Saturday, 28 November 2009

Getting into the festive food mood

Slowly but slowly, Christmas food is starting to take shape.

I collected my new Delia Smith book this morning – perhaps rather surprisingly, the first book of Christmas cookery I've got.

On the basis of that, it could well be a roast rack of beef, with a confit of shallots and garlic (plus – probably – roast potatoes and, err, some sort of veg). I'm thinking of doing a salad of fennel, clementines and red onion to start – I found that in a magazine I picked up earlier this week – and then possibly a stem ginger ice cream, which is also in the Delia book.

I may also try her stollen, which looks easy enough. All I have to do now is find proper marzipan from Lübeck, which is famous for the stuff (as well as for being the birthplace of Thomas and Heinrich Mann, and the home of Günter Grass).

In the meantime, I'm going to try making my own Lebkuchen this weekend. We have some sort of mad 'craft day' being planned in the office on Wednesday, so if they turn out okay, they'll be a suitable contribution. And if they're good enough, I can make more.

This autumn/winter period marks the tenth anniversary of my giving up dieting, after 26 years trying desperately to find a way of starving my body into some 'ideal' weight. Only when I threw away the bathroom scales did I realise just what a tyranny dieting is. Weighing yourself, morning and night, praying that you'll have somehow found the key to the 'perfect' diet and, via that, the 'perfect' you, which will, in turn, deliver the 'perfect' life.

I even had the family doctor tell me, when in my early twenties and very fit, that because I could never quite get below 9 stone, I should cut back from the 1,000 kcals per day I was dieting on at the time, to 800 kcals per day. In the last decade, I've researched a lot about this. That's little (if any) more than concentration camp inmates were given. An elderly woman, bedridden, requires around 1,200 kcals per day to maintain body weight. All I was doing was driving my body into famine mode: every time I stopped the most drastic diets and ate normally, I slammed the weight back on – and then some more, as my body attempted to store up supplies for the next famine.

And at the same time, food, which you obsess about while starving yourself, becomes The Enemy. There is nothing sensual or pleasurable about a plate of steaming, boiled vegetables, with no dressing or sauce except for loads of salt and pepper, because at least those don't have calories.

I was also vegetarian for a long part of that time. Well, a veggie who ate fish. After I'd left home, whenever I went back for Christmas, I'd make myself a nut roast (partly from a tin), while the rest of the family had the turkey. I never missed roast turkey – only the trimmings: my mother's stuffing balls used to be lovely – particularly when cold – as were the left-over cocktail sausages (she never did 'pigs in blankets – sausages wrapped in bacon). The best of the turkey was always at night, when we'd sit in front of the telly and have turkey sandwiches.

That was usually when, in general, Christmas Day would start to get remotely civilised. My father would have at least one church service to take in the morning – in our Manchester era, it would often be two. Then he'd go off somewhere on his own, while we twiddled our thumbs at home, waiting for his re-appearance in order to have dinner. It'd be roast potatoes and boiled sprouts on the side, with gravy. I used to prep the sprouts and stir the gravy.

I was about 14 when my parents decided that I was old enough to stay up for the traditional B&W classic movie on BBC2 on Christmas night. My presents that year had included a new dressing gown (burgandy in colour and a bit like a padded eiderdown), plus warm, sheepskin winter slippers. We sat and ate sandwiches of brown turkey meat, and watched the 1946 Big Sleep with Bogart and Bacall.

Because western used to regularly be on TV at around 6pm on Saturday evenings, I'd been a John Wayne fan for some time. But that night, watching my first Bogart film – I had never seen anything like it. In the space of one film, I grew out of Wayne and fell in love. It's a love that remains.

Christmas now is quiet. We do the big partying in the weeks running up to the final day at work. This year's calendar already looks rather hectic. As well as putting a journal to bed, we have a staff lunch at a good gastro pub nearby, plus an editorial lunch at an Italian in Covent Garden with our printer, plus the big Christmas disco in the staff bar, plus the union's national committee (the senior lay members) also stage a social in the same venue, with a free bar, to thank the union's staff for their work during the year. We've been promised an Elvis impersonator as well as the free drinkies this year.

My birthday is also two weeks before the day itself. It's a press night this year, so it'll just be the staff bar after. I am sort of angling for a meal out the next night – unfortunately, there appear to be no tables available at a new Sir Terrance Conran restaurant, Lutyens, in the old Reuters building on Fleet Street. One of my great regrets, that – I just missed working on The Street itself by a matter of a few months.

But I am on something of a stream of consciousness thing here. Back to dieting.

I gave up, as I said, 10 years ago. Perversely – or so you might think – I didn't put any weight on, even as I started to learn to enjoy food. And around three years ago, I started – very, very slowly – to lose weight. Thus far, I've dropped about one and a half clothes sizes. What an irony.

So, Christmas is now a matter of great pleasure. And planning. I'm getting slightly better at the planning bit with every passing year. And with my first seasonal cookery book, perhaps that will now get even better.