At the back of the house I lived in in Banbury was a little square of lawn. Well-kept and maintained by the landlord, the flowerbeds surrounding the grass sported some fairly hardy plants that could cope with the physical and emotional neglect of the residents. At the back, stood a tiny little Conference pear tree that last Autumn, either due to a freakishly warm spell earlier in the year, or simply its own enthusiasm and determination to prove itself, produced a crop of fruit so substantial that the weight of the pears snapped the main trunk of the tree (still only about 2-3cm in diameter). I called my landlord to explain that I had picked all of the not-quite-ripe pears from the tree, and strapped it up as best I could in the hope that without its fruity burden it might recover. I asked if the landlord and his wife wanted the pears, and in answer he explained, in a bemused tone of voice, that he had only bought the tree for decoration because it looked pretty.
When I moved to Banbury last year, and despite my naivety when it comes to all things country, the girls I moved in with demonstrated fairly clearly that there is a whole other category of people who are in no way country-kitchen inclined. I stuck out like a sore thumb amid the hair extensions, acrylic nails, intense gym regimes and sunbeds, with my tweed coat (and yet only Joules tweed, not ‘real’ tweed), a pair of non-fashion wellies (despite what some people I’ve met in the last year might say about Hunters, mine are green and normal, not crocodile print, patent, beribboned, high-heeled or fluorescent) and my culinary habits. Admittedly, the girl who lived there before me had enjoyed cooking also (she and I in fact became good friends, and I’ve been lucky enough to taste some of the products of her kitchen, including the best Shrove Tuesday feast in history!) so the kitchen wasn’t entirely unused, but one of the current residents described her style of cooking as “pop, pop, pop!” alluding to the noise of piercing the film on ready meals before popping them in the microwave.
The attitude of the girls probably goes some way to explaining my landlord’s bewilderment when I called him up to ask about the pears. But due to his lack of interest in the products of the pretty tree and his generosity, I was left with 6kg of under-ripe pears to play with. Even after leaving them to ripen for a few days, they weren’t sweet enough to enjoy in a crumble or cake, and so I decided to try and make chutney – the first time of doing so without my Mum taking the reins. I picked and followed a recipe from the web, and added my cranberries, apricots, chilli flakes, spices and vinegar to make a Christmas chutney. By the time I reached the end of the recipe, I was left with what seemed to me to be a slightly vinegary fruit salad. It bore no resemblance to either the chutney my Mum makes, or the chutney served in restaurants with pate and Melba toast. The fruit pieces were all still very much identifiable but warm with a sweet, tangy coating. Frustrated and disappointed, with two saucepans of this fruit mixture in front of me, and a house smelling rather strongly of vinegar, I decided I had only four options. After neither my mother nor grandmother answered the phone, I had only two: give up, or Google.
Trusty Google suggested that other, non-pear based chutney recipes had vastly more sugar and vinegar than the recipe I had followed, and so after a mercy dash to the supermarket for more vinegar and a jam pan (I was running out of room in the pans I had been using), I took a deep breathe, hoped for the best and emptied a bottle of cider vinegar into the mixture, and added more sugar. Sure enough, after more cooking time and some stirring, poking and prodding, I was left with a mixture that looked much more like chutney. The only problem was, it tasted very much more like a pickle. Never one to be defeated, I sterilised some jars, filled them with the mixture, wiped the edges and sealed them. Later on, I covered each lid in a square of tweed, tied them with rafia and labelled them all as ‘Spicy Christmas Pickle’.
These jars of pickle – and I had quite a few of them – were the beginning of my Christmas hampers last year. It was only September, but still I started collecting bits and pieces as I went along. Empty Dowe Egberts coffee jars from the office were perfect for homemade fudge. I bought some cheap but nice jars and a basket from a warehouse sale, and knowing my mother’s taste for gardening, bought a rather lovely trug as the base for my parents’ hamper (she has sworn to actually use it to garden, and not keep it ‘for best’). Closer to Christmas, I set about making the other bits and pieces. I strained and bottled half of my sloe gin, and made up a batch of fudge from a recipe given to me by a colleague – a sort of cross between fudge and Scottish tablet, very yummy and very moreish. Then I began the epic battle with the gingerbread men. I mixed up a batch of gingerbread men, and having carefully cut them out and baked them to perfection, laid them carefully in my biscuit and cake tins until I was ready to ice them. Sadly, either a caring housemate or gravity caused the lid of the tin (balanced slightly on top, as my biscuit tin was too popular, and over filled with gingerbread guests) to close properly, and broke every single gingerbread person bar two.
After a whiny phone call to complain to a friend, I took another deep breath and piled the broken pieces into a container to be taken to work (people there were always happy to help clear away the evidence of baking mishaps), then set about making another batch. I used the opportunity to use a different recipe, as the one I’d followed originally didn’t seem that gingery or spicy to me, and I wanted my gingerbread men to have a real spicy flavour. The new recipe had black treacle (molasses) and far more spices, and I used the syrup from a jar of stem ginger instead of golden syrup to add to the flavour. After baking, I spread them all out on the kitchen counter to cool before icing – and there were quite a lot of them. My housemates couldn’t believe it when they walked into the house one evening, slightly tipsy, to see their kitchen turned into a Gingerbread Man production factory. Once they’d got over the shock, they agreed to be my taste testers, and agreed that the newest batch of gingerbread men was much tastier than the old one. And after icing in red, white and green (it was Christmas after all!) they looked the part too. Once fully cooled and set, they were bagged up in groups of four (with at least one gingerbread lady per bag), tied with red or green ribbons, and labelled for the appropriate family members.
Final additions were made: some chocolate fridge cake bars (with edible gold stars on for a bit of Christmas sparkle), soft cinnamony Snickerdoodle cookies for grandparents with false teeth, a few prettily wrapped bars of soap we’d had come in at work, novelty Geordie-themed items for my Northern grandmother, and a couple more gardening and home bits for Mum and Dad. For those recipients who I knew wouldn’t appreciate clutter, the bits and pieces were popped into recyclable cardboard boxes wrapped in wrapping paper instead of baskets, and were filled with raffia or tissue paper. The results looked pretty, were very well received and according to feedback were tasty too.
The things to remember when making bits yourself are never to be deterred, and to use your imagination to personalise and also to cover up mistakes. One of my gingerbread men was blessed (cursed?) with ginger hair for one of my best friends – only because I knew how much it would irritate him. And when I dropped the edge of the baking tray onto one still-soft gingerbread man’s arm, he was graced with a white-iced bandage and sad face when it came to icing. You can add a sense of humour to your gifts, and while it sounds cliché, people really really do appreciate the effort you’ve put in. I’ll definitely be doing it again, though possibly not next year as I think it might be my turn to cook Christmas dinner again, and there’s only so much cooking one person wants to commit to at Christmas.