A few days ago I was waxing lyrical about the cold nights and chilly days but that’s all changed. We’ve gone from one end of the spectrum to the other. The frosts are no more and the daytime temperatures are positively balmy, however we’ve kept the blue skies and we’ve even eaten lunch outside. It’s a time of glorious sunsets and equally impressive sunrises.
Christmas is literally just around the corner, we’re still not in full blown festive mode here, but the seasonal hints are getting stronger, several houses in the village are now adorned with twinkling lights but during the day there is a sense of peaceful serenity.
We have bought our tree – never an easy task. We have the choice of two species; the Épicéa Spruce, the most common variety that has a wonderful shape but loses it’s needles at an alarming rate once brought into the warmth or the Nordmann Spruce that doesn’t have quite such a perfect figure but will at least remain green and intact until Twelfth night. Alas, we had made the decision several nights previously around the supper table, where all the best family conversations take place. We were going for the perfect figure that required lots of maintenance.
With the decision already made I assumed we would be in and out of the garden centre in a matter of minutes. How wrong I was. Once we eyed up the trees, doubt started to creep in, the Nordmanns looked better this year, the Épicéas were less than striking. We ummed and erred, we were split down the middle. I left them to it and went off to look at the selection of
vines wines – yes this is a garden centre, but remember we are in France!
Nearly an hour later we were still there; the merits of the trees were being tossed around. It was getting cold and I wasn’t dressed for this, I hadn’t even brought a coat. I learnt a vital lesson, never underestimate the ability of children to change their minds! In the end the Nordmann won, perfectly dressed had outshone the perfect figure!
So now we have a tree, sitting in the barn. We won’t be decorating it or bringing it into the house for another week, a fact that Gigi finds quite bizarrely stupid! Another task ticked off the list.
Something else I have been giving plenty of thought to is food. We all want to make extra special meals during the holidays, but it is also the season when budgets have already been stretched to the absolute maximum and our free-time is in short supply. Few of us have hours to spare slaving over a hot stove at the best of times and at Christmas with all the extra demands it is almost impossible and yet we always want to produce the perfect meal.
Quite by chance I came across a delicious recipe a couple of weeks ago. As is normal, I was in a rush as we were dining at a friend’s house and I had offered to take the dessert; having been out all day I needed to pull something together in less than 20 minutes, I found the answer and kept my fingers crossed. The result a couple of hours later was met with silence around the table; a perfect silence punctuated solely by the scrape of spoon and ‘mmmmm’ of lips. A rip-roaring success, I decided later, one to keep tucked away and one to share.
So now I needed a super simple main course that was equally impressive too. I decided that little could look more appropriate at this time of year than Nigella Lawson’s Festive Couscous. We gave the entire meal a trial run yesterday – it’s quick, uncomplicated and easy on the purse strings, too. So, if anyone needs a little inspiration or a few tried and tested ideas, here is our simple festive approach to dining with friends and family during the holidays.
Entertaining at this time of year necessitates a jubilant atmosphere and so I start with fresh flowers. We still have roses in the garden, tucked against a west facing stone wall.
Accept any offers of help – laying the table is always a family affair here
and add lots of candles.
Roasted Chicken Pieces with Festive Couscous. Serves 6
For the Chicken
6 boned thighs and three halved breasts of chicken; preferably free-range or organic
2 small lemons, halved
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1 tsp tagine spices
2 sliced cloves of garlic
2 tbsp white wine
3 dates, fresh or dried, stoned and halved length-ways
Combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix well, leaving to rest for approx. 30 mins in a cool place. Pre-heat your oven to 180C / 350F. Place the chicken pieces in a roasting tray, inserting a halved date inside each boned thigh, squeeze the lemon juice onto the pieces and then add them to the tray. Place the garlic in amongst the chicken pieces, but out of sight of heat so it does not burn. The three halves of breast are ‘dateless’ for those who do not like dates.
Cook for approx. 20 mins at 180C / 350F , and then raise the temperature to 220C / 425F for 5-10 mins before serving to crisp and brown the outside of the chicken. The juices make a fine sauce served separately in a small jug.
For the Couscous
1 box / 7ozs / 200g plain couscous
2 cups water
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ teaspoon salt
¾ cup golden raisins
¼ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon paprika
½ teaspoon ground cumin
½ teaspoon ground coriander
Seeds from 1 pomegranate
¼ cup cilantro, chopped
Boil the water in a saucepan and add the couscous. Then add 1 tablespoon of the oil, the salt, raisins and spices. Mix well. Take off the heat, cover with a lid and leave for about five minutes. Remove lid, fluff the couscous with a fork, add remaining oil and stir in the pomegranate seeds and cilantro, reserving a little to sprinkle over the top.
We served this with a tray of roasted cherry tomatoes and garlic and some lightly steamed French beans, but you don’t have to add anything else or you could choose a simple salad.
Melt in the Mouth Chocolate Pots
100g / 3.5oz 70% cocoa dark chocolate
100g / 3.5oz butter
150g / 5.5oz light soft brown sugar
3 large eggs
1/2 tsp vanilla essence
50g / 1.75oz plain flour and 1 tsp baking powder
Preheat the oven to 200C / 400F. Grease 6 ramekins with a little butter and place on a baking tray.
Melt the chocolate and butter over a pan of hot water or in a microwave and stir until smooth.
Mix together the sugar, eggs, vanilla essence, flour and baking powder and then pour in the melted butter and chocolate and mix well.
Pour the mixture into the ramekins.
Bake for 10-12 minutes, or until the tops are firm to touch but the middles still feel squidgy. Alternatively, you can put them in a fridge for a few hours until they are ready to be eaten. Whilst you are enjoying the main course, take them out and pop them in the oven.
Serve hot with either fresh cream or vanilla ice cream.
They are so easy even the children can make them!
My motto for the holidays – Graceful, stylish and classic entertaining is totally feasible if we keep things simple.