Buying and decorating a Christmas tree along with baking 48 mince pies, RACHEL JOHNSON describes her life during the festive season.
‘There are things in this family that only I notice, care about, attempt to deal with or resolve, and I know it’s the same for you in your family, too.’ Thus Caitlin Moran began her column on Saturday in the Times Magazine.
It was a sorrowing list of only a few of the many, many things that need doing around the house that only she, Caitlin, does: she gives flea powder to the dog, she oils the wooden worktops, she chucks empty loo rolls away, and, above all, she buys, then turns on and off, myriad side lights every day.
She climaxes her domestic-martyrdom peroration with the magnificent line, ‘basically I am a Victorian lamplighter’.
Love it, but I could go even further. Domestic martyr daily, tick – but at Christmas?
I am a whirling, one-woman Catherine Wheel of self-crucifying mortification.
I have bought, dragged home and decorated the Christmas tree on my own, as I have done for many years running.
I have done the Christmas online grocery shopping orders and investigated and accommodated the ‘dietaries’ of all guests.
I have trailed around shops buying jerseys and socks for the boys. (Socks are such a tradition in the Johnson family that my husband calls the festival ‘Sockmas’)
I have taken out the silver bowls from the cupboard and bought the silver polishing cloths in the hope that someone else, not me, will buff them to sparkling lustre in time for the feast.
Then, last Saturday, was Mince Pie Day. I had two large leftover jars of mincemeat cluttering up the larder cupboard, so I chucked in some Grand Marnier, and set about making pastry.
Shortcrust pastry demands plain, not self-raising, flour, so I set out into the sleet to source some from the Turkish convenience store on the corner.
Back home, soaked, I phoned a friend so she could talk me through technique.
‘It’s 8pm on Saturday night,’ Fiona pointed out. ‘Why aren’t you watching Strictly with a glass of wine?’
But once I start doing something I have to finish. I made the pastry, then discovered I didn’t have a pastry cutter to cut out the rounds to sit in the baking dish. So I used a mug. On it went. And on. I became obsessed.
By around midnight I had made four batches of mince pies, serially, as I only had one baking dish (with 12 indents). That’s 48 pies. One batch was incinerated into tarry rocks that would make ideal ammo for the catapults and ballista in Roman Britain.
During this Christmas Bake Off the menfolk of the house came back to watch Match of the Day.
Dozens of golden pies sat cooling on wire racks. More golden pies sat in large biscuit tins. I wiped my hands on my floury apron.
‘Would you like a mince pie?’ I asked my husband and son. ‘No thanks,’ said husband, flicking on MOTD. Oliver took a tiny bite, and then put the pie down.
Now, I love mince pies. I completely disagree with my foodie friend Hugh Wright who says: ‘The best way to eat a mince pie is to take it from the packet/oven/dish, chuck it straight in the bin and have something that isn’t revolting instead.’
Nonsense. There is no such thing as a revolting mince pie. As I picked one from the rack, I felt smug, and almost Christmassy. I had made my own – almost from scratch. What a goddess I was.
My tooth sank into bland, stodgy pastry; the filling was tooth-achingly sweet. The combination was inedible. I had made the worst mince pies in the history of the world, an absolute glut of them.
If I was a sadist, I would pop them in a cellophane bag and tie them up with a pretty ribbon and hand them out as ‘edible gifts’ but I am so ashamed of them I think I’ll just eat them myself, one day at a time, just to complete my seasonal domestic martyrdom.
To the very few who believe that there will be life after Brexit, all I can do is tell you how fiendishly bureaucratic I have found trying to sort out my Conference Visa for India, whither I am intended in January, to speak at the Jaipur Literary Festival. It has taken me three hours so far not to complete the required paperwork, upload a PDF photograph, attach letters of accreditation, add my father and mother’s place of birth and professions… pages and pages and pages of it. But still, computer says ‘no’. I have emailed the Indian High Commission. I have a fat pile of papers I could send to be processed. Does anyone have a string I could pull? Any leads?
I would say I am the sister of a former foreign secretary but I’m not sure that would help much.