Eat, drink, be merry: Skye Gyngell's thrillingly flavour-packed Christmas feast

Wondering what to cook on the big day? This four-course feast is guaranteed to get everyone in a festive mood
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Indy Lifestyle Online

The holiday season is undeniably coming: we've put up a twinkling tree outside Petersham, while the menu is packed with all things festive: pomegranates, clementines, dates, walnuts and chestnuts.

I am excited to be spending Christmas in Scotland this year, as opposed to the sun-baked Sydney ones that I'm more used to. At home at this time of year, mangoes, avocados and tiny, sweet harbour prawns are in season all delicious but very different to what is available here.

And so my thoughts turn to what to serve up. I've decided to go with mallard for the main course. It's a lovely, festive, rich, indulgent game very different to the big beast that traditionally adorns many tables. I think turkey can be a bit big and overwhelming; it's also become much more expensive and it's harder to cook than duck the different cooking times for the breast and leg means you're always in danger of parts of it drying out.

To start, I have chosen smoked salmon, along with one of my favourite winter lettuces, castelfranco. The mallard, with polenta, will follow, then a simple warm date pudding (a lighter variation on the traditional Christmas pud) and a beautiful Stilton with walnuts and pears. It is the first time we have had Stilton as our cheese for a long time. This year, it's Joe Schneider's Stichelton; deliciously strong yet with a creamy finish the first unpasteurised Stilton England has seen for a long time and well worth trying.

Skye Gyngell is head chef at Petersham Nurseries, Church Lane, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8605 3627. Her book 'A Year in My Kitchen' (Quadrille) is the 2007 Guild of Food Writers' Cookery Book of the Year

Roasted mallard with porcini, Barolo and soft white polenta

Ask your butcher to order in the mallard with its livers intact, as they will enrich the sauce. My favourite polenta is the fine white variety found around the Veneto.

Serves 4

One bottle of Barolo, or other rich red wine
2 ducks (allow one mallard between two)
25g/1oz unsalted butter
A few sprigs of fresh thyme
150g/5oz fresh porcini, wiped gently with a clean cloth and trimmed
2 cloves garlic, crushed
180ml/6fl oz chicken stock

For the polenta

11/4litre/2 pints water
250g/8oz polenta
Zest of one lemon
150g/5oz Parmesan cheese, grated
100g/31/2oz unsalted butter
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 220C/425F/Gas7. Place the wine in a pan over a medium heat and reduce by half. Set aside.

Remove the livers from the ducks and chop. Then wash and dry the ducks. Place the butter and thyme inside each, and season well inside and out. Roast for 25 minutes and set aside.

Place the baking tray in which the ducks have been cooking on top of the stove and add the livers, porcini and garlic and cook for two minutes undisturbed. Pour in the stock, turn up the heat and reduce by a third, stirring from time to time. This will take a few minutes. Pour in the wine and cook for two minutes. Taste and season.

To make the polenta, bring the water to a boil. Add the polenta in a thin stream, whisking constantly, until it is mixed in. Stir until the mixture is thick about five minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the lemon zest, Parmesan, butter and seasoning.

Joint the ducks into four, place on a tray and serve with the porcini sauce and white polenta alongside. '

Smoked salmon with castelfranco lettuce, oranges, toasted hazelnuts and olive oil

This is a simple, crowd-pleasing starter that takes little effort to prepare. I definitely prefer wild smoked salmon to farmed its texture is firmer and its flavour more intense. I buy it unsliced; although I am not a great filleter or carver, I prefer the flavour and texture of most things when they are hand-carved.

Serves 4

500g/1lb smoked salmon
1 small castelfranco or frisse lettuce, outer leaves removed, washed and patted dry
60ml/21/2fl oz fruity extra-virgin olive oil
Juice and zest of one lemon
2 oranges, peeled and cut into segments
Sea salt to taste
1tsp chilli flakes
Juice and zest of one orange
15 hazelnuts, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
1tbsp parsley, finely chopped

Using a sharp, flexible knife, cut the salmon into fine slices. Tear the castelfranco into rough strips and placein a bowl; dress with a little of the olive oil and half of the lemon juice. Divide among four plates, and arrange the salmon over the lettuce. Place the oranges around the plate, season with salt, the chilli flakes, orange juice and rest of the olive oil. Scatter the nuts on top and finish with the lemon and orange zest and parsley. Serve at once. '

Warm date pudding

This is a lighter alternative to Christmas pudding. The dried fruit makes it feel very Christmassy. If you want to be even more festive, make it in one big pudding bowl rather than individual bowls.

Serves 4

12 Medjool dates
Enough water to cover
100g/31/2oz unsalted butter, softened, plus a little extra for greasing the mould
100g/31/2oz caster sugar
2 organic free-range eggs
100g/31/2oz self-raising flour
Zest of one orange, finely grated
Zest of one lemon, finely grated
2 knobs of preserved stem ginger in syrup, drained and very finely chopped
Small pinch of salt
4tbsp golden syrup

For the custard

150ml/1/4 pint whole milk
450ml/16fl oz double cream
1 vanilla pod, split in half lengthways
6 organic egg yolks
120g/4oz caster sugar
30ml/1fl oz Calvados

Heat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas4.

Remove the stones from the dates and place in a small bowl; add enough boiling water to just cover and allow to soften. When they are very soft, pure in a blender and set aside.

Grease four dariole moulds with butter and set aside. Cream the softened butter and sugar together until pale and smooth. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition. Sift in the flour and fold in gently. Finally add the lemon and orange zest, stem ginger and salt. Fold in until evenly mixed.

Place one-and-a-quarter tablespoons of the pured dates along with a tablespoon of golden syrup into each mould, and spoon the sponge mixture on top. Cover each mould loosely with a piece of buttered foil and place them on a baking tray. Bake for 30 minutes until well risen and cooked through. To test, put a skewer into the centre; it should emerge clean.

Run a knife around each pudding and turn out on to a warmed plate. Serve while still warm with the custard.

For the custard, pour the milk and the cream into a heavy based pan and place over a low heat. Scrape the vanilla seeds from the pod and add them to the creamy milk along with the pod. Slowly bring to just below the boil, remove from the heat and allow to infuse for 10 minutes.

In the meantime, beat the egg yolks and sugar together in a mixing bowl and add the Calvados. Gently reheat the infused cream and pour on to the egg-yolk mixture, stirring with a whisk as you do so. Return the custard to the pan and place over the lowest heat. Stir gently until the custard begins to thicken and coat the back of the wooden spoon this will take around eight minutes. Do not increase the heat, as this could result in scrambled eggs. As soon as the custard thickens, remove from the heat and keep in a warm place until ready to use.

To serve, pour over the warm puddings, pouring the remainder in a jug to pass around the table. '

Stilton with pears and walnuts

My favourite pears at this time of year are the crisp, sweet Martin Sec. They have a natural affinity with sharper cheeses such as Stilton, pecorino and aged Parmesan. Walnuts also work well with Stilton, and a glass of port is a natural partner.

Serves 4

1 Stilton truckle
2 ripe pears
Handful of walnuts in their shells

Slice the pears, leaving the skin and core untouched. Using a nut cracker, remove the walnuts from their shells. Slice the Stilton and arrange on plates alongside the pears and nuts. Serve with a good port.

The Forager by Wendy Fogarty

Petersham's food sourcer on where to find the best traditional Christmas treats...

Growing up in Australia it was difficult to understand the seasonal value of Christmas. While temperatures soared in the early 30s, we sat around pine trees opening cards depicting chilly landscapes. This was so out of keeping with our climate that Christmas felt somehow lacking; our mothers' collective efforts to preserve the traditions of the British Christmas table were their compensation and an early lesson to us in the impact of the Empire and the degree to which food has always been traded. Some treats to enjoy this year are:

Quince cheese, fig salami, oatcakes and plums can all be found at Sally Clarke's Kensington shop, where she specialises in home-made, local, regional and imported ingredients and products. This year, try her home-made Membrillo quince cheese (made from fruit she watched ripen this summer in the Languedoc); fig salami (made with fruit and nuts, also available coated in chocolate); home-made oatcakes and Ameixas D'Elvas plums from Portugal's Alentejo region (traditional preserved local plums which found their way to British tables in the 19th century). Tel: 020 7229 2190, www.sallyclarke.com

Port Another historic link between Portugal and the British Christmas table. The Niepoort family have been making port in the Douro for five generations a wonderful example of a winemaker preserving local traditions to keep the quality high. Available from www.philglas-swiggot.com

Stichelton The long-awaited unpasteurised Stilton made by Joe Schneider is available from Neal's Yard Dairy. Tel: 020 7240 5700, www.nealsyarddairy.co.uk

Traditional Christmas puddings and cakes Home-made using the highest-quality fruits and nuts that La Fromagerie's Patricia Michelson can find. Stocks are limited, so order early. Tel: 020 7935 0341, www.lafromagerie.co.uk

Spices Steenberg's offers great spices for home-baking, mulled wine, old-fashioned punches and ginger snaps. Tel: 01765 640 088, www.steenbergs.co.uk

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