculous amounts of money on ingredients that did not form part of my student diet as they are unaffected by my internal auditor: I am nothing if not maddeningly (to me at least) inconsistent.

From my university days, I have generally cooked at least one meal per day from basic ingredients – and, more recently, often two such meals.  Pretty early in my adult life, I discovered the joy of cooking for others.  For a start, it somehow gives me licence to attempt more exotic, complicated or just plain expensive recipes than I would feel were suitable for satisfying my own quotidian hunger.  Guests also approach the food I’ve wrought afresh and without the long backstory that accompanied planning the menu, buying the ingredients and then preparing and cooking them: I can then share in their reaction.

In recent years, my cooking for others has become more infrequent: partly, because I am usually out every evening doing something cultural.  It had fallen to one major Fish Supper every other year on New Year’s Eve: as has been documented before in GofaDM, I am the Fish and actual fish may, or may not, make an appearance within the meal (knife-related accidents can cause actual Fish to appear in the meal, but I seek to avoid this).  My time on Lundy (see The Lundiary for more details) along with my recent sharing of a range of Frankenfoods with friends (and their largely positive reactions thereto) reminded me of how much I missed cooking for others.  So, in late November, I resolved up my game and the frequency with which I cook for friends.

From Christmas to mid January, evening cultural events can be rather thin on the ground and so I decided I could squeeze in a Fish Supper at the end of December.  I seem to recall that this had 7 or 8 courses: which is not unusual, though I don’t recall precisely when the Fish Supper was subject to course-inflation from its initial format of starter, main and choice of two puddings.  For one of these courses, I made fresh pasta (broadly tagliatelle) which I did live at the dining table: largely for reasons of practicality, as it is the best (or only) location where I can mount my pasta machine.  I had made fresh pasta once before, about 18 months previously, and I’ll admit the live process did not go entirely smoothly.  In the fullness of time, beautiful fresh tagliatelle did emerge from the machine but prior to this, the cook was suffused by a degree of panic – which I believe improved the floor show for the audience.

Having tidied up the debris from this meal, mostly a matter of loading and emptying the dishwasher, I found myself enjoying the relatively spacious feel of the flat.  Prior to the arrival of guests, I’d had a decent tidy-up and the results of my efforts continued to pay off into the early days of 2020.  Liking this feeling and having few other excuses – beyond basic self-interest and the dregs of my self-respect – to keep the place tidy, I resolved to have guests over for a meal once per month in 2020.  Given that I don’t want to interfere with my hectic cultural calendar, it was time for the Fish Supper to make way for the Frankenlunch!  I decided that a Frankenlunch would tend to be a weekend event (as neither myself nor my putative guests are independently wealthy and are stil beholden to “the man” during the week), commencing around 13:30 with the aim to finish by around 17:00.  The intention was for a light lunch format with a more modest number of smaller courses than has tended to characterise the Fish Supper.  The hope is guests may be able to perambulate their way home without too obvious a waddle

Frankenlunch 2020/1 was staged on the 17th and broadly followed the planned format: though I found myself unable to resist making five courses.  It was partially inspired by my desire to “use up” a magnum of champagne given to my by a (presumably) grateful client some years ago and which was taking up a lot of storage space.  So, the menu was designed around courses that the internet suggest go well with champagne: as it transpired, this did not restrict my creative scope to any significant degree.

I hosted four friends for this inaugural event, which was more people around my dining table than ever previously achieved and did require the acquisition of some new crockery in John Lewis’ sale:  years of exposure to my clumsiness had meant that most of my crockery was only available in sets of between one and four items, rather than their original families of six.  I assume, were I to live long enough, evolutionary pressure would lead to larger litter sizes from my flat ware…

Inspired by this year’s NYE menu in Lewes, we started with individual cheese soufflés.  I had carried out a practice run on these, partly process-wise but mostly to calibrate my oven for temperature and ramekins for size: recipes do seem to be based on the Platonic ideal of a ramekin but never give its dimensions and real-world ramekins are very varied in their volume, diameter and form. As it transpired, the process is straightforward and rather satisfying, my oven is slightly cooler than it claims and my ramekins appear to be close to the Platonic ideal.

As I think will now become a standard for all 2020’s Frankenlunches, I then prepared a ‘live’ pasta course with walnut pesto, mushroom and chilli.  Experiments during the week had pinned down the key driver to the successful conversion of dough to pasts via a machine: make sure the dough isn’t too thick or it braids.  I’ve also worked out how much pasta to prepare per person for a ‘starter’: around 50% of the lowest value discovered through internet research.

For the main, I had planned to cook scallops but one of our number was a better vegetarian than I (not hard, I’ll admit), so I simultaneously prepared a vegetarian alternative.  This used King Oyster mushrooms in lieu of the scallops which are not a bad substitute in appearance and have a decent texture and absorb flavours in a not dissimilar way (and the name, at least, maintains a seafood vibe).  Due to chronic indecision, I did not decide how I was going to cook the scallops (both real and simulated) until they were in the pan cooking.  I used elements of several recipes and my own slightly drunken ideas: the champagne was history by this stage and I can confirm that the client was more grateful than I’d appreciated (or deserved).  I kept it fairly simple with a ‘sauce’ formed from garlic, chilli, butter, lemon and a little white wine, which worked rather better than its rather ad-hoc creation deserved, served with a rocket and watercress salad.

For dessert, we started with a memory of Lundy and an apple and forest fruits crumble (just once, I’d love to visit this fruitful forest with its eccentric seasons!).  This was followed by a dark chocolate nougat semi-freddo: though I will admit that I did not make the nougat.  However, I do have a sugar thermometer and I rather fancied giving this a go but it does seem to need an electric mixer or more than the standard issue of hands.  John Lewis does have a Kitchen Aid mixer heavily reduced at the moment, but do I have the room?

The first Frankenlunch appears to have been a great success: I had fun and the guests were all convincing in their expressions of approbation (and none were professional actors).  I rather like the lunch format, it somehow seems more relaxed and to carry less cultural baggage than an evening meal and its associations with the dreaded dinner party of sitcom and stage.  As the meal neared its end, without anyone bursting(!), I did a quick and dirty calculation of the cost of the food.  I reckon that in terms of ingredients, I probably spent a little under £40 in total: so £8 a head for a five course lunch which seems infeasibly good value.  There would be some cost for electricity in the cooking and chilling and some costs in consumables (baking parchment and the like) but I think these would be mere pennies.  There was some labour involved – mostly chopping and beating – but only a couple of hours of prep and some more time cooking live.  The costs compare very favourably to the £9.50 I paid for, an admittedly very nice and filling, pizza last night when I arrived home from the excellent Personal History of David Copperfield.

One of my friends, and guests, does seem keen on me monetising my limited culinary skills: I can follow basic instructions (mostly) and even go off-piste to a degree (usually when I have either forgotten to acquire an ingredient or have something already in the larder which needs using up).  My divergence from any given recipe has usually proved successful, or at the very least interesting and/or educational.  His original plan was for me to sell slices of Frankenmas cake to young people at the gates of their place of schooling which I can’t help feeling could bring me into conflict with the law and some parents: a middle-aged white man trying to ply minors with rather alcoholic fruit cake would probably be viewed amiss.  I think the latest plan is to have paying guests who take their chances with the menu and my ability to deliver it.  They will also be exposed to my sense of humour and rather informal approach to meals, which may not suit all comers.  I believe my friend sees himself as my agent in this new role, so I feel he has an incentive to keep me safe from unwanted legal entanglements…

I have already started thinking about February’s Frankenlunch and am considering making the project more challenging by not repeating a dish during 2020.  This seems like a great idea now, but future-me may be cursing current-me by the autumn (or indeed, well before!)…

From the castle east

Where, (un)naturally, I have sited my laboratory, my experiments on the very stuff of life continue.  Given that I have no current desire to restore a semblance of life to the flesh of the dead – either to sate my o’erweening ego or to furnish myself with an obedient minion to do my bidding (a desire which in both cases could probably be better provided by the living – and would you trust one of the undead with the complexities of Acol and Blackwood?) – my experiments remain confined to the culinary sphere (for the time being).  As a result, dear readers, you can leave your pitchforks and brands (unlit) in the shed where they belong.

Today, inspired by a recent trip to 10 Greek Street, I have turned to my retorts and alembics and the wise words of Hermes Trismegistus to transmute base cornmeal into polenta.  Actually, my raw material was organic maize flour – which is a slightly more ground state of cornmeal which I figured would react more rapidly.  Maize, of course, we owe to the hard work of generations of ancient Mexicans taming the wild teosinte at great personal risk.  Given their lack of imperial presence in the new world, the Italians do seem to have adopted much of its plant produce in their cuisine (OK then, at least two examples spring to mind: maize and tomatoes) – still, I suppose Columbus was Italian by birth so maybe he smuggled a few dainties back to his homeland.

The educational remit of this post fulfilled, I shall now return to the nonsense.  The advice from the followers of Paracelsus suggested that I should add my flour slowly to a boiling admixture of milk and water, whisking all the while.  I should then continuously stir the resultant suspension (colloid?) widdershins for 35-45 minutes – which I did (providing you are willing to assume time is substantially more granular than is currently in vogue among serious scientists).  As if by magic, this process did indeed produce a substance which looks, quacks and, indeed, tastes very much like polenta – and so I think I am going to call the experiment a success.

I wanted to be able to slice my polenta for later frying or grilling and was expecting the default product of my labours to be rather runny (not unlike semolina to which it is related – just a different grass seed).  To help combat this situation, I once again visited the haberdashery department of John Lewis and returned with half-a-metre of muslin.  As it has transpired this was unnecessary, even during production the proto-polenta was pretty viscous and its stirring provided a surprisingly decent workout for my right arm.  Upon cooling it quickly achieved a state of apparent solidity: it may, like pitch, flow if given enough time – but the set was more than sufficient for my purposes.   As a result I have learned an important lesson: I should decant the fully-formed polenta into a vessel from which slices can easily be obtained whilst its viscosity (μ) still permits pouring – so probably immediately.

Despite this minor hiccough, the polenta when placed atop some freshly baked asparagus, grilled with a decent lump of burrata and sprinkled with fried mushrooms and black pepper made a very satisfactory lunch.  Todd (of 10GS) probably doesn’t need to fear for his position just yet (at least partly because the career of professional chef holds rather limited appeal for me), but I think with my second attempt I should be approaching a condign mastery of polenta manufacture.  Maybe it is time to prepare my slab, sewing kit and electrodes – all I need is a passing thunderstorm and a suitable “volunteer”!

Camping

Those of us following the Roman model find ourselves enjoying/enduring the first day of a new year, with all the promise and/or horror that might entail.  Of course, any moment could be considered the start of a new year – but the degree of alcoholic excess that such an approach would entail doesn’t bear thinking about – so I stick with the convention that is just one of the many things the Romans did for us.

Given that I am writing at the cusp of two years, readers might be anticipating a review of 2014 or perhaps my resolutions or hopes for 2015.  Such readers had best prepare themselves for disappointment – as a sometime consultant, I have learnt the importance of managing a client’s expectations downwards early doors (as I believe the young people might say).  Instead, this post will be carelessly hung on the inadequate superstructure of my own passage from last year into this one – expect some sagging or at least a rather poor fit with the potential for creasing.

In recent years, myself and a couple of Sussex-based friends have alternated hosting duties  as we mark the passage from one year into the next.  This seems vastly preferable to “going out”, which whilst it can be fun is best avoided when every one else has exactly the same plan and prices rise to reflect the (un)favourable operation of supply and demand.  This year it was my turn to host, for the first time in my new – and modestly proportioned, verging on deceptively spacious – south coast abode.

Hosting, as performed by the author, does require a fair amount of preparation – for a start, the flat must be converted from its normal condition to something that approximates at least one (and preferably both) of spick and span.  There is also planning the menu, acquiring the ingredients and then a degree of prep before the guests arrive.  This year’s menu ran to roughly six courses: starter, fish, meat (which makes me a very bad vegetarian, but a better host), cheese, cold dessert and hot dessert.  I have yet to start making my own cheese (though it is a blessèd occupation), but the rest I tend to construct from scratch (that most versatile of ingredients).  If I am honest, I probably rather overdo the whole cooking side of things – which I blame on (a) genetics and (b) the fact that hosting is (at least in some ways) a performance and am forced to admit that I may be a frustrated performer.  (Given that there is some history of am-dram in the family, item (b) may also have a genetic component).  I fear I do have a tendency to overact somewhat in the kitchen (and elsewhere) – even when alone, but worse in company – which may be explained by exposure to the late, great Keith Floyd at an impressionable age.

Anyway, last night went off very well, after a delayed start following an expected corpse in the Barnham area which delayed my guests’ arrival by almost two hours.   There was excellent company, wide ranging conversation, good wine and my attempts at cooking all came out rather well (if I says so as shouldn’t).  The evening even yielded a few insights.

Firstly, the introduction of a few agar crystals to my port and blackberry sauce (or jus, should I ever be tempted by the prospect of social climbing) yielded that critical extra viscosity that previous attempts have always lacked – not sure why I’d not thought of this before, though the imbibing of a glass (or several) of champagne may have helped shake a new or two idea free.

Secondly, just after midnight it became clear that more is not always better when it comes to fireworks.  The New Year firework display broadcast from London was just an incoherent mess as there were just too many in the sky at once – either fewer fireworks or the same number spread over a much longer period would have been a more sensible option.  I fear there may be a metaphor for wider issues relating to London struggling to burst free from this paragraph, but it will receive no help from me!

Finally, it became clear that I whip cream in rather a camp manner (I also did it with a pleasing – to me – degree of insouciance).  Unlike many today, I do not use an electric device for my whipping (or beating needs) but prefer to use brute force – aided by a balloon whisk (or spoon) – as it is important to keep these ancient crafts alive in these debased modern times.  I’ve just realised that 2/3 of my insights relate to thickening, though I suspect this may not be significant.

As my flat has but one bedroom (and only three rooms – plus tiny hall – all told), hosting guests overnight brings additional challenges.  On the FHB-principle, the guests were granted the bedroom and its associated bed – and so I had to make alternative arrangements.  I do not have a sofa-bed, nor the space for one to be honest, and decided to craft my sleeping arrangements from stuff that I already owned, rather than buying an inflatable bed (or similar temporary option).  As a result, I found myself “camping” at home – using the rug in the lounge, with my pilates mat and then a Ridge Rest and sleeping bag I used when a camped my way across the US of A a quarter of a century-or-so ago.  On top of this makeshift camping mattress I lay swaddled in my duvet – and very comfy I was too, perhaps even more so than in the bed I had ceded to my visitors.  I didn’t bother with a tent as my flat provided a perfectly adequate roof without the need for canvas and affixing the guy ropes to the shag-pile would have been rather a challenge.  Actually, in the southwest of the US (where desert skies promised little risk of rain and balmy conditions), I forwent the tent and enjoyed sleeping out under the stars (though these were absent from the ceiling of my flat – perhaps something to fix for next time?).  Anyway, after last night I can thoroughly recommend camping at home – which involves so much less hassle and risk of unwanted dampness than doing it out of doors.

Perhaps inspired by my cream whipping, we started the morning with Sondheim excerpts from the 2010 Sondheim 80th birthday Prom, and in particular Everybody Ought to have a Maid from A Thing Funny Happened on the Way to the Forum – which was probably even more camp than my thickening of a dairy product.  Still, a good way to start New Year’s Day and fine preparation for the Craster kippers that were to follow.  Frankly, 2015 has been somewhat downhill from there, but I guess there is still quite a ways to go – so I’ll avoid leaping to judgement for now.

Winterval

I rather like this neologism, but it is actively disliked be our more reactionary press and their readers.  I believe this is because they are upset that it has supplanted the “original” word of Christmas, rather rich given that the early church purloined the earlier festivals of Saturnalia and Yule for its own nefarious ends.  Even these festivals were derived from even earlier mid-winter celebrations, so the original meaning of December 25th and the New Year is hidden in the mists of prehistory.

I decided against erecting a circle of massive stone menhirs this year – well, I had a bit of a cold and it seemed a lot of work (added to which my garden is really quite small and water-logged) and so returned to the bosom of my family as has become traditional.  This pilgrimage entails my longest drive of the year as I head from South Cambs to a supergrid point on the south coast (in fact, the journey represents some 20-25% of my annual driven miles).  I drive down on Christmas morning when the roads are pleasingly quiet – and lorries stay at home (or at least off the roads) – which makes driving an almost pleasant experience.  This year my journey south was accompanied by the dulcet tones of Shaun Keaveny and PBC OBE thanks to a portable DAB radio and the AUX port on the car stereo.  As I crossed the Thames at Dartford, the river was spanned by a rainbow – which I felt must be at least slightly auspicious – though the toll booths of the crossing were still manned even on Christmas Day (given the low traffic flows, I do wonder how cost effective this is at £2 a go).

Christmas and Boxing Day were great fun, and I am able to eat to excess without having to cook any of it – though the period does emphasise the “mostly” in my mostly vegetarian lifestyle.  Having an (almost) six year old with you does remind you of the true meaning of Christmas – which I think is Lego, crackers and Mario on the Wii (recalling the gifts bought by the wise men to the Ickle Baby Jesus – rather mis-translated from the original Greek and Hebrew in the KJB).  I returned home on the evening of Boxing Day – waiting until the hordes have finished their desperate purchases of reduced sofas on long-term credit – when the roads are still pretty quiet, though the lorries are starting to return.  Given the rather poor radio on offer, I created a playlist on my iPhone for the first time (I have had the capability to create playlists for 7 or more years, but had not taken the plunge before).  This was rather a success: I may have to try it again.

Returning home has the advantage, and disadvantage, that there are no Christmas leftovers to consume – so no turkey jalfrezi for me!  This means that the festive season comes to a rather abrupt stop, though this year I resisted returning to work until almost 2013.  This didn’t mean I could loaf around too much as I had friends coming over to see in the New Year.  No visitor comes to my house and leaves hungry, or even well fed – no, no-one leaves unless completely stuffed with grub (I blame genetics and my paternal grandmother’s bloodline).  Such hefty food consumption does also seem to eliminate the hangover that might otherwise arise from having wine (or other suitable alcoholic accompaniment) with every course.

To avoid boring my guests with a medley of my greatest culinary hits, I decided to try some new dishes this year.  New Year’s Eve-squared (0r 30 December as it is more commonly known) was a relatively modest repast with a mere three – albeit sizeable – courses.  I once again attempted chocolate cookery – and even made pastry (a very rare occurrence) – to provide a suitable accompaniment to a glass or two of marsala.  This was a slightly worrying build, as the tart’s contents looked vastly bigger than the available space – but miraculously just fit.  Even more importantly, it tasted great – but I suspect won’t be made that often as it is quite a laboured process and creates an awful lot of washing up.

New Year’s Eve was an altogether more challenging affair with six courses to be consumed across the evening.  These included a very fine starter based on roasted squash, stilton and mushrooms; two years ago I had never eaten a squash, now I am almost addicted to the things – ah, the dangers of the mostly vegetarian diet (why does no-one warn you of the risks?).  However, the star of the night was the trifle course – based on a recipe by Nigel Slater (but in only half the quantity).  This was a huge rigmarole to make and rather worrying as it includes making a mincemeat sponge with no raising agent – but it is one of the finest things I have ever eaten.  If you are very good and come to visit, I may make another – if you are really, really good I may even let you eat a bit (though I wouldn’t want to raise your hopes too high).

In recent years, my NYE tradition has been to hold the turn of year celebration at a time of my choosing, rather than waiting for midnight as “the man” wants.  By use of YouTube, one can now have Big Ben, Auld Lang Syne and fireworks whenever you want – this year it was around 23:30, though it has been as early as 22:30 and as late as 00:30.

Unlike Christmas, I was able to live off left-overs from New Year for several days – despite sterling efforts from my guests to consume the excessive quantities of food provided.  I must also admit that at least one pig, one deer and three fish died to provide our end of year provender – but their sacrifice was much appreciated and only members of the plant kingdom have had to give up their lives to feed me since.

Many Winterval cards are covered in snow – but the country (or the parts I crossed) were covered in water, which should perhaps become a theme for future Christmas Cards – but now the country does look much more festive (I blame Charles Dickens).  This seems to happen whenever I try to leave the country by plane on business – I think the government should be paying me a decent stipend not to fly to Europe, it would save the country a small fortune in gritting and snow ploughing.  Still, until I’m paid off I shall continue to visit our European cousins – this week Berlin, where the maximum temperature on offer is a balmy -2ºC so I’m rather hoping there may be some glühwein on offer to stave off the chill!