Preparations for Christmas in our house began in October. This was partly to spread the cost, but more importantly the time to make the two essentials for the forthcoming feasting; the Christmas puddings and the Christmas cake.
My mother was a fine cook, if at times a little heavy handed with the measurements, and it gave her great pleasure to begin her festive season in this way. In the early nineteen forties with the restraints of war, making any rich food was a struggle. Having an aunt with a small grocery shop and an uncle also in the grocery trade probably helped my mother obtain enough for her plans.
We were all involved in the making of the puddings. This activity took place in the early evening after tea, when, with the curtains drawn and a good fire roaring up the chimney we all gathered in the kitchen.
On an upstairs landing stood a long sideboard on which rested, from one year to the next, a large floral china bowl that was carefully carried down to the kitchen and placed in the centre of the table. Around it we would put all the ingredients. An exotic array of dried fruits, almonds, sugar, brown and white, suet in greaseproof, golden syrup, flour, crystallized fruit from the Middle East, eggs from next doorís chickens, and some of my granddadís whiskey. All of these required some preparation. The precious spices, cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg were kept to one side to be carefully measured as a last addition.
There were raisins to be stoned, almonds to be blanched, suet to be grated and fruit to be chopped. I usually had to work on the almonds, soaking them in a bowl of hot water so that the brown skins would slip away, revealing the pale cream nut, ready for chopping into small slivers of crunchiness. The crystallized fruit was my fatherís contribution. During his service in the Royal Artillery he was based in Beirut, where he saw very little action and seemed from his letters to spend most of his time playing football or going to the races. This might of course have been a smoke screen to reassure my mother that he was not in any danger. We benefited in that he was able to send us a box of fruit. This arrived in the autumn, in a round box covered in sacking. It was a joy to open, to see the rounds of fruit gleaming like exotic jewels, each centre full of delicious crumbly sugar.
Once everything was ready my mother began the mixing, adding the ingredients one by one into the bowl. Pudding basins of various sizes stood waiting, with their cloth bags secure around their necks, and a circle of greaseproof paper to cover the resulting mixture.
Once all the ingredients were in the bowl we all took turns in making a stir and a wish before my mother added the silver coins rescued from last yearís puddings. The full basins were placed in an enormous cast iron steamer pot, property of our very kind neighbour, ready for the morning when, covering two rings on the gas stove and a quarter filled with water, the contents would simmer all day, filling the room with steam and being topped up, from time to time, with more hot water from a kettle.
Tired but exhilarated we would slide off to bed, leaving our poor mother with the job of clearing away the mess we had created. Returning home from school the next day, we were greeted by a strange aroma of washday punctuated by the richness of boiled fruit and spices.
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