A pungent combination of white wine and malt vinegar gently simmering on the hob is producing a gaseous nightmare in the kitchen. It is, consequently, completely out of bounds on matters of health and safety. Thus, I remain in the lounge warmed by a glowing fire updating on this year’s Christmas preparations, waiting for the toxic smell to dissipate.
This is the final phase in a weekend production line which has seen the kitchen window-sill fill up with jars of marmalade, Christmas chutney, cucumber pickle and lethal chilli jam. The last part of this year’s Christmas hamper is the piccalilli.
Had I been born female, I am almost certainly someone who would have chosen to live in the country so as to be able to join the Women’s Institute. My pickles and preserves would have been the stuff of legend had been able to join the WI.
Previous years have seen me knuckle-down for the Christmas holidays indulging a slightly odd interest in candle-making. Refusing to get sucked into purchasing all of the vital equipment, I gingerly melted candle-wax and stearin in a bain-marie and poured the resulting mixture into old ramekins. The results were reasonably successful, although a search deep in the under-stairs cupboard would reveal a number of unlit candles, possibly because those I tested didn’t burn terribly well.
Following my own advice, I’ve embraced pickling and preserving in the run up to this year’s festive season.
There’s something reassuringly therapeutic about the whole process. First there’s the research – hours spent curled up on the sofa reading over recipe books or browsing the internet.
What quickly became apparent reading over Gary Rhodes’ New British Classics (the place to go for piccalilli), Delia Smith’s Cookery Course and this month’s BBC Good Food magazine was that the process of preserving in advance of Christmas is only any fun if there are some unsuspecting people to give the finished product to.
Imagine the hideous situation where your first batch of marmalade looks good in the jar but, but the first taste confirms it isn’t up to much. Then you find yourself lumbered with a cupboard of reasonably attractive looking preserve which should really have a warning label on it: Don’t Eat This.
That’s when a distribution network is vital. If you’ve made fourteen jars of the stuff at least you can experience the joy of gratitude on thirteen other people’s faces when you dish it out in the weeks before Christmas. At least that you’ve only got the one jar to get through or throw away if it doesn’t turn out to be terribly good.
With a distribution network decided upon (mine started off being quite grand but has quickly been de-scoped to feature only my parents – my sister, if she’s really lucky) there is, inevitably the need for a test-phase.
The piccalilli I spoke of earlier was tested a few weeks ago. Sadly, I failed to dry off the cauliflower and cucumber sufficiently well. Hence the two oversized jars in the fridge have vegetables sitting in a yellow sauce with a layer of water sitting on top. Believe me, they don’t look very appetising.
Still, it provided me with the opportunity to go through the process early and thus legitimately extend the Christmas preparations earlier than in previous years.
But perhaps the thing I’m most looking forward to – and perhaps what has driven this surprisingly pleasurable process over the past few weeks – is the opportunity to serve up what my own mum did when I was younger.
When I was in my teens it was my mum who would set aside two days before Christmas day to start cooking and baking like a demon, making cakes and Christmas puddings and jams and bread before placing the results of her handiwork in a festively decorated box. It was then left to me and my older to distribute the gifts amongst various lucky recipients in the village.
Both of us hated the task, partly because we weren’t necessarily the best company for one another but also because I wanted to be at home following the very full tele-viewing schedule I had drawn up using the Radio Times. Delivering food parcels to recipients in the village was not something I wanted to be doing.
Obviously, things have changed somewhat now. The growing realisation that I’ll probably never be very good with money has shifted focus. I realise now I’ll never feel comfortable aimlessly wandering around a shopping mall for hours so I can shuffle home laden with ridiculously oversized bags. I want to derive pleasure from my Christmas giving.
I’ve spent too many Christmases agonising over whether I’ve got the appropriate value present for a particular individual, worrying whether I’ve got too much or too little, or thinking about how big that credit card bill will be in the new year.
Now, as the kitchen window-sill fills up with jars of goodness for this year’s Christmas, I stand back with my arms folded and the pungent gases in the kitchen gone and feel just a little bit smug.
Next Sunday I’ll deliver a box full of stuff I’ve made for my mum. She tells me her diabetes won’t be a problem for any sweet stuff I have in mind. Apparently the drugs work really well.
And frankly, it doesn’t matter if she doesn’t like them or can’t eat it. If the jars remain unopened in a cupboard before they’re thrown away, I won’t care. It’s the process of making and giving the stuff I’m interested in. And, if she’s tasted one and realises she can’t eat them without risking a diabetic coma, she can always give them to someone else. I won’t mind.