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Saturday December 14, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Saturday December 14, 2013 MYT 6:03:06 AM
by marina o'loughlin
At this time of the year, the turkey – the poultry universe’s least appealing bird – gets thrust into a limelight it doesn’t deserve.
The horrors and delights of dining out over the festive season considered.
IF ever there were a phrase to strike fear into the heart, it’s this one. Apart from “All you can eat buffet”, these words are the excuse for the most crimes committed against food since chefs first plastered Knorr stock cubes over an innocent chicken breast.
There’s the stuffing, a sub-Paxo horror of clag that attaches itself to the roof of your mouth like the creature in Alien. Chipolatas with the texture of ossified rabbit droppings. Leathery roast potatoes, sugary, filling-bothering cranberry jelly, grouty bread sauce with enough clove to cure toothache.
And the turkey – a greige, stringy beast, slumping exhaustedly on its bier of parsnips. It’s the poultry universe’s least appealing bird thrust into a limelight it deserves about as much as I deserve a pop music award. And do not even get me started on what batch catering does to sprouts. Sulphuric.
A homemade Christmas dinner can be a thing of Dickensian beauty, but restaurant versions seem to have gone through some kind of transmogrification machine. Never has any meal made me want cheese on toast more.
Christmas Day is a time for giving. And giving until it hurts. The festive season is an excuse for many restaurants to get as enthusiastically loot-hungry as those vultures at Valentine’s who smilingly scalp you because you’re so loved-up you won’t notice the extra money for the banal set meal and the “free” red rosebud. A ton a head is about par for the course before you even attempt a small sherry; and I hope they’re platinum-plating the truffled chicken they’re serving at a luxury hotel, given the prices they charge at such places for Christmas Day lunch.
Other people behave very strangely at this time of year. In the lead-up to Christmas, it’s the office party, that arena for people who don’t normally go to restaurants unless they sell bread roll “subs” by the yard. There’s crying and singing and bad party hat-wearing and fighting and snogging and vomiting – and that’s just the management.
On Christmas Day itself, the mood is more sombre. Restaurants are populated by families who leap at the excuse to slope off home early to Christmas television, so as not to endure too long a session with barely tolerated relatives. This is an event whose curious form of melancholy cannot be punctured by any number of cheap crackers.
All Christmas puddings
Here’s just what you want after a gazillion-calorie lunch: a gazillion-calorie dessert. I realise I’m in a minority here, but I loathe Christmas pudding, an oafish, doughy oik of a thing, reeking of antiseptic spices and gluey with fat and wrinkly fruit.
And then – excellent idea – lard it up with brandy butter. I hate mince pies, too, especially if the restaurant has helpfully microwaved them so the mincemeat is about the same temperature as the sun. Bite into one of these and it will strip off layers of skin from your gob as effectively as an acid peel.
Chefs like to get creative with these kinds of things, so they give us Christmas pudding ice-cream. Or mince-pie brulee or cupcakes. I’ve seen mince pie macaroons and “Christmas trifle truffles”, for God’s sake. In the US, I’ve seen that ice-cream specialists Salt & Straw in foodie Mecca Portland, Oregon, is offering a turkey gelato. A small sliver of perfectly affine stilton is the only sane riposte to this kind of utter nonsense.
Basically, they hate us for so many reasons. Big parties tip appallingly (see above for general behaviour). Family parties, ditto, because the last time Pa had to pay for everyone, they were lucky to get a pound note, and Ma likes a substitution or two (“Could I have the turkey, but with the gravy on the side and broccoli instead of sprouts, and don’t you have custard?”); she also vibrates with tension if there’s a gap of more than three minutes between courses.
As far as chefs are concerned, they’re just trying to get rid of the stuff that’s destined to die a lingering death while the restaurant has its annual shut-down, hence the increasingly desperate-sounding “specials”. Sea bass with Pernod and cranberry, anyone? Surliness and tired food: who could resist?
This is the time of year when even the most chic of restaurants resorts to glittery kitsch.
Glittery kitsch can be a wonderful, life-affirming thing if it’s done with wild abandon and Rabelaisian lack of restraint: fairy lights a gogo, sparkly bunting, vast trees heaving with a thousand mismatched baubles.
But Christmas doesn’t lend itself to moderation. When those minimalist beige swankpots try to do festive – a few poinsettias and a single “important” bauble – the effect can deliver a bad bout of tristesse.
The restaurant decoration that lives in my memory most was at the Heron, a notoriously “authentic” Thai restaurant in west London. They’d carefully snow-sprayed several snowmen around the walls and pillars of the basement space, on to which someone – who knows, perhaps the Heron themselves? – had equally carefully sprayed large snowmen penises.
Someone else takes the strain. The bliss of this! The sheer, serene joy of not having to plan several weeks in advance a meal that will take about an hour to demolish to a sprouty rubble.
Not having to order the turkey or free-range goose before it’s too late, not having to feed the Christmas cake at regular intervals as though it were a needy, boozehound baby.
There’s no need to feverishly scan magazine articles in which celebrities pretend to adore Christmas, feeling utterly inadequate that you haven’t airily knocked together a Christmas lunch table that looks like a department store’s festive window display.
You don’t have to pin to-do lists to the cooker hood, documents as complex as a military campaign.
And, most glorious of all, there’s no washing up.
Any restraint I might pretend to practise flees in the face of Christmas leftovers. I’ve been known to have a Boxing Day sandwich composed of turkey, cranberry, stuffing, jellified gravy and solidified bread sauce (recommended). Hell, I’ve even fried up stuffing for breakfast (also recommended).
The slumpy inertia of the festivities’ dog-end days means that the only exercise many of us get is slumping from the sofa to the fridge, each time coming away with a corner of brie, a chipolata or a chunk of sage and onion. If you don’t have the feast, you don’t have the temptation. I’ll miss that sandwich, though.
For 364 days of the year, I regard Bailey’s Irish Cream and its league of siblings and imitators as some kind of treacly, cloying abomination: a curious tincture resistant to any form of normal inebriation. Order this from any self-respecting sommelier, and you’ll be met with a huge sneer.
But something weird happens at Christmas and suddenly I find myself quite fancying one. And the gloves are off; the sommelier will just have to bite it.
You can drink what you like. Order away. Drink mulled wine until your head spins and your lips are stained cinnamony purple. I do draw the line at Advocaat, however. Especially a cocktail made with the Dutch eggy mess with a splodge of cherry brandy on top. Its name? The Burst Boil.
There are restaurants that can imbue even the most festive-resistant curmudgeon with all the joys of the season. Wood-panelled old timers who give it gay abandon with the tinsel. Ones furnished with spitting log fires and the aroma of roasting meats, the kind of place that feels odd to visit in blazing sunlight. – Guardian News & Media
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Health, dining out, eating out, Christmas, turkey
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