And so, once more to the veritable seating arrangement for the forthcoming, long awaited, cornucopia that is Christmas lunch. Never an enviable task when one is born into a soap opera menagerie, all of which will make up the bones of the annual gathering here at the ancestral home of the Files. To the left, we have the inherited relations, 'Ceux dont nous devons si tristement divertir'. Some of which we would not necessarily wish to have mingling amongst us if choice was an option. Sadly, missing persons and accidental gunshot wounds are investigated more thoroughly these days, whilst digging holes in the frozen ground can be a bit of a bugger in the cold wind up there in the Highlands. Unlike friends, a man cannot choose his relations. Man is born of woman and all that malarkey. To the right, my DNA family, 'Les goûts de qui doivent continuer à être supporté comme un mal nécessaire'. The good, the bad, none of us that are too ugly, well, apart from the odd few from our extended Donegal connections that is. It was four hours once before I had even realised that the invited friend of cousin Hugh was in fact a large Mouflon, of which had just happened to board the aeroplane while the pilot was sobering himself up in the washroom. Uncle Hugh befriending him whilst they were both being frisked by the customs Gestapo at the duty-free. The Mouflon that is, not the pilot. He seemingly smuggled his own through in his British Airways flight bag.
My promised missive is still to be completed. I took a small meat pie, a pot of mustard and a small peck of radishes, along with a medium sized bottle of something spiritual, up to my study and began to compile. As well as a rabid indifference to making lists, I also cannot abide the aftermath of the harsh, but necessary seating arrangement cull each festive season. Last year for instance, I had three extra birds to de-feather, pluck and stuff, all before I could even begin to sit down with a pre-dinner minuscule sherry and half a mince pie. You have no idea the strain this puts on the Duke of Argyle's private stock when I, and a few secretive, balaclaved friends, look to replenish our freezers in the earlier hours of Spring. All because my good lady could not abide the very thought of the unprepared flotsam delving into fast fooderies and a cold, unwelcoming, unlit log fire down there in the remainder of the forsaken land that isn't actually Scottish. Two of my visiting spinster aunties from darkest Lockerbie, are regularly delighted with the upstairs lavatories, slightly disagreeable of course at the vulgar additions of the matching his and hers bathtubs, but nevertheless still cock-a-hoop with the free offerings of fragrant gardenia nosegay, triple ply toilet paper, not to mention a good chuckle at the soft-closing seats.
Honestly though, the gall of some people. Raise the land taxes from the sanctuary of their London offices, ridicule our guttural accents, football teams, weather, politics and religion, before bemoaning our continued success and popularity with the rest of the world. Then they have the cheek to sit, coy like at my table, draped in musty kilts that first saw the light of day way back before the Pictish invasion in 1503, helping themselves to my best roasted parsnips, cranberry sauce and elegant multi-stuffed birds and decrying the English, of which they have notably already become! Breaking wind discreetly in the library after the meal with a large whisky, amidst cigar and pipe fumes and a voluminous amount of coughing to mask the volatile retaliation of the brussel sprouts. They sit quite merrily in their doublets, with creamy frothing java snubbits, and quaintly expensive gingerish biscuits accompanying the big chunky mugs of eggnog and tumblers of single malt served up by yours truly. I try hard every year not to notice my great uncle Murdo, as he engineers yet another cunning plan to pilfer my silver cruet wedding set. His planned exodus with the goods usually ends when the white pepper from the acquired set cause him to sneeze violently several times, whilst breaking wind to the accompaniment of my brothers merry skirl on the bagpipes. Hence beginning an hour long saga featuring a major debate and then the subsequent retrieval of his top set from beneath the extremities of my snug-fit sideboard using a variety of wire coat hangers and hastily fetched snooker cues.
Last year, if it hadn't been for yet another well-timed repeat of 'The Wizard of Oz' summoning the elderly, flatulent and belching, tipsy cauliflowers back to the sitting room, I would quite happily have been reaching for my dusty, but ever trusty, side-by-side that rests above the fireplace in the library. Every year, an endless gaggle of family misfits file nefariously in to our cosy corner of leather and rather damned expensively wooded cockaigne Arcadia. Amongst the black jacketed fat men, hungover actors, lavender smelling retirees, hard-line politicians in comical cartoon T-shirts, come familiar people with fuzzy beards and half unwrapped crampons. Deft, city-type real estate brokers that are ironically on the cusp of going broke and looking for a fiscal hand-out in the new year, and those elderly relations amongst us who for some reason clap inadvertently along to oompah music. Add to the mix the odd homosexualist in motorcycle boots, bedraggled pre-nightclub revellers, one gentleman with a single ski, and of course the obligatory stranger that nobody can ever recognise. Even my faithful pooch, Milo, a fear of dread in his one good eye, has taught Siobhan's pet goat how to extricate himself from his bed in the corner of the kitchen and escape across the fields whenever the first set of car headlights appears at the driveway gates in December. One year he never actually returned until the second week in January.
My children still recall amongst themselves a familiar, rather portly, largely overdressed aunty on my wife's side, extrovert in every possible consideration, even down to her exquisitely carved fake string of pearls. She paused elegantly, halfway through her blended caramel frappuccino as a bookish second cousin posed next to her whilst being snapped for an ultimate book of faces moment. In her hand was a freshly rolled cigarette of dubious quantities, whilst peeking from her handbag was the garish packaging of a well known pre-emptive prophylactic. The aunty in question must be seventy, if she is a day. It was several minutes beneath her inquisitive gaze before I returned her stare. She smiled sympathetically, ran a delicate finger down her face between her left ear and lower jaw, silently mouthing "Bio-oil" at me, as if she was a mystical illusionist harbouring a secret unction that would magically repair and enhance my male beauty. I nodded courteously, and by way of return, in the true spirit of Christmas, ran my own fingers across each eyebrow and silently murmured; "tweezers", right back at her. She hesitated only momentarily in disdain before her dignified exit into the scullery was slightly hampered by the confusion pulling the push only door. Admittedly, the bunched trouser material which had sought refuse in her plump buttocks cleft did not help matters. Being a gentleman, I pretended not to notice the cheapness and the over sized fit of her underwear as she puckered, dug it out immediately with a deft tug, turned dangerously fast on her well-heeled slingbacks and hurried ever onwards towards another large brandy.
Yes, it is the season of goodwill to all men, of that I will agree, but to all of their relatives and subsequent hangers-on as well? Even my patience, if not my larder, has its limits. Christmas time, mistletoe and wine, children singing Christian rhyme... Pah humbug!
Porchetta Pork Loin with White Beans
3 fresh garlic cloves, crushed
Grated zest of 2 Spanish oranges
1 tbsp fennel seeds
1 tbsp fresh chopped rosemary
1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil
salt and cracked black pepper to taste
1 pork loin, still with a modest layer of fat still attached.
1 tin of cannellini beans, drained well
juice of one lemon
On a cutting board, combine the garlic, zest and seeds. Add 1 tbsp of the rosemary and chop the mix until it forms a paste. Scoop into a small dish and add the oil. Season the pork with salt and pepper, rub it well with the paste. Marinate the loin for 3 hours in the fridge. When ready, place the loin in a roasting pan and bake for 30 minutes. Check the centre with a thermometer inserted cleanly in the middle. It should read 160 degrees. Take the meat out and allow to rest for 10 minutes. In a saucepan, heat the beans, lemon juice and remaining rosemary until warmed through. Add a small amount of chicken stock to assist the natural jus. Pour around pork, sprinkle the remainder of the fennel seeds, add the white beans, garnish with freshly plucked watercress and serve piping hot.