Wish you were here?: Foreign correspondents recall the ghosts of Christmas repasts

From a frozen turkey in Kabul to a seafood barbie in Sydney, and from a mince pie in Paris to a Muslim feast in Beirut...
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The Independent Travel

Sydney by Kathy Marks

It's not wrapping presents, or a last-minute dash to the supermarket that is the main concern of Sydneysiders on Christmas Eve. It is queuing at the city's Fish Market – the world's largest after Tokyo's Tsukiji – for the staple of the Christmas meal: seafood.

It wasn't always so; until a few decades ago, most Australians clung to the English tradition of a large roast meal, eaten inside, despite the midsummer heat. With the curtains drawn against the harsh sunlight, they ate turkey with all the trimmings, roasted vegetables, a leg of ham, and plum pudding with brandy custard.

But at some point during the 1960s, people realised they were living in the southern hemisphere, and embraced food more suited to the climate. Nowadays, king prawns – bought cooked and served cold – form the centrepiece of the meal, often accompanied by a whole barbecued fish, such as snapper or barramundi. Mud crabs and blue swimmer crabs are also popular, as are oysters.

Legend has it that it was Australian women who rebelled, declaring themselves no longer prepared to spend the day labouring in the kitchen in the sweltering heat. So turkey may still be eaten, but it is generally cold, having been cooked beforehand. Likewise ham. The fish and meat are teamed with numerous salads: potato, rice, bean, green, coleslaw, tomato and onion. One hangover from the past is Christmas pudding, which despite being such a cold-weather comfort food is still served in many households.

Eating indoors is no longer the rule. At home, families often eat in the garden. But many choose to spend the day at the beach instead, in the archetypal Sydney setting. The parkland reserves bordering beaches are jam-packed, with extended families arriving early to stake out a shady spot and lay claim to one of the free or coin-operated barbecues. Similar food is consumed, along with generous quantities of beer, kept cold in "eskies", or cool boxes.

One beach that most locals avoid is Bondi, Australia's best-known stretch of sand. Crowds of backpackers flock to Bondi on Christmas Day, and in the past have become so unruly that the authorities banned alcohol.

While the menu may have changed, many other customs persist: Christmas trees, stockings, fairy lights, mistletoe, and, of course, blazing family rows. Attempts to popularise Australian "carols" – such as Rolf Harris's "Six White Boomers", about the kangaroos that supposedly tow Santa's sleigh on his Australian run – have largely flopped.

In a number of Sydney suburbs, families still mount elaborate displays of Christmas lights, covering the entire façade of their house and the front garden. Competition is intense, and the displays attract a stream of visitors. Elsewhere, the main spectacle over Christmas is the flotilla of yachts leaving Sydney Harbour for the annual Boxing Day race across the Bass Strait to Hobart in Tasmania.

But despite all this – and regardless of whether they once lived in the northern hemisphere – many Australians do still yearn for a real white Christmas. And some hotels and restaurants, particularly in the ski resorts of Victoria and New South Wales, do a roaring trade by offering a Christmas meal in July – in mid-winter – complete with Christmas decorations, crackers and mistletoe.

Kabul by Andrew North

There is one thing to say for my Christmas in Kabul in 2004. It was memorable. The scratched DVD of a British TV comedy that served as entertainment, present and highlight of the day. The cold turkey that may have been pigeon road-kill. (The other kind of cold turkey would have been better.) The friends who didn't show. The room with ice on the inside of the windows.

Yet it had looked promising. It was the end of my first year based in Afghanistan. The BBC keeps the office covered all year round and I'd agreed to stay on for Christmas. For some reason I thought I should experience at least one Christmas in Kabul during my posting. And among my foreign friends who mark the occasion, many said they were planning to stay on too – happy to be avoiding the usual madness of unwanted-gift buying and over-eating back home.

Plans were made for a big dinner on the day in one of the larger guesthouses where some of my journalist and aid-worker friends lived. A turkey would be procured from one of the supermarkets set up to serve Kabul's foreign community – they had Christmas puddings on sale too. The supermarket was called Supreme; let's just say it was a slightly different shopping experience to Tesco. High, blast-proof walls, barriers and guards surrounded the store, and you had to show your passport to get in, as they also sold alcohol. It was always an anomaly in such a conservative Muslim country, but someone somewhere was getting a useful cut so the Afghan authorities allowed it to operate at the time.

We got some decorations, too. It all felt a bit colonial, us Christians planning our little get-together behind the high walls of our guesthouse. Afghan friends, though, treated the upcoming day with the same kind of reverence they give to their own key religious dates or Eid festivals, which are usually a frenzy of feasting and present-giving. "Are you looking forward to your Eid?" they would say. They were far more aware of the significance of Christmas than many of my Christian colleagues were of events like Eid al Fitr (the breaking of the Ramadan fast) or Eid al Adha (the festival of the sacrifice just gone). One told me how he had been reading again about Jesus and his birth – it's recorded in the Koran and Muslims recognise him as a prophet.

But in the last week or so before Christmas, as I called friends to finalise plans, I was getting "out of area" messages on their Afghan mobiles. I got through to one at the airport. "Sorry mate, I found a cheap flight. I couldn't face the cold," he said. "See you in the new year."

One by one, they gradually disappeared. By Christmas Eve, the original dozen or so had slumped like an empty stocking to three – myself and two friends from the AFP news agency, Rachel and Michaella. There was no turkey. There was no dinner. We heard one restaurant was putting on a Christmas bash for sad, left-behind foreigners like us. We had no trouble getting a table.

It was the usual -10C outside, so we arrived heavily padded in jackets and hats. But, as we adjusted to the temperature inside, we left most of them on.

"We've run out of wood for the fire," said the solitary waiter on duty. "Sorry," he said unconvincingly. We were in semi-darkness as well – they'd run out of fuel for the generator. There was a small Christmas tree and candles on the tables. In the far corner, three German aid workers huddled over their meal – the only other company.

Our turkey dinner arrived. How to describe it? It was kind of grey. The meat looked like it had been frozen and defrosted several times. It probably had. Flavour there was none. There were potatoes and even sprouts. But they were cold as well. We persevered, determined somehow to have a good time. Finally Rachel burst out laughing, still wrapped in her coat. "This is terrible."

At least the fire was going back at my place. We ended our Christmas Day watching an old copy of The Fast Show.

An office colleague, Mahfouz, came in to say goodnight as he was going home. Casting a thoughtful eye over the gathering he asked: "Why didn't you celebrate your Eid with your family back home?"

Andrew North was the BBC Kabul correspondent 2004-2005 and the BBC Baghdad correspondent 2006-2007

Beirut by Robert Fisk

The first Christmas tree I bought in Lebanon came from the Chouf [a mountainous region south of Beirut]. I remember the feeling of mild surprise that came over me as I chose this stout fir in the mountains largely occupied by the Druze, a Muslim sect whose ancestors had massacred up to 2,000 of their Christian Maronite neighbours in the foothills in 1860. The lady who sold me the tree cheerfully shouted "Happy Christmas" – and back down I drove to my apartment in what reporters used to call "mainly Muslim" west Beirut.

After enduring a war which – so the same reporters would tell us – "pitted Christians against Muslims", it was a shock to find that the Lebanese happily share each other's public holidays. Christians join their Muslim neighbours for a day off to celebrate the Prophet's Birthday while Muslims stay at home during the Easter and Christmas holidays. Along with independence day and May Day and press martyrs day and any number of other special days, the Lebanese must enjoy more days off than those of any other country on earth.

Since the cold Anatolian winds howl down from Turkey through December, it's possible to have a White Christmas in Lebanon every year. My driver Abed takes me to Christmas Eve dinners – yes, turkey and stuffing and roast potatoes and Christmas cake and flagons of Lebanon's superb Château Musar red wine from the Bekaa Valley. Abed and I snowball each other on the Sannine Heights – and he yearly sends me a fat, mechanical card which, when opened, always bawls "Jingle Bells" at me.

In Hamra Street – in the very heart of "mainly Muslim" west Beirut – there are now huge Father Christmases over the shopping arcades, twinkling electric candles and plastic trees and queues of Muslims buying Christmas presents. When the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan ends at Christmas – Islamic holidays depend on the moon and are moveable feasts – Hamra Street is a riot of Muslim banners, illuminated Korans and fairy lights jostling against yet more giant plastic statues of Father Christmas.

Living in Beirut for 32 years, however, teaches you a few secrets. If Muslims celebrate Christmas at home, Christians – though they take the holiday off – rarely participate in any of the Muslim traditions. You won't find many Maronites offering the evening Iftah meal to their neighbours after a day of Muslim fasting in which they have happily indulged their own liking for lunch with fine wine. I rather suspect this duality has something to do with the origins of Christian tradition; that the Christmas tree, for example, comes from pagan celebrations and can thus be safely enjoyed as a non-Christian symbol; and because Jesus is also a Muslim prophet, albeit on a lowlier level than Mohammad. On the other hand, the Holy Kabaa at Mecca was originally worshipped by idolators before Mohammad even set foot there. But I've never seen Lebanese Christians with a picture of Mecca in their living room.

A Muslim Christmas lunch will include houmous and crushed vine leaves and shwarma roasted chicken and – this also depends on whether the host is secular or Sunni or Shia – a glass of wine. No matter, to show their tolerance, Muslims make a point of remembering 25 December (and of recalling that the Orthodox Christmas falls in January); even Hizbollah officials wish me a Happy Christmas, solicitously enquiring if my good Christian self will be heading for Europe this year. Passengers at Beirut airport are assaulted by the sound of "Jingle Bells". In fact, the awful commercialisation of our western Christmas has long ago entered "mainly Muslim" Lebanon. How easy to forget that both religions come from the Middle East, that Jerusalem – 400 miles to the south of me – and Mecca are just 1,200 miles apart. And, I suppose, never the twain ...

Italy by Peter Popham

To talk about an "Italian Christmas" is to say nothing useful: culinary traditions vary from region to region. The meal I am looking forward to again this year is a Lombardian Christmas dinner, cooked by my parents-in-law and served in the bolt hole outside the ski resort of Bormio, close to the Swiss border.

The heart of the meal is home-made cappelletti – miniature ravioli – stuffed with spiced meat, closed by twisting the little pasta bags shut and, in our family, traditionally made by grandad. The cappelletti are served in a light broth topped with grated Parmesan.

They are preceded by heaped plates of antipasti, including the local bresaola and home-made salamis from the surrounding valleys and so on, washed down with prosecco. Christmas is just about the only time of the year we drink wine with labels on the bottle. The rest of the time our red table wine is stuff that my father-in-law bottles himself at his winery of choice, young, light, easy on the head and wonderfully frothy.

The cappelletti are followed by the roast or boiled joints that are the second course of choice up here in the mountains. By this point nobody is hungry any more, but we must make space for lentils with cotechino, a fat, loosely filled, spicy sausage the size of the biggest salami you ever saw. Lentils mean prosperity in the New Year, so our family will be hitting them hard.

For my wife the smell of Christmas is of almonds roasting in syrup in the oven, to make the nut crunch that is one of the things people cram into their stomachs towards the end of the meal. Today, croccante di mandorle (almond nut brittle) is also more likely to be bought than made at home.

It is complemented, of course, by panettone, the saffron-yellow, sugar-dusted Italian Christmas cake, accompanied by spumante. Nowadays it is made in factories – probably nobody in Italy makes it at home – but the best producers insist on high-quality ingredients: honey from Abruzzo, oranges from Sicily, sultanas all the way from Australia.

So full are we by this stage that the panettone normally sits unviolated in its tall box for days, and sometimes comes home to Rome with us, to be finished off some time before Easter, if we ever get our appetites back.

Paris by John Lichfield

The French are less seasonally-adjusted than the British. Scour the streets of Paris at Christmas as much as you like, you will find no one wearing flashing reindeer-antler bonce-bouncers.

A German friend once complained to me. "The French have no sense of fun. They are too southern. They don't understand Christmas. Have you ever seen a pretty, French Christmas tree?"

The great, holly-bordered British Christmas – robins-with-everything, page three girls in Santa hats, and drunken office parties – starts in mid-October and straggles on into February. In France, Christmas is a quiet, family affair of gluttonous, but tasteful consumption, starting on the evening of 24 December. Everyone is – in theory – back to work on 26 December.

It is my Christmas morning ritual to stroll out, whistling merry tunes from Oliver!, to collect the appellation controlée family turkey from the corner butcher's. The bird carries a label informing you on which farm it grew up in the poultry-rearing area of the Landes, south of Bordeaux. One almost expects to be told its first name.

Christmas is about nostalgia; about doing it the same way every year. Christmas does not easily cross borders. Usually my brother comes to Paris and we cook the hand-reared French turkey according to Delia Smith's classically British instructions.

One Christmas an Iranian chef was staying with us and he wrestled the bird out of my arms. He insisted on boiling it in vinegar in the Iranian fashion. The result was ... disappointing. Vinegar-boiled turkey and Brussels sprouts don't go together it appears.

For the French, Christmas and turkeys don't necessarily go together either. According to my butcher, his clients are just as likely to order a pair of ducks or a big goose or a premium cut of beef. A French Christmas meal is characterised not by the main dish but by the exotic trimmings. There must be oysters and there must be foie gras and there must be truffles.

Last December, at a truffle market in Carpentras, I met a 64-year-old estate agent, who had driven 40 miles to buy a few truffles for his family Christmas dinner. He bought 300g – almost a third of a kilo – for €85.

"That's a lot of money," Emile Joumand said. "But, to the family, Christmas would not be Christmas without truffles. I will make an hors d'oeuvre with truffles and foie gras and vegetables in a pasty crust. It is always exquisite."

The main family Christmas meal in France is usually eaten on Christmas Eve – le Réveillon de Noël. That does not prevent Christmas Day dinner – rarely lunch – being an almost equally grand occasion.

Surveys suggest that the average French family spends about €550 at Christmas – half the budget of a British family. Of this, about one third – around €180 – is spent on family food and drink, rather more than a British family spends (on the food at any rate).

In France on Christmas Day itself, all food shops and food markets tend to remain open until lunch-time. On Christmas morning, our local food market is always a dazzling spectacle of Dickensian plenty: a Technicolor splurge of oysters, truffles, lobsters, crayfish, crabs, sea-urchins, tangerines and poinsettias. We stroll over there once the turkey is in the oven, safely locked away from Iranian chefs. We buy oysters. I cannot afford truffles and have moral objections to foie gras.

Christmas, in truth, is always a dangerous time for ex-pats. Home-sickness, like the flu, can strike at any moment. One year my wife was seized by an acute craving for mince pies. Having tried several shops without luck, she went to the posh Parisian left-bank department store, Le Bon Marché, which has an excellent food department called La Grande Epicerie. There was a "British Christmas" section with mountains of Christmas puddings but no mince pies. There was an American section with heaps of cranberry sauce but no mince pies.

Close to despair, she stumbled on the German section, which had pumpernickel bread and – Oh comfort and joy! – a pile of Mr Kipling's mince pies. Maybe they should have re-named them Herr Kipling's.

The French have a love-hate affair with the Christmas Pudding – pronounced "le pouddeeng" – in particular. Before Marks and Spencer abandoned us, I gave M&S puddings as Christmas presents to all the people who had helped me during the year. Some adored them. Some complained that their discriminating French insides would never recover.