Tuesday, 15 November 2016

My #London #Christmas Cake – A Fan Letter to London, @NigelSlater @Tonys_N2 & @W_Martyn

Daily Constitutional editor Adam Scott-Goulding writes…

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 days 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 19 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 Walks 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, ten 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 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 nine this year 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.

On that note, Isobella has already started looking ahead.

"When I leave home," she announced this year (!), 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 glacé 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 London Walks. 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.

Over the next few days I will be preparing The Daily Constitutional's annual season of Christmas shopping posts. They'll be going out all through December. Drop me a line if you'd like to suggest a great London shop or get in touch via Twitter

A London Walk costs £10 – £8 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at www.walks.com.

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