Food: Condiments of the season

Enjoy the turkey, but remember it's just an excuse for all the other stuff
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The Independent Culture
THE TASTE BUDS are jingling like sleigh bells at the thought of what's in store. The marvellous giblet gravy for a start, all dark, brooding and glossy, like Heathcliff in a sauceboat. The bread sauce, as thick as lava and as comforting as a Swedish duvet. The sweet, almost citrus hit of the lipstick-red cranberry sauce, the ripe, round berries that look as if drawn on one of those old-fashioned Christmas cards we used to send before Gary Larson and Glenn Baxter came along.

Then there are the stuffings. The dense, meaty forcemeat with its whiff of sage and undercurrent of bacon, and the voluptuous, mouth-filling chestnut stuffing, with its tang of prune, bite of onion and dusky aroma of nutmeg. Let us not forget the roast potatoes, as golden as home-baked bread rolls, with that steamy-inside, crisp-outside perfection which suddenly makes the world seem a less frightening place. Nor the sprouts, all plump and cosy and glossy with butter and self-importance; and the glazed carrots, bright as little toy soldiers, dressed in camouflage kits of thyme, parsley and sage.

Turkey? Oh, I suppose so. It's not really the point, though. A slice of turkey on a plate may as well be a slice of chicken. For me, Christmas dinner is all about the trappings: the bit players, the voluminous cast of extras that give it spice, character and a real sense of celebration. It's the difference between a pine tree ("what's that doing in the house?") and a magical, spell-binding, glittering Christmas tree ("oh wow, oh wow, oh wow").

It's nice that food writers all over the world are so earnest about giving us weighty tomes on how to bake the perfect ham, roast the perfect bird, and boil the plummest of puddings, but Christmas is no time to go back to basics. It's party time, drinking time, cheap, kitschy kissing-under- the-mistletoe time. It's what-the-hell, let's-have-Champagne-for-breakfast time. The kids can make the most tragic mess in the world, and you don't care. For one day, reality is suspended, diets are forgotten, presents are torn open, everyone eats together, drinks together, goes to sleep in armchairs after lunch together.

So let us celebrate the true heroes of Christmas: the condiments, the sauces, the side plates and the incidentals. You may be looking forward to starting with a little smoked salmon or smoked trout. I'm looking forward to the horseradish cream, tart caper berries, and the little pearly piles of salmon caviare.

Then it's on to the Christmas ham for you, and the sticky Cumberland sauce for me, or the blistering whack of wholeseed mustard, the pickled pears and the mango chutney. At this time of year I just live for mostarda di frutta, those gorgeous, bright, jolly glace fruits in a lightly mustardy, honey-sweet syrup from Cremona that look like Christmas baubles in a jar.

I am not alone. In Italy, the Christmas cappone arosto (roasted capon) is merely an excuse to make veal, prosciutto and mortadella stuffing, and to provide the roasting juices that will form the sauce for the traditional pork-stuffed agnolotti. In Mexico, roast turkey means one can tuck into rich, unctuous mole sauce, and pig out on salsa de castanas, a Carmen Miranda salad of beetroot, jicama, banana, pineapple and pomegranate.

In Spain, the magnificent roasted red bream means a wonderful garlic and chilli donostiarra dressing won't be far away, while Germany's traditional roast goose leads the way for the even more traditional apple, raisin and nut stuffing and red cabbage with redcurrant jelly.

The best is yet to come, of course. Amid the wreckage of opened presents, broken promises, empty bottles, disappointments and unprecedented joy, we can all sit down to a luscious, heart-warming brandy butter, some delicious, home-churned, vanilla-bean ice-cream, or a smooth and creamy custard flavoured with dark rum.

And plum pudding, for those who have to have it.

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