Have you ordered the turkey yet? Written the Christmas cards? Bought the presents? I haven’t. It just doesn’t feel Christmassy yet. Perhaps that is due to the unseasonably cold weather in Sydney at the moment but then I look at the calendar and realise we are hurtling towards the middle of December! School breaks up next week!
Instead of writing lists, ordering the turkey, braving the shops or buying those cards I recently chose another way of getting into the Christmas spirit. Sitting – alone – in my favourite bookshop / cafe I picked up a copy of the newish book Cooking for Claudine by John Baxter.
For anyone who loves food, wine and armchair travel, this is the book for your Christmas stocking. John Baxter is the acclaimed Australian film critic who, many years ago while living in America, fell in love with a French woman and followed her to Paris.
For the last 18 or so years, he has also cooked Christmas lunch for his French in-laws, a French family ‘with roots so deep in the soil of medieval France’, living in a ‘country house dating from before Australia was even discovered’.
This memoir collects vignettes from previous Christmas lunches and journeys around France to source ingredients for the big day. Throughout are wonderful observations of this family’s love affair with food:
“ ‘We could pick up the cheese.’ Even as I said it, I recognised I’d made an error. The French approach cheese with the reverence the Spanish accord the corrida, Americans baseball and the English their tea. It is not to be ‘picked up’, or grabbed, snatched, or scored, nibbled, scarfed, or snacked on...”
In fact, Baxter has a whole chapter devoted to cheese, including this piece of trivia:
“To Charles de Gaulle, the diversity of French cheese was evidence that France was in robust political health and in no danger of becoming, as some people feared after World War II, a Communist nation. ‘How can one conceive of a one-party system,’ he asked, ‘in a country that has over two hundred varieties of cheese?”
And what happens if the piglet you decide to roast for Christmas lunch is too big to fit in your oven?
“No meal of this magnitude would fail over a few centimetres of snout.” Baxter says. But does it?
Family heirlooms are brought out for the day – the generations old silverware, the linen tablecloth bought at a market for 10 euros – the ceremony and ritual that preparing the Christmas meal brings that every reader will relate to.
As Baxter writes, “Proust was right. Any house or garden or town existed only as the sum of the feelings experienced there. It was remembering history and maintaining tradition that kept the material world alive.”
An enjoyable, tasty read. Enough to get me to the butcher to place that turkey order.
Cooking for Claudine
by John Baxter