For dinner we had turkey and blazing pudding, and after dinner the Uncles sat in front of the fire, loosened all buttons, put their large moist hands over their watch chains, groaned a little and slept.
Dylan Thomas, A Child's Christmas in Wales
Christmas in the little village outside Llanelli where my mother was born would -- when I first remember experiencing it in the 1960s -- have made Dylan Thomas feel at home. A turkey so big that it wouldn't fit into the small oven in the kitchen would be taken to the bakehouse (run by a cousin) at the end of the row of tiny terraced houses, where it would sit surrounded by the birds of others, roasting slowly. A flock of Christmas dinners, to be accompanied by a field of roast potatoes, and a mire of salty gravy.
After being attacked by the assembled family, our turkey would be picked over for days, the carcass admired by the parade of Uncles and Aunts who would visit and pat the small boy's head, speaking a rapid lilting Welsh that I understood more by osmosis than by learning. And on Boxing Day there would be rugby; London Welsh versus Llanelli at Stradey Park, an Uncle giving me a nip of fiery spirit from a little bottle in his pocket "to ward off the cold".
It was an important bird that turkey. In those days, and in that working man's world of steel mills and tinplate factories, dank mines and stern chapel, it formed the centrepiece of the most significant family occasion of the year. It's not that no expense was spared, because expense was always something to be managed carefully, but financial prudence would not be allowed to stand in the way of a button-loosening Christmas dinner, even if in January there had to be a return to plainer fare.
That was where my mother learned how to make her Christmas puddings -- rich puddings that have to be made a year in advance and aged to arrive at a moist perfection -- where she started out on a lifetime of making mince pies that are now widely acknowledged as the finest in the world, even if the recipe has been refined over the years, and the latest version of her melt-in-the-mouth pastry derives from a 70's Josceline Dimblebyrecipe. It took Mum a couple of years after arriving in New Zealand to get back to peak pastry performance. It was the flour. Different. And making them in summer?
We celebrate a traditional Christmas. It is the one time of every year when our extended family gathers to sit around a big table and share a meal. And we eat turkey. But because Christmas is a season, and people come from around the country and from over the Tasman and don't retire to their own homes for Boxing Day, the bird is not the only meal. Over the last couple of decades we have evolved a sequence of meals that have become embedded in our own version of a summer Christmas.
So there's turkey on Christmas Days. Most years I will bone the bird and stitch it around a cylinder of souped-up sausage meat (add dried porcini, parmesan, a little Kaitaia Fire, perhaps juniper berries soaked in gin), cushioned from the flesh by a moist layer of mushroom and onion stuffing. It roasts without much fuss, and carving's easy. Each transverse slice delivers twin white crescents of breast cradling mushrooms and stuffing, and looks most impressive on the plate.
There will be leftovers. Some will be eaten cold with pickles, but the primary purpose of the bits of leg that nobody wants is to supply protein for a nasi goreng. The inspiration came from Rick Stein, to whom I have warmed in recent years. He did a "Christmas" nasi goreng on TV a few years ago, made with a Balinese spice paste and leftover turkey. (There's a non-turkey version in his Far Eastern Odyssey). I offered it to the family, it was eaten and enjoyed, and now I am told it has to happen every year.
The same thing happened when we put a pizza oven in the kitchen garden ten years ago. I had to make pizzas for everyone, for nieces and nephews and cousins and Uncles and Aunts, and now I have to do it every year. And then there is the pig.
The pig dates from a meal with friends in London before we left for New Zealand. It was cooked by a fastidious Islington foodie and served in the presence of an opera singer of ample appetite, and we who were about to depart for the other side of the world were left to consider if we were doing the right thing.
Forward a year: I cannot be doing with gas barbecues. One of the first purchases I made after arriving at our little farm in Waipara was a charcoal kettle barbecue, for that is what you need for the pig. That, and a boned, rolled, skin-on shoulder of pork. A whole shoulder will feed a lot of people, so I usually cut it in two and freeze a bit for future use.
What we eat is a version of southern barbecue pork. The Islington foodie obtained the recipe from a book by Louisiana chef Paul Prudhomme, but there are many, many versions of "pork butt" in the southern US. Michael Pollan devotes a large part of his Cooked: A Natural History of Transformationto the subject, and I have no doubt that the version I cook is a bastardisation of the real thing. But it is delicious.
The key is the dry rub. This is a mix of paprika, sugar, cumin, chillies and cayenne pepper, mustard powder, salt and black pepper that should be rubbed into every surface of the shoulder, and then left for at least 12 hours. To cook, fire up your kettle, put the pork over a drip tray, add some wood chips for smoke, and then cook for at least 4 or 5 hours -- the longer the better. You want the pork to be pull apart tender.
To genuflect in the general direction of a New Zealand summer, the pork is accompanied by kumara baked around the meat for the last hour. There's a sauce too, from eastern North Carolina: white wine vinegar sweetened with brown sugar, simmered with thickly sliced cloves of garlic. Spoon this hot over the pork. There will be little in the way of leftovers.
The last meal in our seasonal sequence is ham on New Years Day. This was my parents' contribution, and until my father became too frail to manage the lifting, they always cooked their own ham - boiled in a brew that involved cider. But the signature element remains the same - my mother's version of a tangy, sweet and citrusy Cumberland Sauce that is the perfect accompaniment to fine ham.
Every family that feasts together will have some sort of tradition of favourite foods that must be eaten in order for the ties that bind to be refreshed. Food in this context has real emotional power and significance. We pay our respects to each other by bringing good food to the table, and honour the ingredients and the suppliers and the beasts that died by cooking with love and care. And then we do penance for the over-indulgence. This year, as last, it's a dry January. My liver will be pleased.