A few posts ago, I lamented that I would be unable to make the Christmas puddings this year. This would make two years in a row I had missed, for last year we were still in St Louis, and the earnest little beagles at Melbourne airport would never have let them through quarantine. But my father read the blog and thought that this would be something he could help me with. So over the weekend I weighed up the fruit and left it to soak in the beer and brandy, and then two days ago he set to work blanching the almonds and grating the oranges, lemons and carrots (this is a fabulous recipe, with no suet, just butter and piles of fruit), while I measured up the flour and spices. He then stirred the mixture. This was no mean feat, as we made two large puddings, one for Paul's family on Christmas Eve, and one for mine on Christmas Day; and the physical activity of all that grating and stirring would certainly have been a challenge (I have almost complete movement in my arm, but it's still a little weak). But I was pleased to find that with a little encouragement I was able to do something I enjoy, but had thought would be too difficult. It means our family rituals can resume after last year’s abeyance: Glenda will make several dishes of brandy butter (one for Christmas Eve, and one for me to take to my parents); Rod and Trish will bring the customary fresh berries and chocolate dipping sauce. It is a time of such plenty in this country.
Cooking in this way has a strong ritual component that was surely healing for me over the last few days, as the big pots rumbled and steamed in the kitchen. We all stirred the mixture and made a wish, while I debated with Joel the protocols of declaring your wish in public afterwards (we agreed wishes were better kept secret). Watching my father blanch the almonds also took me back to my childhood, learning to cook with my mother and marvelling at the way the hot water could make the milky white nuts slip so easily out of the dirty skins that we could never have peeled away. I also got to use one of my favourite kitchen implements, the tiny grater I keep in the jar with the nutmegs. This is the specific pleasure of precisely the right implement for the job. But there was something else, too: a lingering trace of the exotic quality of spices, and their special requirements and properties (you can throw in an extra handful of apricots or cherries, but you can't mess with half a teaspoon of nutmeg). And a recollection of trying to recall, in other years, a book I read as a child: somewhere, a warm kitchen scene where spices were special and rare, and had to be used carefully because the spice seller wouldn’t be coming to the house for another year. I can’t remember any more than this (how can I possibly hope to recover this book when this is all I can remember of it?), but the kitchen had something of the quality of Marmaduke Scarlett’s kitchen in The Little White Horse. I guess it's too much to hope this rings a bell with anyone?