Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

Right so, who’s up for a frank and honest conversation about perimenopausal symptoms, the perils of freelance writing, and the politics of who is going where on Christmas Day?

No? No. Me neither.

Can we escape, instead, into a book? Come with me, please, this one is worth it.

The books. There are books in the kitchen, books in the study and books in the drawing room. There are books in my satchel, books on my desk and books by my bedside. There are novels and short stories, biographies and diaries, haikus and travelogues. There are gardening books and poetry and of course there are cook books…”He was never without a book.” I can see it now, carved on my gravestone.

He had me at “drawing room” and doubly so at “satchel.” That’s Nigel Slater using some of those words in the English language that we Irish have never felt fully entitled to use. It is an excerpt from a chapter, or entry really, as The Christmas Chronicles is more diary than cookbook, entitled A Sweet Moment. Slater describes the simple pleasure of sitting in a comfortable chair to read a book.

Howling wind or falling snow aside, the best reading companion is the smell of something baking in the oven.

No arguments here.

This is an extraordinary cookbook. I’ve never read any other cookbook that felt so intimate, so genuine, so much like an invitation to step inside a real kitchen and make myself at home.

“Come in.” Two short words, heavy with meaning. Step out of the big, bad, wet world and into my home. You’ll be safe here, toasty and well fed. “Come in.” They are two of the loveliest words to say and hear.

Can anyone else hear the ghost of Christmas present laughing in the background?

And yes, I know the world is a shit-storm at the moment, but we all need a safe harbour.

Nigel Slater’s writing would verge on maudlin, if it wasn’t tempered with such enthralling honesty. He doesn’t pretend that his memories of Christmas past aren’t tainted by grief. He doesn’t pretend that he always makes his own mincemeat. He doesn’t blithely ignore the existence of his competitors on the cookery bookery shelves. He gives credit where credit is due.  He mentions, and thanks, his followers on social media as though they were flesh and blood people.

All of this adds up to something that feels fresh and immediate and very modern. At the same time, by some sorcerer’s trick, Slater endorses time-worn traditions and exudes acute nostalgia. He made my chest ache. Ah, listen, let me cut to the chase. He made me cry. A flaming cookbook made me cry, IN THE SHOP, before I even paid for it.

If you are expecting a book of practical instructions on how to cater Christmas, you may be disappointed. The chronicles take the form of a day-by-day diary, beginning November 1st and ending on the 2nd of February. There is a lot to learn from this book: anything from the history of tinsel, Christmas stamps and pantomimes to the burn rate of candles to the best Brussels sprouts.

Nigel Slater's Fig tart

You don’t know what you are going to get from one day to the next and at times it reads as though it was a surprise to him too. Some of the entries bear all the hallmarks of a sleepy head – half formed thoughts jotted down by candle-light before dawn. A less well established author might have been compelled to edit, to tighten up, but these sleepy paragraphs, to me, were beguiling.

The only fault I found was that the book ends rather abruptly, as though he simply tore this clump of pages from his diary and sent them off to his publisher. One can only presume that we will pick up with him again, on February 3rd. It works, it leaves you wanting more, but it’s a bit too low key for me. I’m needy.

The food? I have two words for it. Comfort and joy.

Have you ever roasted a head of cabbage and then smothered it in cheese sauce? It is, without exaggeration, a cruciferous revelation.

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You’ve heard enough, I think, ( here) about the Jerusalem artichoke soup. Perhaps less of the comfort on that one but certainly joy, or maybe glee. It was worth it for the laughs.

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Cauliflower soup with a cheesy sourdough crouton was an equally delicious and less incendiary option.

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Toad-in-the-hole is not something we habitually eat in Ireland. Like drawing rooms and satchels, and Paddington Bear, this is a particularly British thing that we are not certain we are entitled to enjoy. It’s funny, when you think about it, how distinct are our cultures. I like it that way which, I suppose, is why I resist the blending of them. Regardless, this was undeniably comforting on a wet Saturday night.

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Slater’s recipes are mostly very easy and undemanding. What he offers are suggestions for a way of eating, and a way of enjoying the winter, rather than prescriptions for what is correct, or seasonal, or must-have or must-do or must-make.

My six-year-old made the Lebkuchen Chocolate Cream, all by herself…a triumph!

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The Stollen was my own particular triumph – a first but my no means last attempt. I even made the marzipan. It doesn’t look remotely like Nigel Slater’s stollen but it was very good to eat. Yes, I am quite proud.

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The Ricotta Filo Tart, a sort of Sicicilian baked cheesecake in a crispy shell was almost too pretty to crack open. Almost, but not quite.

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My forays into combining fruit with brandy have already been well-documented (here) but, I assure you, the joy continues.

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I made four jars of Slater’s quince mincemeat. It may not look beautiful but this stuff has been the mainstay of my mental health in recent days. Jar, spoon, Poldark book 10…I may just survive.

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This afternoon, by popular demand, after my girls have had their piano lesson (the piano is in the kitchen which is a very good thing with only occasional drawbacks), I shall make another batch of these quincemeat and mascarpone pies. They are exquisite little self-contained puffballs of Christmas cheer. You do have to eat them while they are still warm. Does that sound like a problem?

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I have only one other Nigel Slater cookbook on my shelves. It is called Real Food. I hardly ever cook from it, I’m not sure why not, but it contains my most favourite ever recipe –for a perfect chip butty. It’s not really a recipe, it’s a poem.

The fact that I didn’t cook much from that book has thus far inhibited me from buying any other of Nigel Slater’s books. That and the inescapable fact that they are quite expensive. Nonetheless, Item 1 on my list of New Year Resolutions is to source (hopefully second-hand) more of his books and to devour them just for the pure pleasure of it.

Slater’s is the sort of writing that makes me feel better. His words provide a sort of nourishment for the weather-beaten soul. I found this book both enlightening and inspiring. I want to eat like this, have a garden like this, make a wreath like this and yes, more than anything else, I want to write like this.

While Nigel Slater may not have the power to halt the shit-storm, he might empower you to shut the door on it. If nothing else, here is a book full to bursting with tidings of comfort and joy.

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36 thoughts on “Tidings of Comfort and Joy.

  1. I love this post. Thank you. I love it.

    I may even buy the book. Many, many years ago I discovered Nigel Slater. Back in the days when I knew little about cooking (but quite a lot about food!) I had the time and money and inclination for magazines and he was the food editor of Marie Claire. I used to rip the recipes out. I bought his Marie Claire cookbook. Quite a lot of water under the bridge, a few housemoves and a massive downsize following divorce. The realisation that I never cook from cookbooks anymore, and I got rid of heaps and heaps of them (as I did other books, clothes, furniture and everything – all sold or donated). I still have that Marie Claire cookbook. I don’t know why. It’s not like I ever use it. I probably never will. I just can’t let it go.

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  2. Lynda! You totally talked me into it – and I ordered before I even wrote this! Couldn’t find it on Amazon at first – then went to Nigel’s site and found could get through Amazon UK – never did that before – had to convert Euro to US dollars – but I did it – it is ordered – and I cannot wait to enjoy it! The words – YOUR writing – the food – YOUR photos – you are so talented lady!!!! PS I got those little lights too 🙂 Don’t they make a fun little prop for photos??!! Merry Christmas!!!!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Jodi I just have to chime in and echo every word …. Lynda is SO talented, just brilliant and wonderful and I always always have a frisson of delight when I see her come up in my reader. Rather like you, actually 😊

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  3. It’s on my bedside table. I read the first few pages last night. I have high hopes that it will help restore something. Gorgeous post, as ever. Thank you x

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  4. So I must confess …
    Your post popped up in my emails this morning just as I was about to dry my hair. I opened it on my phone and read the first paragraph — the only paragraph visible on my small screen:
    “Right so, who’s up for a frank and honest conversation about perimenopausal symptoms, the perils of freelance writing, and the politics of who is going where on Christmas Day?”
    YES! ME! THANK GOODNESS! I thought, feeling utterly relieved to know I was not alone in feeling all of that and more, oh so much more. I dried my hair, made my son’s lunch, walked a bag of donations to the school (for the am-I-the-only-one-who-loathes-this-gift-exchange-event), all the while composing my commiserating comment in my head …

    (The cookbook DOES sound lovely: “come in [from the shit-storm]” is music to my ears right now. I’m going to look into it…)

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  5. What an absolutely lovely blog post. Made me feel so happy reading it. Thank you! I love your tiny little lights, must put those on my shopping list.
    I only have one of Nigel’s books, The Kitchen Diaries. I got it a few weeks ago for £4 from a charity shop-great bargain. It’s a beautiful book to read, so peaceful. I’ve made the Double Ginger Cake from it, it’s so good, would really recommend that recipe.

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  6. It sounds utterly divine. The book paragraph alone makes me want it. I love his two Tender books, love seeing his garden and hearing him talk about the fruit and veg he’s grown. Kitchen Diaries is winging its way towards me as I type. I am longing for the Christmas one now though. CJ xx

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  7. Sold! To the over-tall woman with a drawing room and a satchel and a fetish for toad in the hole. They took me to Ireland and never ironed it out of me, they took me to France and failed again. I actually wanted to lick the screen your words and pictures are so enticing. A special shout out to Small Girl – her pot of creamy scrumptious ness looks beyond divine!

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      1. Please will you tell Small Girl that my smallest (22 – very big really) girl stayed with me last week and we actually made our own pots just because of SG’s delicious enticement. And now big small girl has returned to Liverpool and she is going to make more for all her big-small friends 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Loved your review. I love Nigel Slaters writing and his Kitchen Diaries books are well worth a look .
    I would love a post on peri menopausal symptoms though, I feel we may be on the same wavelength 😂

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  9. You had me at the diversions into the history of tinsels and burn rates of candles; any book that diverts into random tangents that turn out to be connected is delicious, mental candy. And then the photographs of your translucent tarts made with quincemeat. Lovely.

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  10. So, what time is dinner, hell with dinner, I will bring my own spoon and help devour a jar of brandy soaked socks if you have them…LOL I love reading your post…your pictures have left me hungry and I just ate lunch….and the desert your little one made, pretty sure my spoon would fit in one or more of those little jars of yummy-ness.. What fun to loose yourself away from all the hussle & bussle of life and fall into a book, page by page, word by word…Oh my you lite my cooking fire. I am off to find the book, and I even have an Amazon UK account so I am golden…. Happy Holidays my friend….Eat drink and be merry, no matter what’s going on out side the door..big hugs……Kat

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