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Tuesday 23 December 2014


It's my turn again for a piece for Christmas with the Crooked Cats.  This is a piece in more ways than one.  It is The Piece Of Cod Which Passeth All Understanding.

Some years ago my dear friend Dina Da Silva told me about how Christmas is celebrated in her native Portugal.  The main Christmas meal (called a consoada in Portuguese) takes place on the evening of Christmas Eve, and it is a dish centred on bacalhau – Portuguese salt cod. 

Bacalhau is one of Portugal's principal foods, and it is said that there are more than 365 different ways of cooking it - that's at least one for every day of the year, including leap years.  But 24th December has its own special dish: Bacalhau da Consoada (Christmas Eve Cod).

To serve four people, you will need:

4-5 pieces of dried, salted cod.  This has to be rehydrated at least 24 hours in advance, with frequent changes of water.  You can order salt cod from any good fishmonger, but if you can't get hold of it you can use fresh cod fillets. Completely cover them with coarse sea salt, leave them for exactly ten minutes, then rinse off the excess salt.  This fish will take less time to cook than the dried sort.           

1 kg boiling potatoes, peeled and cut lengthwise into halves or quarters (depending on the size)

1 large cabbage, shredded.  Ideally this should be Portuguese cabbage, but you can substitute a good Savoy cabbage (such as January King) or curly kale.

4 fresh eggs

A tin of cooked chickpeas.

4 cloves of garlic

A few sprigs of fresh parsley

A little salt

To serve:

Extra virgin olive oil
White wine vinegar
Fresh bread
Salt and freshly-milled white pepper

First, finely chop the garlic and parsley, put into a small bowl, and set aside.

Put the potatoes into a very large pan (or two medium-sized pans), cover with plenty of cold water, add a dash of salt, and bring to the boil.  Then add the fish, the eggs (still in their shells) and the cabbage.  If you are dividing the ingredients between two pans, make sure there is some fish in both of them, as you will need the flavour of the cod to penetrate the dish.

Heat up the chickpeas separately in a small pan.  When the potatoes are cooked, take out the eggs, peel them and cut them in half, then drain everything and place on a large warmed platter.  Drain the chickpeas and put them in a separate bowl, and bring everything to the table with the olive oil, white wine vinegar, bread, and the parsley and garlic.

To serve, put some cod, potatoes, cabbage, chickpeas and half an egg on to a warmed plate.  Sprinkle with some garlic and parsley (be warned: if you go to Midnight Mass afterwards you will stink out the church!), drizzle with extra virgin olive oil, white wine vinegar and freshly-milled white pepper, grab your fork, and enjoy!

Tomorrow evening, as shoes are placed in chimneys in anticipation of a visit from O Pai de Natal, this dish will be made and eaten in homes all over Portugal.  After the main course the children will go and play and work themselves up into a state of excited exhaustion.  The table will be cleared and then laid with a wonderful range of desserts, including arroz doce (Portuguese sweet rice pudding), chocolate mousse, and pain perdu.  The rest of the evening will be spent eating desserts, talking, and finding a way of distracting the children so that Santa can come and deliver his goodies.  Gifts are opened as the clock strikes midnight.

Special thanks to Dina Da Silva for her help in producing this article.  Muito obrigada, Dina, e feliz Natal!

Saturday 13 December 2014


Today is Day Fourteen of Christmas with the Crooked Cats.  It is also the feast of Santa Lucia, which has great significance in Sweden.  The date of the feast falls very close to the winter solstice - the shortest day of the year - and many believe that as the name "Lucia" means "light", the saint signifies light and hope in the darkness of a cold northern winter.

The original Lucia was born in the late third century AD in Syracuse, Sicily, at a time when Christians were forced to hide in the depths of the catacombs in order to avoid persecution.  Lucia secretly brought food to them, and to light her way through the darkness underground, she wore a crown of candles on her head so that both her hands would be free to carry the food.  The tradition of this candle crown lives on, in the way in which Lucia is commemorated today in homes and churches all over Sweden.

In the morning of December 13th the eldest daughter of the house dresses as Lucia, in a long white gown tied around the waist with a red ribbon (symbolising the saint's martyrdom).  On her head she wears a crown of fresh greenery and lighted candles. Traditionally these are real candles, but the safety-conscious might prefer to use battery-powered ones.

If "Lucia" has younger siblings these may be her attendants.  Her sisters will wear white robes with tinsel tied around their waists and heads, whilst her brothers will wear white robes and cone hats decorated with stars.  Each will carry a single candle.

The children sing the traditional Sankta Lucia song as they serve their parents a festive breakfast consisting of coffee or mulled wine, together with special buns called Lussekatter.  One of the legends of Saint Lucia is that she was blinded but her eyesight was miraculously restored, and she is often portrayed in art with her eyes on a plate.  The shape of the buns, and the stragegically-placed currants used to decorate them, represent Lucia's eyes.

If you'd like to try making some Lussekatter, here is a simple recipe.  To make twelve buns, you will need:

300 ml whole milk
1 pack (0.5g) saffron
75g unsalted butter, cut into cubes
500g strong white bread flour
100g golden caster sugar
1 sachet (7g) fast-acting yeast
1 teaspoon salt
1 large egg, beaten, plus a little extra for glaze
a little oil
24 currants

Put the milk into a small pan and heat gently until it starts to steam.  Use a pestle and mortar to grind the saffron strands into a powder, and add this to the pan of milk along with the butter.  Swirl the mixture around until the butter has melted, then set aside and leave to cool until it is lukewarm to the touch.

In a large bowl mix together the flour, caster sugar, salt and yeast.  Make a well in the middle of the dry mixture, and pour in the milk mixture and the beaten egg.  Mix together to form a sticky dough, then turn out on to a floured work surface and knead until smooth and elastic (this will take about ten minutes).  Put the dough into a lightly-oiled bowl and cover with oiled cling film, then leave the bowl in a warm place for about an hour, until the dough has doubled in size.

Knock back the dough and divide it into twelve equal portions.  Keep the pieces covered with oiled cling film whilst you make the rolls - this will stop the dough from drying out. Take each piece of dough in turn and roll it out into a 30cm-long strand.  Roll up one end into the middle, turn it over and roll the other end into the middle, forming the dough into an S-shape.  Put all the buns on to a large parchment-lined baking tray, lightly cover with oiled cling film, then leave them to prove until they are almost doubled in size.  In the meantime, heat the oven to 200C (180C if you have a fan oven) or Gas Mark 6.

When the buns are ready to bake, remove the cling film, brush them with beaten egg, and press a currant into the centre of each spiral.  Put the tray in the oven and bake for around 15 minutes.  Allow to cool before serving.  The buns are best eaten on the day they are made.

For a light-hearted but informative piece about the Lucia celebrations, take a look at this.

Sunday 7 December 2014

I AM WITH YOU IN SPIRIT - a short story for Christmas

Miss Blythe, with her twinkly eyes and her wicked sense of humour, was an integral part of our Christmas past. She’d lived in the house across the road for as long as I’d been able to remember, was of indeterminate age, and had no relatives.  And as far as I could tell nobody even knew her first name, let alone anything about her past history. My Mum, whose natural generosity of spirit could never entertain the idea of anyone spending Christmas alone, always invited her to join us for Christmas dinner.

Miss Blythe was intensely grateful, and repaid Mum’s kindness in her own inimitable way. Her witty conversation was a joy as we munched the turkey and pulled the crackers.  She even managed to make the jokes sound funny.  And – as one might expect from a retired English & Drama teacher – she was an absolute whizz at Charades.  I leave you to imagine how she portrayed Nicholas Nickelby; suffice it to say that I was jolly glad I didn’t have to face her in class afterwards. She would always bring us a delicious home-made Christmas cake, together with a bottle of a strange dark purple liquid which, unfortunately, looked and smelled exactly like cough mixture. And sadly, the resemblance didn’t end there. 

The bottle was labelled, in her neat italic handwriting, “Blythe Spirit” – and the liquid was, she explained, home-made damson gin, made to her grandmother’s secret recipe. When the cake was cut we would all dutifully force down a small dram of the syrupy jungle-juice and collectively try not to wince. Miss Blythe, for some reason which we could never quite fathom, always downed hers in one gulp. The remains of the brew were then discreetly disposed of on Boxing Day. When we saw how effectively it cleaned the toilet (killing 99% of all known germs and leaving the other 1% too intoxicated to bother), we could only begin to wonder what effect it might be having on our own internal plumbing. But for Miss Blythe’s sake, we continued to pretend that we liked it.

Then, in April of last year, Miss Blythe had a fatal stroke. It was mercifully quick – the results of the post-mortem suggested that she’d probably been dead before she hit the floor – though (as is always the case with sudden death) it left the rest of us pretty shell-shocked. But that was nothing compared to the further bombshells which were to follow. We were amazed to discover that she was almost ninety, that she was a devout Roman Catholic, and that her name was Bernadette. And it transpired that apart from a modest bequest to her church, she’d left everything to Mum. 

Sorting out her stuff brought home to us just how little any of us knew about her. Indeed, it was the first time that we had even ventured beyond her front door. Once inside her house we tiptoed around and spoke in whispers, as though we were invading some kind of sacred shrine. And so it proved. On her bedside table, next to a black Bible and a rosewood rosary, stood a faded black-and-white photograph of a handsome young fellow in naval uniform. As Mum cautiously picked it up, the back of the frame came away in her hand. Tucked behind the photograph was a ruby ring and a small yellow envelope – a telegram telling of the young sailor’s death at Dunkirk. Miss Blythe would have been about twenty at the time.

It was whilst we were clearing out her cellar that we came across the two boxes, each containing twelve bottles of Blythe Spirit. None of us can remember how they subsequently ended up in our own cellar. Perhaps Mum had in mind to use the stuff as toilet-cleaner when we ran out of Domestos.

Christmas dinner last year was a much more low-key affair. The familiar conversation over the turkey seemed stilted and mechanical, we didn’t bother with crackers or Charades, and the Christmas cake came from Waitrose. A deafening silence descended as Mum half-heartedly reached for the knife to cut it. Then I heard myself say (in a voice that was clearly not my own), “What about the Blythe Spirit?”

For a long moment nobody moved – then a bottle was duly brought up from the cellar and hastily dusted off as the small glasses were once again filled up and handed out, and the contents forced down. This time there was no need to hide our distaste for the stuff – but as we collectively grimaced, the atmosphere of doom and gloom evaporated. And Miss Blythe, in our minds’ eyes downing her dram in one, was present again. The party was complete.