Festive feel

This is our article for the December 16 issue of Cambridge Magazine

Dreaming of a white Christmas

There is only one way to enjoy the run up to Christmas and that is without so much as a hint of cynicism. That way total disillusion lies. So, instead, throw yourself into the spirit of Christmas with some tips from a region where Christmas really is (usually) white, roofs are covered in fluffy layers of soft snow, children toboggan and ice skate and the crisp air is filled with the scent of wood smoke and mulled wine; the French Alps.

Having just returned from our annual training week in picturesque Les Gets, working through the menu we design for our Chalet clients and ensuring that their new intake of Chalet chefs execute it to perfection for the next 18 weeks, I am in a festive mood. Putting fairly inexperienced young chefs through their paces for the season ahead is certainly no picnic, but swapping dark and wet Cambridge for the crisp air and idyllic high street of an alpine village never fails to bring on the festive feel.

Whilst we teach our budding chefs to prepare Turkey with all the trimmings for their Christmas holiday guests, most of the menu is inspired by the dishes we love to eat while in the mountains. Cheese plays a prominent role, needless to say, as do potatoes, garlic, wine, cream, wild mushrooms and classic desserts such as Tarte au Citron, Crème Caramel and Prune & Armagnac Tart. In a world of pre prepared sprouts and 10-minute dishes, it can be therapeutic to cook classic French cuisine. And the end result is, without fail, plate lickingly delicious.

Cooking French does not have to equal laborious dishes and hours spent in the kitchen while others are having festive fun. For our Chalets, we focus on menus which can, in their entirety, be cooked from scratch in 2 hours. That includes mouth watering canapés.

French food, even when made with a fair bit of cream, butter, cheese and rich meat, is elegant, constrained and exquisitely flavoured. Yes, dishes such as Tartiflette and Cheese Fondue are stodgy but they hail from a time when manual work and conditions outside demanded instant energy and they reflect local ingredients, which always feels right.

Here is my recipe for an Alpine-inspired festive meal. Don a knitted jumper. If that makes you feel hot and bothered, pour yourself a nice, cold Kir Royal. If you feel cold even after donning the festive jumper so much the better – it calls for Vin Chaud.

This is how to make a seriously rich, sweet and spice scented mulled wine:

Melt 150g caster sugar. Let it go to a smoking amber then add 150ml warm red wine, zest and juice of 1 large orange, a couple of cinnamon sticks, a few cloves, and a pinch of nutmeg. Simmer and reduce to a sticky sauce. Add the rest of the bottle of wine and a splash of Madeira, Cognac or Port. Keep the wine warm but don’t allow to boil. Serve in a glass with a twist of orange peel.

Sip while you make moorish nibbles from ready rolled puff pastry, Dijon mustard, strong grated cheese and some herbs. Roll, twist or cut – it is bound to taste delicious once baked in a hot oven.

For a relaxed but very typical French starter, I warmly recommend using a great product called Faux Gras, mimicking the richness of Fois Gras but avoiding cruelty to animals. Serve it with thin pieces of toasted sour dough and some cornichons on the side.

Roast a whole duck, it’s skin rubbed with sea salt and Chinese five spice, it’s cavity stuffed with a clove-studded clementine. As you remove the duck from the oven, tip it bottom up in the tin to release the citrus juice, lift the bird out and put the pan on the hob. Add a splash of wine, a little sugar and a pinch of salt. Reduce down for a minute or two and finish off with a knob of cold butter. Serve the duck with water cress and a few golden roasted potatoes.

No dessert is more quintessentially French than Crème caramel. Start by heating the oven to 150° and as you do so, place a small roasting tin half filled with water in the middle of the oven. In a saucepan, heat 250g sugar with 100ml water. Don’t stir. Leave it simmer for 10-15 minutes until a dark Amber colour. Wearing gloves or holding a tea towel, fill a circular cake tin of the type which has a central cone and quickly tilt to cover in caramel. Whisk together 3 eggs, 2 yolks, 2 small tablespoons sugar, finely grated orange zest, a little vanilla and 350ml full fat milk. Add a splash of Cognac. Pour into the tin.

Carefully place in the water bath and bake for 40-50 minutes. Leave to cool, then refrigerate.
To turn out, dip briefly in hot water, run a knife around the edges, place a large serving plate over the mould and invert. You are looking at silky smooth, pale yellow, barely sweet, glistening pudding coated in dark brown, sweet-bordering-on-burnt runny caramel. Heaven on a plate and perfect made a day in advance. The canapés and starter are effortlessly made while the duck and potatoes roast. Bon appétit!