Have a very fashionable Christmas

food-sekersTODAY, six days before Christmas, in the newspaper we like, is a photo of three hippotamuses digging into a big heap of Brussels sprouts. As festive photos go, this one is certainly different. The sprouts themselves, firm, bright green and obviously fresh, look tempting enough to a human, never mind a hippo, but I’m afraid it is nothing short of a dig at this particular vegetable; it is fashionable to diss the sprout this year, in favour of the newly chic black kale. This has an Italian name – cavolo nero – and is therefore one to boast about as you serve it up with the turkey. It’s much more difficult to cook, and it still makes the kitchen smell, but there you are.

Fashion is everything. Personally I love sprouts and have ever since one of my aunts, given to sprinkling sentimentality over everything, told me they were ‘dolly’s cabbages’. My mother cooked them with celery and lots of butter, or with bits of bacon, or with chestnuts. We even had them as salad, dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette and served with the leftover beef, and baked potatoes. My father grew them in the garden and we never dared dislike anything that was dumped proudly on the kitchen table, covered with mud and as often as not hiding caterpillars and slugs. If we went to friends’ houses we couldn’t understand why they were made to sit in sullen silence until they had eaten the sprouts that accompanied the cottage pie, or roast lamb. If we dared to finish ours and then request a second helping we were seen as goody-goodies – true, they weren’t cooked with as much care as my mother took. They were squashy and pale and exuded water and I think that is how the fallacy about the unpalatableness of sprouts grew.brussels-sprouts1

We know better now, thanks to imaginative food writers who suggest adding things like balsamic vinegar and toasted pine nuts. One thing I won’t be doing is griddling them, fashion or not. A raw sprout, exposed to a hot griddle, tastes like a bad bonfire. They remain hard in the middle, charred on the outside. Not good.

The other fashion this year seems to be the ‘naked’ cake. A Christmas cake without its cloak of white icing might be anathema to traditionalists, but I’ve seen all sorts lately, garnished with shiny nuts and glacé fruit, or simply left glazed with apricot jam, with a decorative band round the middle.

I am a traditionalist and I love marzipan, so this year I had done the marzipan bit and was about to coat the kitchen and all in it with a fine dusting of icing sugar, as I usually do, when I saw a picture of a highly rated cake in a test carried out in one of the Sunday supplements. This cake was elegance itself; the marzipan had been toasted all over, and decorated with more marzipan in abstract shapes. It looked like something from Tate Modern.

I got out my blow torch, and boldly started to torch my cake. The smell of scorched sugar filled the kitchen – caramel is the most encouraging of smells – and I continued until my cake looked as if it had been covered in wood effect sticky backed plastic. There I stopped. From my collection of extremely old and battered cake decorations I selected some robins, a few bent holly leaves and finished it off with the gold band I keep for the Simnel cake. The look is woodlandy, and my cake won’t make Tate Modern, but it does at least nod to tradition. There will be moans, but fashion is all, I will remind them. At least this is a semi-clothed cake.


The last bastion of a traditional Christmas is the pudding. Slowly, over the years, the pudding has become less of a suet bomb and more of something that can be enjoyed by vegetarians and slimmers as well. Many no longer contain any fat at all – the recipe I use is one such, but more than makes up for this lack in quantities of eggs and alcohol. Look along the shelves of Christmas fare in the supermarkets and you’ll find all sorts of alternatives, from a fairly traditional version with a surprise orange inside to a mincemeat stuffed mille feuille, or even a chocolate and cherry confection.

The only trouble is that there are many you can’t set fire to, and there is no more fitting end to Christmas lunch than those blue flames threatening to set the holly alight. We shan’t be yielding to fashion this year, but I’m hoping to persuade some of our lot to go for ice cream served with Turnbull’s of Shaftesbury’s mouthwatering mincemeat. Made in-house, it is full of flaked almonds and sultanas so plump they have almost reverted to grapes, a waft of spice but not too much, and enough alcohol to keep the old guard happy.

Merry Christmas to traditionalists and fashionistas alike.

Simone Sekers

19th December 2014