30 | Nov | 09

Richard Johnson

Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire

The chestnut seller on the South Bank got me thinking about Christmas. It wasn’t his welcoming spirit – God no. He was French. And the most miserable mobiler I’ve come across in a long time. But he still got me thinking. At this time of year, when I’m dreaming of long wreaths of sausages, hocks of ham, and seething bowls of punch that make the front room dim with steam, I like to wassail. The English have always “wassailed” rather well at Christmas. In Speculum Stultorum by Nigellus Wireker (an ideal stocking filler, by the way) the English students at the university of Paris were praised for their generosity, but damned for being “addicted to wassail”.

The wassail bowl was as big as a cauldron, and kept warm over the burning yule log. On New Year’s Day, the children would take the bowl to their friends – a practice that became known as ‘wassailing’. If there was any left over (unlikely, given that this was before Diamond White cider was freely available from unscrupulous off-licences) the holiday ale would then get poured over the land – or fed to the livestock – in an attempt to boost fertility for the next season. It was a strong old drink – guaranteed to have you decking the halls whether you want to or not.

In A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens, Scrooge proposes that he and Bob Cratchit discuss the future “over a bowl of Smoking Bishop”. This punch, sometimes called ‘purple wine’, earnt the name ‘Bishop’ from its colour. Although a real bishop does give a very particular flavour. It’s made by pouring red wine over ripe, bitter oranges. The liquor is heated (or ‘mulled’) in an old pan which can be pushed back into the fire. Sugar and spices (chiefly cloves, star anise, and cinnamon) are added to taste. Smoking Bishop always gets me donning my gay apparel.

I can’t wait. Champagne for breakfast, sherry with the neighbours, and then dry white wine with lunch. Followed by heavy red wine, sweet white wine, port, brandy and whisky. I never remember the Queen’s speech. In France, their Biere de Noel arrives for a limited season only. A friend of mine was in Normandy on Boxing Day last year, and had the temerity to ask the bar owner for a Biere de Noel. He was met by scenes resembling a Bateman cartoon. “Mais Monsieur, Noel est…parti”. Wonder if the bar owner was related to that chestnut seller on the South Bank?