Thursday, December 28, 2006

A Christmas Meal

My written blogs are generally about travel and recipes. Others record daily happenings. This one is both a daily happening and how to make a Christmas meal less of the ordeal than many people seem to make of it. The key, I think, is timing – in the form of a kitchen alarm clock – and making a list of jobs to be done, and when to do them.
One or two items can be dealt with the day before to reduce hassle on Christmas day. I had, for instance, prepared breadcrumbs (for other occasions) from two slightly stale, white sandwich loaves, turning the crusts into breadcrumbs by baking them in the oven and crushing them in a pestle and mortar (no machinery, but helped by Margreet).
And I had made the cranberry sauce by boiling the cranberries in just a little water for 10 minutes. Thinking that orange goes well with cranberries, I had added chopped marmalade – to give them the orange taste and some sweetness. This did not really work. So I had to add the zest from the skin of a large orange and some sugar to get it right (and a little on the sour side to counteract the fatty richness of the goose). It was ready to serve - from a rather nice pot that had held the gift of an orchid.
Stock for gravy had been prepared by boiling up all the giblets in a pressure cooker. (The liver was turned into a small paté for future eating.)
Stuffing for the goose had also been prepared the day before by frying onion in olive oil, adding pounded sage leaves, a gift of prepared chestnuts, pepper and salt. Beaten egg, as binding, would be added before stuffing the bird on Christmas day.
Lastly, the brandy butter was made with butter and icing sugar, worked together with the fingers before the brandy was added. Actually, I experimented with calvados butter and rum butter as well – each served in small earthenware pots marked with garden labels. The outcome was that there was very little difference in taste between them. But into the refrigerator they went.
All these jobs had been done at my leisure and when I felt like doing them.
My timing list was made. Christmas day arrived.
I rose early, only to prick the goose and rub salt all over it – then back to bed.
The idea (and it worked beautifully) was to do the first job at the time prescribed, consult my list when the next one should be put into operation, and set the kitchen alarm for that time.
10 o’clock: Extract the fat from inside the rear of the goose and place it over the breast. Add beaten egg to stuffing, stuff goose, first with large chunks of Bramley Seedling apples (to fill the front cavity) and then sage and onion. Pin up the ends with wooden skewers.
10.45: Shove the bird on to a rack in the oven, with the pan destined for roast potatoes beneath it to catch the dripping fat. Position an oven tray beneath that, and a layer of foil beneath all – to catch fat and protect the oven. Turn the oven up high.
Peel and boil the spuds for 10 minutes (see later).
11 o’clock: Turn down the oven heat to its normal working temperature (for me that is a knob pointing upwards).
Trim and boil sprouts for 10 minutes, and at the same time fry small bits of back bacon until crisp, then adding pressed garlic. Add drained sprouts to the garlic and bacon, and keep an eye on them until they start to brown a bit. Heat it up once more before offering them at the table in a bowl.
Keep an eye on the fat in the pan and keep decanting it into a large bowl to be put into jars and distributed as gifts to friends.
11.20: The spuds are ready to be drained of water and added to the spud pan beneath the dripping goose (but I over-boiled them, or they were the disintegrating kind). Remember to salt and pepper them.
Make bread sauce by frying chopped onion in butter until transparent, adding milk and half an onion stuck with 6 cloves. Keep at the very lowest heat for a while to stop it curdling. Add pre-prepared breadcrumbs until the right consistency has been reached (it will thicken up a bit later) and turn off the heat until shortly before wanted at the table. Make plenty and have a bowl ready for it. It will need quite a bit of pepper and salt.
Make gravy with butter and flour, adding the stock that was made from pressure-cooking the giblets the day before. It might want a very little Worcester sauce, possibly a stock cube, and a touch of vinegar. Add pepper and salt. A little gravy browning added will improve its colour. Taste to get it right. Re-heat and put into a jug before serving.
12 o’clock: Start to heat the water around the supermarket Christmas pudding bowl on its trivet. Brush brandy over the goose’s breast.
12.30: Take the rum, calvados and brandy butter out of the refrigerator to soften.
Keep pouring off fat, now mainly from the potatoes in their tray.
Margreet will by now have made the first course of mozzarella slices between tomato slices with a garlicky vinaigrette, and cocktail sticks, each speared with a green olive, morsel of anchovy, and a quail’s egg. The latter will be for pre-lunch drinks.
1.30 or about: Guests will have arrived, consumed the said quail egg tapas morsels and be ready to eat from a very Christmassy, wipeable table covering, bought for £1 at a shop called Tiger.

A failure on my part was to make a mess of the par-boiled potatoes. The result was that they had partly disintegrated before being put into the pan beneath the goose. They turned out to be delicious, if not exactly potato-shape.
My timings list and kitchen alarm clock made everything go smoothly, but when reading what I have just written it does sound to be quite an ordeal – which it wasn’t at all. But there is quite a lot to think about and do for a Christmas meal, however efficiently, or otherwise, it has been conducted by the cook.

Friday, December 22, 2006

Another (and very popular) "bites for drinks"

Before I embark on lovely winter stews and casseroles, there is one other "bite" stand-by that has been a huge success with guests in my house.

This is garlic sausage (usually bought cheaply in France, or almost any other available sausage), coated in a vinaigrette of olive oil, vinegar, pepper, salt, pressed garlic and dried dill.

Make this coating in a serving dish, mixing it together with the fingers.

Cut the sausage lengthwise and place each on the flat service of a board. Cut these half sausages into two millimetre slices.

Coat all slices in the vinaigrette mix.

Decorate with a sage leaf or two - or sweet basil leaves.

To make these bites takes very little time. They are very garlicky, but people love them.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Saleroom Experiences - Chelsea Football Ground Shed End

It was when living in the country in 1988 that my first marriage came to an end. I decided to move back to London in 1989, buy a small house, and rid myself of all the impedimenta that had accumulated over years of life in larger establishments. So a selling-up of objects was planned.
In a division of things marital I had already parted with a valuable painting from my collection and, for its security and cost of insurance, was glad to be no longer responsible for it. I was getting a taste for what I think is now called “downsizing”. The prospect of ridding myself of items for cash became quite a seductive one.
So, when waiting for an expert valuer to appear at the desk of a London saleroom to look at some pieces that I thought might fetch something, I glanced at the catalogue for a forthcoming sale of oriental porcelain and objects d’art. And there, illustrated in colour, was a jar, not unlike the one in which I had kept my paint brushes for the past forty years or more. Should it be of worth, I resolved to sell it, and use an old honey pot instead.
So the next time I was in town, I visited Christie’s saleroom with my jar – having extracted the brushes, scraped off the incrustations of decades of paint, and given it a good scrub in soapy water. I had never seen it looking so glowingly well as I eased it from the wine box used for its transportation to London.
The authority for this kind of thing arrived from behind the scenes, gave it a quick glance and, in lofty tones, pronounced it to have been crudely decorated. My high hopes for making a fortune were cruelly dashed.
“Late Ming, of course,” she continued.
What would come next? If she said five to fifty pounds I would take it home and continue to use it as a brush pot – or even for flowers. Now that I knew more about my pot, I was becoming even fonder of it – for its bulbous shape, and even the “crudity” of its decoration.
“I think we should put a low reserve on it”, she said. I nodded.
“Let’s say £180 and hope for more”.
I made out that I, too, had hoped for more. But as there was a wine tasting I was about to attend, and was reluctant to leave a late Ming pot, however crudely decorated, among the wet raincoats of fellow wine writers, I agreed to the sale. It disappeared into the depths of their storage rooms.
A month or two later the sale catalogue came through my letterbox. They had thought my crudely painted pot to be worthy of a black-and-white photograph. Paintings that I have had to sell in the past, and which warranted a photograph in the catalogue, had the extra cost of photography deducted from the proceeds, but only after my consent. On this occasion there had been no request.
From the expert’s estimate of £180, the “suggested” settling price in the catalogue had been placed at £200-£300.
The day of the sale came and went. I was unable to attend.
Just after the sale date, and too late to have any influence, an article in the Times announced that high prices were being taken for Mings in Hong Kong. I waited for my cheque.
When the statement came it read: Lot 207 sold £580; Commission £58 (VAT at 15%); Charges: Insurance £5.80 (VAT at 15%); Illustration charges £35 (VAT at 15%); VAT at 15% on £98.80 - £14.82; Net proceeds £466.38.
We were all happy. The buyer had the Ming pot. I had more money out of it than expected. Christie’s had done pretty well. An insurance company had gained on the transaction. Even the uninvited photographer, who probably contributed to its higher-than-expected price, got in on the act for just clicking the shutter.
And all this was for an old paint brush jar.

A more spectacular auction was to come many years later, in 2006, when one of my paintings (a 1954, 2’x 4’, scene that included The Shed at Chelsea Football Ground) came up for sale.
The Christie’s recommended guidelines were for a price of £1,000 to £1,500 – which seemed to me to be more than satisfactory should I obtain it.
So along I went, with several of my family and friends, to see the fun.
I had had some previous information that it would sell when someone telephoned me from out of the blue (traced through the net) to say that he wanted to buy the picture at auction, would go to £2,000, and that he would like to reproduce it and sell the prints, possibly with my signature attached. So it looked as if it would be sold. Moreover, my hopes rose even higher when I heard that there would be telephone bidders. In the small print in Christie’s catalogue it stated that bidders by telephone would only be accepted if they were willing to pay the minimum price of £2,000. So these pre-auction omens were good ones. And my family would not be witnessing my disappointment - and almost disgrace - should it fail to reach the reserve, meaning that I would have to take it back.
The saleroom at the auction house was surprisingly small, but well attended.
After what seemed to be an over-long wait for the action to begin, the lady auctioneer came to the rostrum. But her microphone was not working. “We can’t hear you,” shouted a customer from the rear. The fault was rectified, and the sale began
During the sale of early lots there was a constant stream of porters passing through the room with furniture.
Lots came and went as porters held up the paintings and drawings for them to be bought with the clout of a gavel and stacked against a wall. Two paintings fell from these stacks, making a considerable noise. Thankfully, mine was in a stout frame and unglazed.
It seemed to take an age to reach my lot, number 122.
The lady auctioneer started by saying that there was a lot of interest in my lot and that she would start the bidding at £1,600. I had sold it. What a relief.
With five telephone bidders and bids coming from various quarters of the crowd, my brain became a little numb. And being somewhat enumerate I became a bit lost by the speed of it all.
Bidding went up by £50 a time until it reached £2,000 – then by 100s until £5,000. After that landmark they rose by 500 a go until the bidding reached £10,000. From that figure they gathered speed at 1,000 a go until reaching £20,000. Now the bids were raised by £2,000 a time until the under bidder gave up at £28,000. Down came the gavel.
Our happy band congregated at the rear of the saleroom, hardly believing what had just happened.
The press statement I was given afterwards stated that my painting was the “top lot” (which seemed to have some importance), and that the successful bidder was a private bidder who would have to pay £33,600 – being the hammer price plus buyer’s premium. I was led to believe that the under bidder was a dealer.
It was a quite astounding result. What with that Ming vase, and now this, I do seem to have some luck in the auction room.

Friday, December 08, 2006


The latest news is that the 1954 Chelsea Football Ground painting was sold at Christies on 7th December for £28,000 (Top Lot).