Christmas 2004 was a sombre affair for me and my family. We were all there, no one had died but an onlooker would be forgiven for thinking so. Conversation around the lunch table was stilted, limited to small talk and interspersed with the occasional outburst of tears from my older sister. We understood why she was upset. Five members of her close family would be gone in 15 short days and this was the last Christmas we would spend together. We were not heading for Death Row, but Heathrow from where we would fly to start a new life 6000 miles away on the West side of Argentina.
So departure day came, and I, along with my two young children and my parents said our tearful goodbyes, loaded our luggage and ourselves in to the taxi and waved a fond farewell.
Arriving in Argentina during the first week of January gave us ample time to figure out how our new community celebrated the Christmas holiday. We learned that Christmas Eve is the main event. The whole family gets together for a late, long and luxurious dinner. Gifts are exchanged at midnight, fireworks are set off and everyone embraces each other and wishes the very best for the coming year. At this point the older members of the family retire to bed or chat and the younger ones go off to party until dawn. Consequently Christmas day means a late and lazy start and usually the family have rallied enough by 2 in the afternoon to set off to the country for a picnic by the river. This sounded great to me. Being in the southern hemisphere December is one of the summer months and it is hot, really hot. The thought of cooking a traditional Christmas lunch in temperatures of 95 – 100 degrees was not appealing. Doing Christmas the Argentine way was much more attractive.
My plans to incorporate an Argentine style Christmas into my English family were thwarted, when on the 21st December my mother approached me and informed me that my father had requested that we have a “proper Christmas dinner” instead of doing things the local way.
Thirty-five years of experience and memories quickly registered and translated this request in to an image of roast winter vegetable soup, turkey and all the trimmings followed by Christmas pudding with brandy butter served promptly at 1pm. Planning and preparing a Christmas feast back home took weeks – I had less than four days to come up with something decent.
My thoughts sharply focused on sourcing a turkey – not something I had ever seen on sale anywhere during the year. With hope in my heart I went to the biggest supermarket in town. They had chickens – big ones, but not an acceptable substitute, it had to be turkey.
Then I remembered – I had bought some horses 6 months previously from a ranch in the middle of nowhere and they had turkeys, lots of them. I felt sure if I went there they would let me have one for a small fee. I was right, they were more than delighted to supply me with what I needed. Trouble was, the turkeys were running wild all over the place and I had no idea how to bag one.
The ranch owners knew. I discovered that all you have to do is emulate the mating call of the cock turkey and the hens come running. Mrs Ranch owner was the expert and soon we were surrounded by at least 20 birds pecking at the scraps she had thrown down to give me time to make my selection. How do you pick out a living creature knowing that in 3 days time you are going to eat it? I was a born and bred city girl accustomed to purchasing pre packed ready butchered flesh that bore no resemblance to the animal it originated from.
Back to my dilemma, which one to choose? I applied the criteria many guys use when picking a chick for the night and pointed to the one with the blond coloured plumage, gullible look in her eye and the largest chest.
Within seconds of condemning the poor bird to being the centrepiece of our Christmas table Mrs Ranch owner had grabbed it by the neck, stuffed it into an old feed sack and secured it there with a bit of string tied around the opening. My turkey was bagged and still alive.
“Can’t you kill it”? I asked her
“No”, she said, “you have to keep it at your house overnight without food and then you kill it”.
At that point she handed me the flimsy bag with an outraged and rather large turkey fighting for its right to a fair trial.
The journey home was traumatic for both me and the feathered feast-to-be but we finally arrived at my farm and I located a suitable jail to house my prisoner while she awaited execution the following day. Naturally the children wanted to feed her and give her water and a name. Without any prompts from me they called her Barbie and I heard them telling her that mummy was cruel for not letting her eat or drink. I wondered what they would have thought if only they knew what was in store for our overnight guest.
The next morning, after a sleepless night wrestling with my conscience, I had concluded that there was no way I could commit the act of poultrycide but I had come up with the name of a hit man. Gonzales, my neighbour – he had wrung countless scrawny necks during his 74 years as a self-sufficient country dweller.
At day break, before the children woke up, I ushered Gonzales to the turkey jail. I pointed at Barbie and then drew my forefinger slowly across my throat. That was all it took. Three squawks , two seconds and one sharp tug in the right direction and it was game over. Barbie was dead.
Now all I had to do was pull all of the feathers out and address the issue of what was inside the abdominal cavity and get it out somehow. Everything up to this point now seemed like a breeze. I started plucking – one feather at a time. A quick mental guesstimation and I figured at this rate I would have Barbie stripped by mid February. There had to be a quicker way.
My prayers were answered by the arrival of another neighbour and his 14 year old daughter who had stopped by to drop of gifts for the children. I didn’t have to say a word, they spotted my incompetence from fifty paces and Jessica, the 14 year old, took over, first by pulling out hands full of feathers and then taking the plucked poultry to my kitchen. She asked for a sharp knife and before I finished making coffee for my very welcome guests Jessica had done the dirtiest of deeds and Barbie was naked, clean and ready for stuffing.
Stuffing, that was the next problem. In the UK the supermarket shelves are well stocked with different varieties of “just add boiling water” ready-made convenient stuffing mixes. At Christmas you will find the latest imaginative offerings from annoying TV celebrity chefs who try and out-do each other by combining such delights as green grapefruit with shitake mushrooms. At this point I would have settled for a simple Sage & Onion packet mix, the most humble and traditional choice. Instead I had to search the internet for a stuffing recipe and hope I could get what I needed to put in it. This stage in the whole putting together a “proper Christmas dinner” process turned out to be relatively easy. Breadcrumbs form the basis of the mix and then you simply add herbs with bits and bobs of choice, blend it all together and add boiling water until you get a sort of doughy type consistency. I achieved this by first raiding my larder, then the neighbour’s herb garden and produced an imaginative offering of my own – a mix of tinned chestnuts, garlic and finely chopped, unidentified plant life. This was then stuffed in to the cavity that Jessica had kindly created.
My next task was to make and mature a Christmas pudding – a feat that normally takes at least a month. Christmas pudding is a heavy, spiced, dried fruit and nut concoction made with one vital ingredient I had not seen on sale in Argentina – suet, or shredded beef fat. The dried fruit and other ingredients were easy to locate and I used butter instead of suet and hoped no one would be able to tell the difference. To make a Christmas pudding you mix all the ingredients together in the right order, put it in a heatproof bowl and then steam it for 3 hours or so and then leave it to mature for anything between one to ten months, the longer the better. Three days would have to be long enough, that’s all the time I had.
I announced that winter vegetable soup would be summer vegetable soup due to the absence of parsnips, carrots and squash. The rest of the trimmings were somewhat less challenging to produce. Sausages wrapped in bacon, roast potatoes and 3 different types of vegetables were no problem at all.
And so we had our traditional style Christmas – a ridiculously early start with the kids ripping into the gifts that Father Christmas had left under the tree, followed by a champagne breakfast and then it was on with the stove to start the cooking. We had invited some other Brits to join us, who in turn had invited some other Brits who were staying with them and I was cooking for ten people on the hottest day of the year.
In case you are wondering, it went down pretty well. But I suspect the question on your lips is – “how was Barbie”? In truth, the meat was a little tough, I guess a testament to the wild times she had out on the ranch in the middle of nowhere. Although everyone knew the stuffing was home-made no one asked for the recipe. Can’t think why not! The buttery Christmas pudding was a bit questionable but by the time this was served we were merry on Malbec wine and so I got away with it.
Christmas 2005 was a joyous affair for me and my family. We drank to absent friends and family, remembering them fondly and shedding a tear or two. We congratulated ourselves on surviving our first year as expats 6000 miles away from home. Conversation buzzed with talk of the year ahead and what it would bring. I had no doubt it would be a good one.