Mince Pies & Marzipan

15 Dec 2009

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Traditional Irish Christmas Cake

Well tis’ the season to be jolly… and sure enough, things can get quite jolly ‘round here. But, I must admit, being married to an Irish farmer also means that he can’t really be home with us for the entire holiday as the animals need to be tended to every day of the year. I guess I’ve taken for granted that the holidays are about loads of time off to spend with family and friends relaxing with a little cheer and reflecting on the year that was behind us (hint: never take this for granted). Still, we make a big effort to enjoy the time we do have together and are grateful for that.

In Ireland, Christmas Eve is not the big draw, possibly because Christmas Day and Christmas Day Eve are when the real festivities happen and then there’s a whole other lively day of celebration on the 26th, called St. Stephen’s Day. (Or Boxing Day in the UK) St. Stephen’s Day or the Feast of St. Stephen is a Christian Saint’s day and is  a national holiday in Ireland. It is also known as the “Day of the Wren” in many areas, ours included. We have another big feast on this day and then are visited by the “Wren Boys” who traditionally come into country homes and perform traditional Irish music through song and dance.  They come to the door playing their beautiful instruments such as the tin whistle, the concertina, Bodhráns and fiddles.  One person always has a (artificial)wren bird in a nest to symbolize the hunt of the wren who historically brought good luck to the villagers. Here is a link to a snippet of last year’s performance at the farmhouse. Geoffrey loves the Wren Boys and I can’t say I blame him as they are quite entertaining, and for me, something totally festive and different.

We’ll open the gifts at our holly-strewn home on Christmas morning and then Richard will go to work until later in the day when we have the big dinner at the home farmhouse. Peggy is preparing the meal this year and I am bringing the desserts—this year I’ll be trying my hand at an Irish Christmas Cake. No Irish Christmas would be complete without the this cake and for all of it’s elaborateness, it’s basically a fruit cake made to look pretty so I should be able to handle it. (wait a minute, is there a little personification going on there?). The frosting and little trimmings are made from marzipan, a staple here for cake decorating. We also have a new arrival in the family this year, D & R’s new beautiful baby girl, Gwynn, whom will be our guest of honour. Michael will prepare his plum pudding which is another gooey fruit-cakey concoction made with plums and raisins and something yucky called minced suet. The only good thing about plum pudding is that it’s served with a creamy brandy sauce or home-made rum raisin ice cream which are both delicious. Mince pies are always a given–they make mini ones which you see everywhere here and they are dusted with powdered sugar making them look really tasty which, of course, is totally deceiving. So, by now you must be wondering if there are any desserts that I would actually eat for the holidays! Why yes, the best one of all, trifle! I love trifle. It is much like a parfait in a big pretty glass bowl: boozy sponge cake layered with golden custard and luscious fruit covered in cream.  I also love the crunchy meringues with mixed berries and dollups of fresh cream.

When we sit down to dinner on Christmas we begin by opening the Christmas crackers.  A cracker consists of a cardboard tube wrapped in a brightly decorated twist of paper, making it resemble an oversized candy-wrapper. Two people pull and it breaks unevenly (making a popping sound) and leaves one person with the bigger half which holds a paper crown (which you then happily wear for the rest of the day) and a little surprise, perhaps a small trinket, a riddle or some other fun tchotke. I personally think everyone in the world should celebrate with Christmas crackers. They are loads of fun!

When all of the Christmas and St. Stephen’s Day cheer is complete there is still yet another Christmas to celebrate, and that is called “Little Christmas” or Nollaig na mBan which falls on Jan 6th.  It is also referred to as “Women’s Christmas” because it is a day where the men traditionally donned aprons and did all the cooking and cleaning whilst the women relaxed and were taken care of for the day. Despite the fact that this seems terribly un-pc, I’ve read that it is being picked up as a tradition in the USA more and more. My father-in-law makes dinner for us all on this day..usually a goose, and it’s quite humorous to see him doing all the work inside as Peggy usually rules the roost. It’s certainly nice to see her get a break from being the domestic goddess of Dunmoylan for a change.

This will be my last post until the New Year. So Nollaig Mhaith Chugat and a Happy, Happy New Year to you all!

Slán Abhaile,

Imen

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