If you read Sarah Raven’s book, Complete Christmas Food and Flowers, you’ll find that the preparations start in August. That’s when you dry the alium heads that she likes to spray for Christmas. In September, you make the rowan berry jelly or damson vodka; in October you make the sloe gin; in November it’s time to make the cake, pudding and mincemeat; in early December get ahead with the cranberry and orange compote and make and freeze stuffings. In mid-December, do the marzipan for the cake, the mince pies and the gingerbread house.
By Christmas Day, you’re practically there. As she observes, “I have come to realise that there are several stages to a good Christmas … First comes a long, gentle buildup, time to put my larder in order and get ahead.”
There was a similar sense of starting slowly when Elizabeth David wrote about preparations for Christmas in a village in Spain in the 1970s; it began in October, when the late tomatoes would be put in ceramic jars steeped in olive oil for Christmas, the grapes were brought in as raisins to be stored in the shed and the saffron was gathered and dried “para Navidad”.
That is a kind of Advent for the kitchen: a time of preparation, of maturing. It is the very opposite of the contemporary Christmas trend, Advent calendars, which now embrace not just chocolate but mini beauty products and small bottles of whisky. These Advent calendars are about creating an entirely new consumer opportunity and premature consumption; proper Advent is thinking ahead. Most Christmas cooking and baking is of the slow burn sort. Even bread sauce for the turkey can’t be rushed; that needs an onion and cloves to infuse their flavour into a pan of creamy milk for hours.
If you’re making sloe gin – and sorry, it’s too late to start now – you’re shaking the jar every week to make sure that the sugar has well and truly dissolved into the gin and is amalgamating nicely with the sloes. That sits quietly in the dark until the time comes to decant the deliciousness.
On the Sunday before Advent – or “Stir-up Sunday”, from the psalm of the day that begins “Stir up, O Lord” – you start the Christmas pudding. If it’s made with good stuff – porter or brandy, beef suet and dried fruit – it needs time to mature, for the ingredients to come together; though my father was not above eating the spare pudding as soon as it was made. Christmas cake too is made weeks ahead in Advent, the kind that you bake for hours and you can feed with brandy or whisky through skewer holes in the base.
That kind of cake has been largely displaced in recent years by panettone (which is delicious), which you buy rather than make and eat directly. But as a standby for visitors over an entire Christmas season a good cake is the business.
That’s the other aspect of Christmas cooking: it’s inherently hospitable. The big Christmas ham, the wheel of Stilton or Stilchelton (the superior, raw milk version), the turkey, the chutneys, the pudding; they’re all meant for guests, for the friends and relations to drop in over the season – though who knows whether any of us will be dropping in anywhere this Christmas. Even if our circle is very small, we instinctively want to be prepared for callers, a memory from more hospitable times. Which isn’t to say that you can’t do delicious things if you live alone; what could be nicer than your very own roast partridge, or a pheasant, if it’s just the two of you? But we should always have something for the passing guest; who knows when a poor man might come your way.
The habit of starting celebrations too soon and finishing them too soon is the worst aspect of a secular Christmas. The great thing is to start your own celebrations on Christmas Eve and keep them going right through the Twelve Days.
That’s where your advance preparations come in: you’re in for the long haul, right up to Epiphany and beyond, to Candlemas. When other people are going in for the horrors of Dry January or Veganuary on New Year’s Day, you’re partying with hot punch, mince pies and looking forward to Twelfth Day Cake – either the French Galette du Roe with a bean inside, or the English fruit cake.
And you know what? The friends who had thought Christmas is over are always glad to find it isn’t.