Cities in the UK are dotted with restaurants catering to the growing number of vegans, vegetarians, and ‘flexitarians’ in the country — a movement encouraging people to adopt a mostly plant-based diet, with room for occasional meat. Travelling in the countryside however, is a wee bit trickier. Pop into a traditional British pub and your options are often limited to chips, margherita pizza, cheese and onion rolls, or a sad salad. Or the worst thing I’ve ever eaten: blueberry and goat cheese pie.
So when we were invited up to Market Harborough, a tiny town in the midlands to celebrate a traditional Christmas with my husband’s family, I braced myself for brussels sprouts, yorkshire pudding, and maybe some cake and custard.
“I could have roast potatoes!” I added to the WhatsApp group. “We traditionally make them with lard, which goes in yorkshire puddings too,” texted my father-in-law. They must’ve felt a little bit sorry for me, because the next day I got a text stating that a vegetarian Christmas pudding was being made especially for me, with brandy-soaked raisins, currants, cherries, apples, carrots, and almonds. I couldn’t bring myself to tell them I don’t really fancy Christmas pudding.
The family Christmas Eve dinner tradition has always been to enjoy a home-cooked lasagna, layered with a rich bolognese-style sauce and topped off with a creamy bechamel. So, of course, I assumed my dinner would be a cheese sandwich with some crisps, and a pot of hummus if I was lucky. “Or,” my in-laws suggested, “You could make us a curry?”
And so a decades-long tradition was broken. Christmas Eve dinner was a muttai curry tempered with mustard seeds and karuveipillai , a baby-potato biryani with caramelised onions, and thayir sadham . A whole new world of flavours and aromas for the residents of the street — if I may say so myself. My offer to swap out their china for banana leaves, however, was politely declined.
Farm to Fork
On Christmas morning, I bounded down the stairs two at a time for Christmas-special pancakes, but was handed a coat and told to get in the car instead. “We’re going foraging.”
We drove to the family allotment, a part of farming land rented out to residents to grow their own produce.
Now, there are degrees of madness, but my family set new benchmarks. For there wasn’t a soul in sight on the farm on the freezing Christmas morning, and a thick layer of steam was lifting off the frosted soil, with the winter sun raising the temperature to a couple above zero.
But my father-in-law and his mate Graham simply had to pick the freshest brussels and parsnips for their family dinner. “We like a frost over our parsnips before digging them out, it makes them sweeter,” imparted Graham, as he dusted the ice off his vegetables.
By 2 pm, the kitchen was buzzing, the counters filled with baking trays, serving bowls and wine glasses. The usually curious family cat couldn’t make sense of the volley of smells, and headed out to chase birds and mice instead.
The meal began with a clementine and cranberry bucks fizz, followed by a butternut squash, peppers and chilli soup. Garnished with fresh coriander leaves and croutons, it was possibly the most delicious serving of butternut squash I’ve had. The trick, it seems, is in letting original flavours thrive without dumping a load of spices in. The meat-eaters dug into a starter of parma-ham, melon and grapes. Christmas crackers, trivia cards, mandatory dad-jokes and a few more glasses of fizz later, our appetites were ready for the main course.
In what was a true shock, there was a total of two items I could not eat — roast turkey, and pigs in blankets. The potatoes were roasted in rapeseed oil, the parsnips glazed with maple syrup, the red cabbage braised with apples and butter. Traditional gravy was swapped out for onion gravy, yorkshire pudding replaced with carrot and swede mash, and crispy bacon bits left off the freshly-picked steamed brussels sprouts. Especially for the rabbit in the house, a cranberry and brie tart topped with pumpkin seeds made an appearance, its filo pastry crisp and golden.
It may not have been Christmasy in any way, but the dish of cauliflower and broccoli baked in a sauce made with milk, cheese, stock, flour, chives and dijon mustard was a hit, even among the staunch carnivores.
For dessert, two look-alike puddings were topped with flaming rum, and served with a choice of cream, and brandy-cream. The vegetarian one was made with faux-suet (palm oil, wheat or rice flour). “You’re going to finish this entire veggie Christmas pudding, aren’t you?”
“Only if you tell me how you made the croissants,” I tried my luck.
“Well my dear,” said the father-in-law, “You will have to ask the chef at Waitrose.”