Saturday, 12 December 2020

My Christmas Cake

Adam Scott-Goulding writes…

(A version of this post was first published on the Daily Constitutional back in 2016)

My London Christmas Cake is one of my very favourite things in the whole world. It costs an abject bloody fortune to make but I don't care. The aroma that fills the house for ages afterward is priceless. The shopping, the preparing, the baking, the feeding, the icing, the consumption and the sharing are all a part of my family Christmas ritual.

It comes from my very favourite newspaper - The Observer. When I was a teenager, my English teacher, an inspirational fella called Brian Dunbar, recommended that we read a quality newspaper at the weekend. It was good, he said, not only for current affairs, but also for vocabulary.

Mine was not the kind of house to take a quality newspaper - especially not one that cost a mighty 60p! So an arrangement was struck whereby I would get Mr Dunbar's copy of The Observer on the Monday after he had done with it.

Those second-hand copies turned into a lifelong habit.

I have had many favourite Observer writers down through the years, but my most enduring love affair is with Nigel Slater, the food writer.

His Christmas cake recipe, published in November 1997, is as great a recipe as it is a piece of writing. I have made it every year for 23 years. And it's my London Christmas Cake because I've never made it anywhere else. I have spent my entire adult life in The Big Smoke and this cake has become an annual marker of my progress through the city, first as a journalist and latterly as a London tour guide.

Mr Slater (Come on, Your Maj, Knighthood any day now, surely) begins…

"I have been attempting to recreate the moist dark, crumbly Christmas cake my mother used to bake. Where the recipe came from is anyone's guess; all I know is that it is now presumably in the hands of whoever inherited our dear old Kenwood mixer – a huge cream and black thing slightly less noisy than a cement mixer – which only ever saw the light of day at Christmas. The sacred formula was scribbled on a piece of blue Basildon Bond, and folded in four like a love letter."

This was the paragraph that caught my imagination. It's very often the case with Nige (I feel I can call him that, after all these years) that there's one killer line or paragraph or phrase in his recipes that makes me go: "I have GOT to make this NOW!"

What a set up: the long-lost mixer… the word "sacred"… and with the Basildon Bond comes the clincher.  As he so often does, Slater shows us the world in a grain of muscovado sugar and heaven in a sheet of writing paper.

It's also my London Christmas Cake because I get to visit two of my favourite shops to buy the ingredients.

Back in '97, when I first made the cake, I was living in North London, in Muswell Hill. London Foodies well know that Muswell Hill is famous for Martyns, purveyors of fine goods since 1897. (A pot of their Assam tea sits on the desk as I blog this.)

Even when I moved to Forest Hill, in South London, I would still make the trek to the wilds of North London, even if only for Martyn's candied peel - whole strips of lime, lemon and orange peel still retaining their natural colour but encrusted in sticky white sugar. It knocks spots off those niggardly crumbs of peel in the horrid plastic tubs that can be found in the supermarket. Nasty stuff, it looks like the mysterious detritus one might find in the corner of an old overcoat pocket.

Then, thirteen years ago, I moved back to North London, to East Finchley where the second last piece of the jigsaw fell into place: Tony's Continental on the High Road N2

My favourite fruit and vegetable seller in all of London, the guys at Tony's are that rarest of things - gourmets without being fancy, they're knowledgeable and always friendly. They also stock special treats from southern Europe to enliven any Christmas table. Between Martyn's and Tony's Continental, I can get everything I need to make Lord Slater of Observershire's heftily epic confection.

My London Christmas Cake odyssey is completed by the arrival of my baking assistant, Isobella. Born in South London in 2007 – at King's, Denmark Hill, in the mighty borough of Lambeth – she arrived in time for the 10th anniversary of my Christmas cake, even though she played no part in its making or consumption that year.

Isobella is now thirteen and her involvement in the process has gone from Bowl Licker In Chief…

 … to Master Measurer (parents: never miss a mathematics teaching moment!) to full-blown baker in her own right. 

It won't be long before I am HER assistant. Two years ago she made her debut operating the heavy machinery…

On that note, Isobella has already started looking ahead.

"When I leave home," she announced four years ago (!), as the sugar and the butter and the nuts and the fruit and the eggs and the flour flew through our kitchen (the Herculean clean up is also part of the ritual), "When I leave home I'm going to use this recipe for my Christmas cake, only I'm going to put LOADS more cherries in it."

And with that I was back to Nigel Slater's original piece of writing way back in 1997. We're making more than a cake, here. We're making memories.

I never did get around to transferring the recipe by hand to a piece of blue Basildon Bond. I always meant to. But down through the years, the original page from the Observer magazine has taken on a character all its own. Stained by sticky figs, moistened by squeezed orange juice, the paper now feels like papyrus, resembling some document you see on TV being handled by an expert in protective gloves. One day it will be Isobella's.

Slater includes tips on how to ice the beast, too. And I have always wanted to try the jam and glazed fruit option.

But I doubt I ever will.

The final part of the ritual involves me stating that, one of these years, I'm going to glaze the thing with homemade apricot jam and glacĂ© fruit. But then my wife Karen makes her annual speech in praise of icing and marzipan, with all the eloquent persuasion of an Obama in an apron, a Churchill with a rolling pin for a cigar. When she's in full spate it's as hard to imagine our cake without that white and yellow gown of icing sugar and almonds, as it is to picture Santa in anything but a red & white suit.

Besides, as she spreads the icing, it reminds me of her description of the Theatre Royal, Haymarket from her Village in Piccadilly walking tour that she leads for London Walks – its neo-classical frontage is, she says, "iced with stucco". Our cake – it started off, you'll note, as "my" cake but by Christmas Eve it's brought the whole family together – is, to my eye, every bit as impressive to look at as London's most beautiful theatre.

We eat our cake well into the New Year. Guests leave with lumps big (and heavy) enough to be plausible murder weapons in Cluedo. I might even bring a slice or two on one of my January walking tours, if you'd like to try some. But only if my osteopath gives me the all-clear to carry it.

Thanks Nigel, Tony's, Martyn's, Karen & Isobella. Compliments of the season to you all.

Find Tony's Continental here…

Find W. Martyn here…

For a version of Nigel Slater's Christmas cake recipe, go to the Guardian website HERE.

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Friday, 30 October 2020

An American Werewolf In London

DC Editor Adam conducts…

A Horror Movie Mini-Tour of London No.1 An American Werewolf in London (1981)

It takes a pretty special project to be a successful spoof, a genuinely shocking horror and a bloody good movie all at the same time. Pun most definitely intended.

An American Werewolf in London has a special resonance here at The Daily Constitutional: it teems with London locations; and our protagonist is bitten by a werewolf on (gulp) a walking tour

In writer/director John Landis’s 1981 film, Jack Goodman (Griffin Dunne) stalks the streets of London on a murderous rampage, leading a lycanthropic double life that is not without its lighter moments (!). 

The scene in the wolf enclosure at London Zoo, where Jack wakes up stark naked after a night of shapeshifting and carnage is particularly memorable. In an attempt to cover his nudity, Jack takes some balloons from a schoolboy. 

The little boy’s memorable deadpan complaint to the nearest (clothed) adult remains one of my favourite lines in any movie: 

“A naked American man stole my balloons.”

Here's the trailer…

For those of you as obsessed with London-spotting in the movies as I am, An American Werewolf is a particular joy. 

The usual suspects are here, of course: Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus and the rest. But I'd like to pick two out-of-the-way locations…

One of the gorier scenes is set on Hampstead Heath, with Well Walk featuring in the build-up…

(Spoiler alert? Well, the smart money was always on the werewolf…)

Redcliffe Square in Kensington stars as the exterior of Nurse Alex Price's flat (as played by Jenny Agutter)…

But it is perhaps the chase scene at Tottenham Court Road Underground station that is of most value to us today, given just how much that station has changed in the intervening decades since 1981. Here's how Tottenham Court Road looked before the installation of the Paolozzi mosaics…

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