There was a man I recently talked to who said he always steamed his vegetables; this made me feel sad and oddly helpless. I have a steamer and it is currently doing time on the top of my fridge, covered in a suspicion of ancient cobwebs. I come from a long line of Midlands folk who would not know what to do with a vegetable steamer, who rarely drank water (‘water is for washing’) and who needed proper animal fat for a day to pass without incident.
My grandpa had red hands, almost purple in hue, small and puffy and strangely delicate with ridged fingernails. He would wash my own small hands in the sink finger by finger as if whittling wood. He began many of his sentences with the word ‘why…’, which was in his lexicon the beginnings of an answer he was formulating. He was a timber merchant and had brylcreamed hair and resented the amount of trifle I ate and was constantly wiping my fingerprints off the bubbly glass doors in their quiet, detached house. But of course I loved him and was in awe of the way he turned my stiff and unpliable shoes into burgundy tongues of moisturised leather (which was always a sign that we were leaving, because there they stood sentry-like by the door on our last day, maroon and gleaming).
I remember the pristine plastic bag he would give me at Christmas, long like a sleeve; inside was a Bunty comic and something to do with stationary and pencils. The smell of newness. I have always loved the smell of Christmas, the colours, the citrus, the nuts, the dome of disgraced pudding. However much you feel the bubbling up of resentment somewhere in your being (inevitable) it is hard to quash the feelings of excitement, of occasion, it’s always hard to sleep on Christmas eve. Presents, gold wrapping, a basted bird, the morning walk in frost, the sudden intimacies with strangers.
I have little recollection of what I ate with my grandparents at Christmas, except there was always trifle at some point and I remember the pudding on the day, hot and cascading with complicated fruit and brandy butter which I ate by the spoonful followed later by a spell of biliousness in the back of granny’s car. Breakfast would contain dry Alpen mixed to a rough cement with single cream (top of the milk).
Now the trees are on their lopsided uppers, kicked to the kerb, empty of trinkets. The only red thing left is a poinsettia, the oranges the only thing orange. It is over! It is not even the beginning of the end. It’s a whole new year. There is nothing tenuous about it. We must begin anew. My granny eventually turned her back on butter, switching to Flora margarine – something to do with Terry Wogan’s influence. But I can’t – butter is balm, particularly now in January, when darkness falls at four and the cold works its way pincer-like through all my layers. Fat makes you feel better. Well, me.
Here is a recipe for buttered carrots to which you can add the following: more butter. And a knife point of paprika, thyme, garlic or bay leaves. Adding some sweet potato can also be lovely; it will disintegrate within minutes though. I should say that I always add garlic to this. It is delicious alongside hummus or mixed with a bit of yoghurt or feta. It becomes a soup with ease, simply add water or stock. Meat stock can give it an intensity you should be prepared for.
A bag of carrots, preferably organic (my bag says 650g)
Generous knob of good quality butter, min 25g (I use President)
Garlic, 3-4 cloves or more, bashed and chopped
Thyme sprigs (optional)
Melt the butter in the saucepan with the garlic and the (diagonally if you like) sliced carrots and coat well, add thyme or another herb here if using and a pinch of salt, then add sufficient water to cover the lot and bubble away until this has reduced to a stickiness. The moment it is ready is entirely a personal preference – I like my carrots almost burnt as it seems to bring out a corresponding sweetness, but Jane Grigson says the point of readiness is when the liquid is ‘reduced to a shiny, colourless glaze’. If you would like to make this into a soup then I would add more water and/or stock at this stage, bring it up to a boil and then blitz.