She smiled to herself. ‘All the same old things, the Christmas tree and the stockings hung up and the oyster soup and the turkey – two turkeys, one boiled and one roast – and the plum pudding with the ring and the bachelor’s button and all the rest of it… all the old desserts, the Elvas plums and Carlsbad plums and almonds and raisins, and crystallized fruit and ginger. Dear me, I sound like a catalogue from Fortnum and Mason!’
The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, Agatha Christie
I haven't been 'home' for Christmas since 2008. It's expensive to fly at this time of year and, unlike many of my Antipodean friends, I have no interest in ever again experiencing a Queensland summer. The grey skies, blustery winds and afternoon twilight of an English winter suit me perfectly. I particularly love this country at Christmas; all those songs of my childhood, about chestnuts and winter and snow, suddenly make sense. But, of course, it isn't easy being so far away from my parents, my beloved sister and brother-in-law, my cousins, grandparents, aunts, uncles and friends. There's a reason Tim Minchin sings (so beautifully) about it.
Luckily, and to my immense joy, I have found a surrogate family in the UK. Their house in Gloucestershire - twelve pairs of shoes piled beside the door, the Guardian arriving on the doorstep each morning, a biscuit tin filled with Swedish treats, and a room of my very own - is as familiar and dear to me as any I have ever lived in. And the people in it are my family, in everything but blood.
I've known them since I was born, mostly via letters, photographs and three memorable holidays in the years I lived back in Australia. I first spent Christmas in their home aged 22, immediately intimidated by the intelligence, wit and talent of my now sister, brother, and cousin. I wanted to be a part of their gang, a member of the group with something to offer. But I didn't play an instrument, or make films, and I couldn't keep up with their comedy shorthand. Thankfully, they also love food as much as I do. And so I cooked. I roasted and sautéed and stuffed and rolled. I made us elaborate midnight feasts, on arriving home from gigs. I baked cakes for birthdays and holidays and weekends in the country. I started, with greater confidence, to suggest ideas for meals, including the all important Christmas Day dinner. Seven years on, I have begun to make it my profession.
Early on, when wandering through the house, I discovered Anna's bookshelves. I found that we have similar taste - for years we both worked through the classics included on all those 'Top 100 Books to Read' lists, and shared similar opinions on so many of them. We love Potter, and His Dark Materials and share a great and enduring love for Agatha Christie. I read at least one of Christie's books every Christmas. They are like a warm bath or a mug of builder's tea: comforting, familiar and particularly welcome in winter. I have now read them all, but return to my favourites like old friends, unconcerned that the denouncement will not come as a shock. I think I like them better this way, reassured that I am standing beside Poirot, Marple or Tommy and Tuppence, rather than staying a step (or several) behind.
This year, I have missed many of my Christmas traditions. I have been living out of a suitcase for the past few months, so haven't made chutney, or marmalade, or mince pies. I haven't bought a tree on Columbia Road Market. I haven't wrapped presents in brown paper and string, or made Christmas cards. And then I arrived in Gloucestershire this week, to a gingerbread house, and a tree to decorate, and a shelf full of Agatha Christie. So I made come crystallised ginger - a favourite in this house, and in my grandad's, on the other side of the world.
A very Merry Christmas to you all.
Makes around 100 pieces
200g ginger (peeled weight)
300g golden caster sugar, plus 100g extra for dusting
1. Ensure that your ginger is fresh, firm and fragrant. Peel it by scraping a spoon over the skin - you'll lose far less of the flesh than you do with a peeler, and it's even easier to work around a knobbly thumb of ginger this way. Slice it into very fine discs - around 1mm thick.
2. Place the ginger slices in the small saucepan and cover with water. Place the saucepan over a medium heat, and simmer for 15 minutes. Strain off the cooking liquid, setting it aside for later, then cover the ginger with more water and boil for a further ten minutes. Strain the liquid, again retaining it for later.
3. Put the sugar, honey, salt and 375ml of the ginger cooking liquid in the medium saucepan. Add the cooked ginger too. Bring the liquid to the boil, simmering until the syrup resembles honey.
4. While the syrup is bubbling away, prepare a cooling rack with a baking tray lined with greaseproof paper underneath, to catch the drips and excess sugar. Rub the cooling rack with a tiny amount of flavourless oil so that the ginger doesn't stick.
5. Prepare a bowl with the extra sugar. Remove the saucepan of ginger from the heat and scoop the pieces out a few at a time with the slotted spoon, dropping them into the sugar and tossing them around. Transfer to the cooling rack and allow to dry for a couple of hours, or overnight. The ginger will keep for a few weeks at room temperature. You can eat the pieces as is, or chop them up and add them to biscuits, cakes or puddings.
NB. The leftover gingery syrup can be poured over ice-cream, or pancakes, or added to cakes. Any excess sugar can be used for baking.