15–22nd December: Spending Frenzy


(Mark Sampson) #1

Thank heavens for the comparative sanity of rural France. Give or take the odd over-dressed maison aux illuminations de Blackpool, the French generally seem to have a more clear-headed attitude when it comes to Christmas. Except when it comes to food, of course.


It's a relief to be home. I was in grave danger of being swept away in the tsunami of spending. Today's Grauniad home page tell us that Visa expects Britons (who will never, never be slaves to anything other than Big Retail) to add an extra £1.3 billion to their credit card accounts in a frenzy of last-minute shopping for Christmas. The horror, the horror! The waste, the waste. If all that money spent on fragrant cosmetics, Bristol Cream Sherry, socks and other potentially superfluous gifts could be channelled into something more worthwhile, just think...


Not that I am blameless. Au contraire, mes braves. Last year's worthy endangered wildlife adoptions were met with resounding silence from the UK branch of the family, so this year I felt I had to buy more conventional gifts lest the names of the French Connection were turned to mud. So The Kid and I took some time off from family duties to visit Southampton city centre one afternoon last week.


We started off in Ikea and did the usual trick of amassing a substantial bill with insubstantial trifles that we probably didn't need anyway. Then Tilley talked me into lunch in the West Quay shopping complex, where we were unable to avert our eyes from the spectacle of overweight Britons augmenting their paunches with chips and other starch-enriched food. We split up afterwards, so I could buy stocking fillers from Poundland, spices and pickles from the Asian Food Emporium and sensible presents from Waterstone and the HMV shop, while my daughter conducted her own top-secret business. Everywhere was teeming and overheated and I was dressed for more continental winter weather. By the time we missed our agreed rendezvous – because I was inside rather than outside the HMV shop – we were both about ready to expire or to kill. Fortunately, we forwent an East Enders-style slanging match in favour of some deep breathing laced with a healthy dash of philosophy.


It wasn't that we were over there to shop, but given that Britain is so geared up for it and that Brive offers such a limited choice, it made sense to join in the communal madness. No, we were there to relieve my sisters by helping my father merge into his new flat. And once it was a little more straight, then there was time off at the weekend to attend my nephew's wedding.


I'm relieved to report that it wasn't the kind of fairy-princess affair that cripples domestic economies. It was simple, elegant and thoroughly enjoyable. My nephew's sombre suit was enlivened by the ornate waistcoat from Liberty's that my father wore on his wedding day. His bride wore a pair of Uggs underneath her wedding dress, which she kept on right to the very end of the evening party to derive maximum benefit from an outfit that will undoubtedly be worn only once. My great nephews were all kitted out in clothes that were bought on the cheap from eBay. The table decorations for the afternoon 'wedding breakfast' were all hand-made by the radiant – and, it would seem, thoroughly practical – bride, and the speeches were concise, heartfelt and suitably lacking in pretension. So the whole affair will be nominated for the 2014 Queen's Award for Dignity and Modesty in the Face of Prevalent Ostentation.


While breaking my fast, I chatted to the young woman to my knife-side. She was born in Chile, but moved with her parents to Sweden about 30 years ago, where she lives on the edge of the conifer woods not too far from Stockholm. She met her boyfriend, the bride's brother, bizarrely by playing Xbox games on the computer (if I've reported the term correctly). They teamed up on a search-and-destroy mission and developed such a rapport on their virtual walky-talkies that they have now teamed up in the parallel real world. I can only imagine that it must be like a Territorial Army exercise without having to leave the comfort of your own computer.


I have always had a touching faith that the sensible Scandinavian countries might yet lead us through a last-minute escape tunnel into a kind of promised car-less land of moderate weather and sylvan fields where humans, animals and a better class of insects live together in blissful harmony. It seems that I am misguided. She told me a familiar tale of burgeoning political extremism, unseasonably warm winters and, just to put the old tin lid on it, a similar kind of US-aping commercial apocalypse in the lead-up to Christmas.


After such knowledge, what forgiveness...? I kissed my demented mother goodbye and hoped that she continued to recover from her latest bout of care-home pneumonia. I hugged my father, the World's Laziest Man, and expressed the wish that he might learn to be a little more self-reliant in his new (tidier and less cluttered) residence. I packed the Berlingo with a trunk full of my mother's unpublished manuscripts, a box full of unwanted paperbacks (mainly given to my mother by her oldest child), bags of reciprocal presents and all those spices and stocking fillers from Southampton city centre, and set off for home. A beautifully packed boot is not quite so fine if you forget your daughter's winter overcoat and your own phone and camera chargers.


Never mind. We got back in one piece. It's a long, long way from Le Havre to La Poujade Basse, but French roads are mercifully emptier than all those British roads choked with last-minute shoppers. We ran into a bouchon through Limoges, but by then the grey sky of northern France had turned miraculously into the radiant blue of a proper cold continental winter's day. We were still back early enough to enjoy my wife's aubergine pie and an evening of decking the halls with decorations in preparation for our own brand of traditional family Christmas. The financial wound has been cauterised and the bleeding staunched before permanent damage was incurred.


I shall raise a glass at lunchtime on the 25th to the ghost of Cockers past. I learnt on my return that Joe has died at the age of 70. Not only was he a son of Sheffield, but he was blessed with a seriously good set of pipes. I remember clearly the site of that dishevelled man in a tie-die T-shirt on Top of The Pops, arms flailing epileptically as he delivered his almost unrecognisable version of 'With A Little Help From My Friends'. I rushed out to buy the single – on the Regal Zonophone label if I'm not mistaken. Even though his taste became a little questionable over the years, I wish I still had that record in my collection.


So Happy Christmas one and all – including the late lamented Joseph Cocker, should he be up there in some kind of Afterlife, backed by the Grease Band and writhing in apparent agony.


(Jane Williamson) #2

Pintade a la forestiere, which is with mushrooms in a creamy sauce. Lovely. You can have it with roasted root vegetables.


(Ian Cowburn) #3

Ah-ha! Victoria sponge is on my to-do list, with blackberry filling and custard (the last bit is a secret, only for addicts)


(Brian Milne) #4

Käsekuchen - Cheese cake. Got the ingredients now, popular demand, with menaces if not) from family.


(Ian Cowburn) #5

Got one, from the local farm producer lady. Herself says it'll be pintade au citron. I'm not bothered, as long as I get to do gravy & roasted taties :)

Dunno wot dessert will be, yet...


(Brian Milne) #6

Snap Ian, local produce shop who normally have the same stuff as the market. Ironically, when I got home one of the hunters called by to see if we wanted some of the massive sanglier in the back of his van. The bugger is a huge tusker so I said a little bit, he said he will cut us off a haunch! Going out with the hunt for the odd couple of hours like yesterday when they got a bounty rather than sod all most Sundays pays off. Not only do I get to make sure no passing walkers (very few this time of year in this association's patch) get blasted, freeze my gonads and get fairly wet as a rule, but am starting to get a dribble of the stuff they don't sell to the butchers or stuff their own freezers full of. Anyway, we have the bird, the pig will go in the freezer.

So, I the pintade will be stuffed with pine nuts, Padano and other stuff Italian style by herself and I get to do dessert (that I barely touch myself) so off to buy stuff blind in a minute.


(Ian Cowburn) #7

So, Herself has agreed we'll do a pintade for New Year's Eve. Found one in Carrefour just now but not very interesting, from miles away not local, so I'll get on the phone later on to a few producteurs, see if they have anything left!


(Criquette Olga Robinson) #8

Glad I resisted the urge to celebrate Christmas other than a delicious meal cooked by friends in the South of France where we travelled via Toulouse....


(Mark Sampson) #9

Hello All! Thanks for your comments and well wishes. I fully intended to mention Billie Whitelaw, Doreen, but kind of ran out of space and inspiration. She was a wonderful actress and probably never finer than in that Samuel Beckett play where she's buried up to her neck. 'Happy Days', I think. She was in a film that's very hard to find these days, made by John Boorman of 'Point Blank' fame, 'Leo the Last' - with Marcello Mastroianni if I remember correctly. They're dropping like flies; it's very sad. Nevertheless, happy days to y'all - and bon fin de vacances. Good luck in Bordeaux, by the way Shaun. A beautiful city. My favourite in France.


(Diana Pinnell) #10

I only saw Joe Cocker live on one occasion, at the Paleo festival at Nyon near Geneve, must have been 10 or more years ago. He was incredible, the same power and character, he just sang and sang, for far longer than the programme had planned. I have never enjoyed any concert as much, and will never forget it.


(Jane Williamson) #11

We have no family with us this year, so will be off to the Restaurant in a few minutes.

We are not big present givers, we have given each daughter and family the money for a really good day out, the English contingent will take the boys to LEGOLAND and the Munich contingent are still making their mind up.

I knitted Jim an alpaca pullover, very traditional and not a reindeer in sight!

Happy Christmas and I look forward to more tales in the New Year.


(Brian Milne) #12

That is the Woodstock pic of Cocker, watch the whole performance on YouTube. I did when I heard he had gone. He was the world's greatest ever air guitarist. I have already raised a glass.

So, tomorrow, kind of traditional. Nobody likes turkey and finding a decent uneviscerated goose with its liver and the rest of the offal for the stock is demanding more than too much. So game pie with an excessively buttered pastry it shall be, followed by a cherry, marzipan crumble with crême anglais (custard in old money) which is shall magically produce by lunch tomorrow.

Right now, with little intervals, I am still working of necessity. I must go to start tomorrow's food by putting the venison, etc, to cook slowly to produce the nicest pie quality, then make my various pastries.

When I made Weihnachtsstolle this year I also made a surplus of marzipan, so this evening's dessert is stuffed figs with amaretto and vanilla whipped cream (crème Chantilly if you must).

This is my blow out, then back to excessively, or perhaps obsessively, eating the right things to trim Christmas gains back off. As for excess, well I let my hair down this year and heavily dented my not to full bank account.

Well, who knows when we are off to see Cocker, Jack Bruce, Johnny Winter, Bobby Womack,Lou Reed, Paco de Lucia and all the others who went on eternal tour during 2014. If you have to go the show wherever is going to be great.