ARMED with my lists, menus, timings, recipes, dietary requirement sheets and suitcase of red aprons I was totally ready for this job. Five days of feasting and festivities for 20 people, heading to the ice blue skies and rustic, rural, rolling landscape of South West France.
I was prepared for the fast and furious few days I knew it was going to be but the one big problem was there was no one to pick me up from Toulouse airport. I rang the number of the contact I was given and was told by a grumpy Frenchman that I had the wrong one. Texting base to enquire a bit more about who I was looking out for I was told he was very French, medium height, suave looking and around 50. Looking around arrivals there were about 20 men who fitted this description (worst case scenario I guess I could have gone round them all to see if they were waiting for a chef sent to cook Christmas dinner but I deduced this probably wasn’t wise).
“There are about 20 of those !” I texted back. “He is afraid of cows, you could try mooing?” “mmmm… I think not…” maybe I will start asking.
Spared at the 11th hour by a text with his exact location, with suitcase in tow I speedily wheeled my way to meet him. First part of the mission accomplished we now had to go and do the big shop. He cheerfully told me that he had never had to shop in his life before and under no circumstance was I to tell his wife about what I was about to make him do.
Ignoring his raised brow and tutting at my insistence on getting two massive trollies I boldly strode into the supermarket to start my Dasher round… There would be no time for shopping once the job had begun so it all had to be got now and I knew that would take at least two and a half hours. Realising I had to keep him sweet if we were to survive this ordeal I sent him off to choose some wine for mulling and charcuterie and cheese. I was greatly relieved that by the time we had got to the end of the list and had successfully negotiated the check-out that patience and morale were still intact. Car jammed full we headed back to base to get cracking.
As it was to be a big weekend communication was of up-most importance so we set up the ‘Jingle Belle’ messaging logistics and action team. Our Jingle Belle leader had gone impressively all out with sourcing Christmas decorations. While I was rolling out the mince pies and whipping up the first batch of brandy butter in the kitchen, the decorations were brought through, each more glorious and dazzling than the next. Tinsel, wreaths, metres and metres of lights, table glitter, candles, sparkling table runners, live camels and perfect bunches of mistletoe and holly all came through – I had more boxes than I could ever dream of to play with to decorate the tables!
I am well aware that Christmas decorations are a matter of personal taste – some go for the tasteful ideal home look, some let the kids have carte blanche on the putting up (or sneakily taking down depending on their age and enthusiasm) and some go for the all-out kitsch approach. I love it all (though personally at home I still have a thing for gold-sprayed small dinosaurs.)
With the Christmas tunes on and someone revealing themselves to be quite the Dancer, the kitchen was a solid hive of activity, fun and a few challenges. Excited children running through every five minutes, a stone-coloured dog on a stone-coloured floor that encouraged me to make Prancer-like moves every time I went to the oven, an impressive list of dietary requirements that made menu-planning like an advanced Sudoku puzzle. At one point we even had a power cut – raw Brussel sprout salad anyone? Actually I have a very nice cranberry, chestnut and raw Brussels sprout with clementine dressing Christmas salad recipe.
There was an impressive fashion show of Christmas jumpers, including ones with Christmas puddings, snowman, sparkly trees and a rather foxy vixen. During the days of feasting there were dumpling stews, honey roast hams, pasta bakes, risottos, pies, steamed puddings, two roast turkeys and some punchy Christmas cocktails that could make you see Comets!
The top cocktail that seemed to be embraced with Cupid-like love by the group was our twist on the champagne cocktail. Taking into consideration our location I replaced the brandy with Armagnac and to give it a festive twist rubbed the sugar cube on clementines. Served with warm cheese swirls the cocktails were delicious and very classy.
Champagne Armagnac Cocktail
8 white sugar cubes
2 washed and dried clementine’s
16 drops angostura bitters
1 bottle of very cold champagne
Rub all sides of the sugar cubes on the clementines to release the citrus scent, carefully drop on a dash of angostura bitters (I admit I find this bit tricky as the pourer and I do not get on well) and place a cube in the bottom of each flute.
Add 25 ml Armagnac to each glass (clearly if you want a merrier Christmas feel free to add a larger dash) then top with the very chilled champagne. Serve straight away.
For more of Philippa’s travels and recipes, visit www.philippadavis.com