Recipes that make more than usually creative use of Christmas leftovers always seem to me to have a faintly comic air, as if they’d been written not by some plucky and determined food stylist for the website of a major TV chef – “These turkey and honey-glazed ham enchiladas are so much easier to make than you think!” – but by Carla Lane or Mike Leigh at the back end of the 70s. Yes, bubble and squeak is a fine thing, especially with a fried egg; I will brave almost any amount of Boxing Day traffic for a mean variation on shepherd’s pie. But once you get into the realms of full bastardisation – a parsnip “dhal” that tastes faintly of bread sauce – it all starts to get a bit creepy. The prospect of “creamy goose curry” is not, for me, an enticing one – with or without homemade chutney. Like some medieval pilgrim, warily anticipating yet another heinous rip-off en route to Canterbury, I worry about the condition of a bird whose owner has resorted to camouflage in the form of cumin, cloves and garlic.
Does this sound fussy? Having once attended a Christmas buffet whose centrepiece comprised a bowl of “hummus” made from boiled carrots that came with light top notes of gravy – looking back, it seems miraculous that we were not invited to dip pickled onions into this festive outrage – I prefer to think of it as merely sensible: forewarned is forearmed, and all that (the period between Christmas and New Year, when everyone is absolutely sick both of cooking and of the contents of their fridge is to my mind the perfect time for zingy Thai takeaways).
But I do see that such squeamishness sits rather oddly with my horror of food waste, which for the past couple of years has been growing exponentially. Would I rather you threw food out than gussy it up with a few pomegranate seeds? No, definitely not. Nevertheless, it would be infinitely better all round if people would buy only what they think they will need. If, for instance, your turkey requires a small trolley or more than one person to manoeuvre it from its storage place to the oven, it is going to outlast not only the Matchmakers and the Roses; it will likely be extant even as some poor fool pushes the last York Fruit into their mouth.
Christmas has, of course, come early this year for those who care about the £13bn worth of edible food and drink we throw away every year in this country. First, Aldi revealed that on Christmas Eve it plans to give away any leftover food to charity. Then the East of England Co-op announced that in future it will reduce the price of tinned and dried food that is past its “best before” date to 10p and sell it for an additional month (an amazing precedent that will likely save at least two tonnes of food from being wasted every year).
Will this encourage other supermarkets to do the same? Will it convince food banks and other charities to start accepting foods that are past their “best before” dates? We must pray that it does. And once people have come to realise that “best before” dates on dried and tinned foods are close to meaningless, perhaps they’ll rethink their attitude to other kinds of foods, too.
This has never been a stretch for me. One of the most bracing aspects of growing up with my scientifically minded parents was their blithe attitude to perishable food stuffs. Mould on hard cheese or yogurt was nothing at all to these people who navigated their fridges using their noses as well as their eyes, and who dealt with any little local difficulties (by which I mean small patches of green or blue) with a grin and a sharp knife.
Occasionally, we children would groan out loud at whatever crime against freshness was about to be perpetrated; I have a vague memory of a terrifying alien life form emerging from the pantry in the shape of a sprouting potato, a vegetable we had physically to wrestle from our mother’s capable hands. Mostly, though, it made us pretty straightforward in the matter of food: things were either good enough to eat, or they really weren’t, and there wasn’t much of an in-between. Perhaps, then, this is the real reason why – beyond simple questions of good and bad taste – I am not, and never will be, in the market for goose curry, turkey enchiladas or (the mind boggles) brussels sprout pesto. My Christmas-cracker motto reads like this: scoff it all while it’s good, and move swiftly on.