Well, it seems Christmas has come and gone and (shockingly, yet unsurprisingly) I have not yet blogged about our meal for Christmas 2005… or 2004. And now that I’m way late for both of them, it seems rather irrelevant when I actually get round to it!! In fact, maybe that’s a plan – we’ll do them side by side as they will make a great contrast as to how a South African Christmas differs from an English one!
That’s a question that people never seem to tire of asking us South Africans: “So what do you guys do to celebrate Christmas?”. Here’s a hint, people – we were a British colony for over a century… You don’t think there might be a few, erm, familiar features?? Despite the dramatic difference in temperatures, we still have European-style Christmas decorations everywhere – plastic mistletoe, fake snow on shop windows, great big evergreen Christmas trees, Boney-M singing “Mary’s Boy Child” booming out from every PA system… And for many of my school friends, the traditional Christmas lunch was a hot meal of turkey and trimmings. Having said that, large portions of the country are not of British stock and therfore do not feel bound to sweat their way through a turkey dinner while the swimming pool beckons outside. My family falls squarely into the latter category.
We always celebrated Christmas at home. I think I can count on the fingers of one hand the Christmases we spent away from home, up until my mom died two years ago: three! Once I was in London, once we went to my sister-in-law’s and once my dad had the truly insane idea of taking a cruise on the ill-fated Achille Lauro cruise ship, which deserves a whole post to itself – another time, perhaps. But for the rest, there was an absolutely fixed ritual to Christmas. On the 24th, my mom would retrieve from the fridge the gammon that she had selected for that year’s feast and put it in the oven for what to me seemed like an eternity. The entire house be redolent with the mouth-watering smell of slowly cooking smoked pork and to me, that would always signal the start of Christmas celebrations. The night of the 24th we (my parents, my brother and I) would all go out to dinner. For most of my childhood we went to the same restaurant, La Fontaine – the kind of place where the maitre d’ always greets you by name, where there is a pianist tinkling away softly in a corner, and the ladies are each offered a flower when they arrive). The menu would today be considered a 70s retro revival – seafood cocktail, chateaubriand, crepes suzette…but at the time it seemed to me to be the height of sophistication. And before the meal, you would get not breadrolls, but slices of home-made melba toast and little butter balls! Class. Anyway, after an evening there, we would clamour for my father to drive us downtown to see the Christmas lights and from there, home to put out a mince pie and a glass of port for Father Christmas (or Vader Kersfees, as he is called in Afrikaans).
Christmas morning my brother and I were always up at the crack of dawn and racing to the Christmas tree before we were even properly awake. But the only things we were allowed to open then were our lucky packets. Any other South Africans remember those? CNA used to sell them and they were basically like a giant Christmas cracker, full of cheapish toys that would keep small kids amused long enough to keep them off the wrapped presents until Mom and Dad woke up. 8 a.m. was the watershed. That was when we were allowed to take the pillowcase (yes, you read right, we each got a pillowcase, not a measly stocking…!) of gifts from Father Christmas through to our parents’ room and wake them up so that they could watch us slowly extract each gift. Once that was done, we all had to get dressed and my parents would annoyingly insist that we all had to sit at the table and have tea and mince pies before finally heading for the tree and it’s treasure trove of gifts. And only after I had handed round all the presents (for that was my self-appointed role!!) and everything had been opened and thoroughly inspected, could we move on to the next stage: the feast!
We had the same Christmas lunch, with a few variations in the starter and dessert departments, pretty much my whole life. After the gift-opening, my mom would head for the kitchen and remove from the fridge the enormous glazed gammon. Then I would help her decorate it with whole cloves, pineapple rings and glace cherries and it would be surrounded by salads which also remained pretty constant through the years: asparagus, potato salad, watermelon balls, and melon & grape salad. Once my brother met his future wife, she added another component that was to become a fixture: her 7-layer salad. The starter varied – chicken liver pate, smoked salmon in some form, or a plate of antipasti. But always cold. And of course, then came the main event. First my dad would open the champagne, shooting the cork right into the garden (where my brother would always be waiting to catch it!) and then he would get down to the serious business of carving the cold gammon. I remember the Christmas gammon being one of the tastiest things in the world. I loved the saltiness of the meat, the sweet stickiness of the glaze and the yielding, delicious layer of fat. Of course, afterwards there was always dessert – usually Christmas pudding with my mom’s home-made brandy sauce. But to me, the gammon was the thing; that was the taste of Christmas and I doubt whether that will ever change. When my mom died in late 2003, she had already selected the gammon for a Christmas meal that she would not live to see. I found it in the freezer that Christmas when I went home and that was the first gammon I cooked, as a tribute to my mom and as a source of comfort to myself. I realised then how many things I had never got round to aslking my mother – like how do you roast a gammon?? What the hell goes into the glaze?? How do you get the fat just right? So many questions, but no Mamma to ask. I think that’s one of the first times I realised how irretrievably gone she was. But with the help of the internet, plus a glaze recipe from Bronwyn’s mom, I tackled the gammon like an old pro and learned (surprisingly) that it’s not that difficult, and it certainly made me feel Christmassy.
So even though I knew we would be going out to relatives on Christmas Day this year, I was determined to roast a gammon at some stage over the festive season. We had invited some friends over for lunch in mid-December and I decided that this would be the perfect opportunity. At first I was going to buy two small boneless gammons that I knew would easily fit into our teensy oven, but then Nick decided that you got more for your money by buying one HUGE bone-in gammon and before I knew it we were headed home with half a pig. Half a big pig. More on that later.
For any of you who are intimidated by the thought of cooking such a huge chunk of meat, fear not – here comes the idiot’s guide. I also used to fear this kind of cooking: what if I didn’t know the One Crucial Thing you needed to do a successful roast? Such a lot of meat to mess up if things went wrong!! But even though my mom never went through the basics of gammon roasting with me, she did tell me a thing or two about roasting chickens, and when you get down to it, the principles she taught me will stand you in good stead whatever you roast: don’t be in a rush, and take steps to make sure the meat cannot dry out. In other words, all you really have to do to a gammon is stick it in the oven with some liquid, for a long time at a relatively low temperature, make sure it is covered, and wait! What could be easier – or more rewarding?
1 large gammon (bone in or out – it’s your choice)
2 carrots, sliced
2 celery sticks, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
2 bay leaves
about 6 black peppercorns
Rinse the gammon and pat dry. Place it in a large roasting dish (preferably one like this – deep with a lid). Slice/chop the carrots, celery and onion and place them in the roasting pan together with the gammon. Add 1 to 1.5l water to the pan, depending on how deep your pan is.
[I, on the other hand, only had one dish that was big enough to take this monster - the drip tray from the grill pan that came with the oven - and that is only about 1.5 inches deep. Which is fine when you put the meat into the oven, but by the time it comes out, some fat and water have cooked out and increased the amoutn of liquid. So as I slid the oven shelf forward to get a grip on the roasting dish, it tilted ever so slightly and... instantly, a cascade of boiling water and pork fat poured out onto the oven door, the base of the oven and the floor. Oh excellent. Just what you need as your guests are arriving - pork fat sowly congealing on the floor and the hosts screaming at each other as they try to clean the hot oven. Merrrrryyyyy Christmas!!]
Anyhow. If your roasting pan has a lid, cover it (alternatively cover the gammon with aluminium foil) and place in a 160C oven. Cooking time is 30 mins for every 500g, plus an extra 30 mins. I removed the gammon from the oven and allowed it to rest for 5 mintes while I made the glaze. For the glaze you will need:
3/4 cup tightly packed brown sugar
1-2 Tbsp cider vinegar
1-2 tsp wholegrain mustard
pinch of ground cloves (optional)
Heat them all together in a pan until the sugar has completely dissolved (the quantities are kind of variable – I add more sugar if the glaze is too watery) I usually allow my glaze to boil for a minute or two, but as long as the sugar is dissolved, this isn’t necessary. In the meanwhile, carefully peel the skin off the gammon. Lift a corner and tug gently – you will see it comes off surprisingly easily. I then score the fat to create a diamond pattern – the pattern is a matter of personal choice, but the scoring helps the glaze to stay on the fat instead of just sliding off. Baste the fat liberally with the glaze and return the gammon to the oven, uncovered. Baste frequently until the glazed fat has browned nicely (it should take about 15-20 mins)- you can always use the grill to finish it off.
Back home, this would be as far as the gammon cooking went, apart from the decorative cherries and pineapple rings – grave was never really an issue. However, in the cold English weather, you somehow feel that some sort of gravy would be appropriate. Due to the saltiness of the meat I didn’t think that traditional gravy would be such a great idea – what I actually wanted was something sweet. And then I remembered the yummy recipe I’d tried last winter for gammon steaks with a whisky sauce – I fiddled with the quantities a bit and came up with the following:
4 Tbsp finely chopped onions
2 Tbsp brown sugar (I used light Muscovado)
1 tot whisky
3 Tbsp butter
3 Tbsp flour
1 to 1/2 cups of stock (chicken or vegetable)
salt & pepper to taste
Gently fry the onions in the butter until soft. Remove from the heat and stir in flour gradually. Stir in the stock and return to heat. Add the sugar and bring the sauce to boil, simmering for about 2 minutes and adding water/stock sauce is too thick. Add the whisky, season to taste with salt and pepper (I sometimes find that I add more sugar at this point too) and serve. The sweetness of this sauce works really well with the roast gammon and the whisky adds a grown-up bite.
From the picture, you will see that I served the gammon with glazed carrots and my favourite sweet potato wedges (just tossed in olive oil & rosemary and roasted at 180C until the edges are golden brown). Mmmm. And sitting there at the table I decided that the notion of having roast gammon only at Christmas was silly. In fact, I have resolved to make it even when only Nick and I are at home (you get some adorable little gammons that cut into about 8 slices – perfect!). Not only because I love the taste, but for the memories it always awakens.