Funny the difference words can make to food. When I learned Spanish, I learned that the term frutos secos, dried fruits, included nuts as well as what the English called dried fruits. In Spanish, frutos secos are divided into those without hard shells (raisins, figs, etc) and those with shells you have to crack (almonds, walnuts, etc). The fruits of the earth, a phrase that goes back to Roman times, much broader than now.
Now I see English Christmas in the 1950s as an orgy of frutos secos. Rationing was finally, finally coming to an end and those who remembered the freely available sugar and fat of the 1930s were eager to have it again.
The beginning of December was the time for making mincemeat and Christmas puddings. My mother set aside an evening, everyone gathered around the kitchen table, and she produced tiny currants, larger raisins, and golden translucent sultanas, ground almonds, and spices that she had ordered from the grocer. The currants, raisins and sultanas had to be washed and seeded, a sticky task time-consuming task.
My grandmother usually had the tedious job of rubbing bread through a horsehair sieve to make soft, fine breadcrumbs. These, along with the dried fruit, chopped apple, grated carrots, suet, eggs, and a little milk were tipped into the big mixing bowl for the Christmas puddings.
We children ritually shut our eyes, stirred, and made a wish. Usually I wished for a present.
If the weather was cold, I wished that the pipes would not freeze. They brought spring water from the tank above the stables at the far end of the house. Because the stone walls were so thick they had been run along the outside. No water was not such a problem for the family but we always had a few buckets set aside. But the thirty or forty hungry calves in the barn across the yard had to be fed with milk twice a day, milk mixed with water from the taps outside the kitchen window and powdered milk from the sacks in the feed store. Frozen pipes spoilt everything as my father, balanced on a ladder with a blow torch, shouted directions as he tried to get the water running.
But back to dried fruit and nuts. The puddings were packed into basins, topped with waxed paper held on with knotted knicker elastic under the lip of the bowl. Next morning they were steamed for hours until black and soft, the individual dried fruits now indistinguishable. Then they were stored in the pantry, some for the current year, some for the following year. There was no need for refrigeration. And the mincemeat, more dried fruit, apples, spices, and suet, was cooked and put in jars.
A week or two later, it was time to make the Christmas cake using the same ingredients except that flour substituted for breadcrumbs, butter for suet. The mixture was spooned into a round tin and baked.
A few days before Christmas, my mother made the mince pies, “a right fiddle” as she always said. She collected the patty pans and cutters, made a quantity of short crust pastry, rolled out sheets, cut the bottoms for the pies and patted them into the pans, added a tablespoon of mincemeat to each, and a swish of beaten eggs, then more rolling, cutting the smaller tops, patting them on, and another swish of beaten egg. After baking these were stored in a cake tin.
On Christmas Eve, we mixed icing sugar, egg white, and ground almonds to make almond paste and joy, joy, rolled it out nibbling it, to shroud the cake. Then
we made the royal icing and that went on top. And best of all it was decorated with small reindeer and Christmas trees, and bound around with a gaudy fringe.
Then came Christmas day. Following the main course at midday, everyone had a small slice of Christmas pudding with a tablespoon of brandy poured over it, even the children, and good cream on the side.
At tea time, there was Christmas cake along with the Christmas crackers.
And in the evening, when relatives assembled, on the side tables in the sitting room were the other Christmas frutos secos which we had been strictly forbidden to touch until that moment: sticky dates in long chipboard boxes, dried figs in round chipboard boxes, marzipan, sugared plums for my father, sugar mice, and a big wooden bowl of nuts to crack—walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds, and brazil nuts.
And finally there were mince pies.
When I moved to the United States, I dragged along a mixing bowl, pudding basins, and patty pans. I made pudding and mince pies every year, though not the cake. They were surprisingly popular with friends and family though a good bit of ground work had to be done. Mince pies were sweet not savory, I explained, the equivalent of Christmas cookies. And the pudding was so rich that a couple of bites were enough.
Judging by the stores in Girona in northern Spain that I visited last Spring frutos secos are still very popular there.
But in the United States (and I suspect in Britain) they are not the sugary, fatty treats they once were. Chocolate has swept all before it in the sweet line. And just plain nuts don’t stand up to roasted and salted and caramelized nuts for many people.
I don’t say this with regret. Tastes in food change.
Two American friends have been writing about these Christmas treats. Cindy Bertelson has resurrected an older piece by Cliff Doerkson on mince pies as they once were when they contained meat. That’s a whole other thing. And Anne Bramley talks about mince pies as they now are.
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