My first Christmas dinner of the season took place in Norwich. A group of academic colleagues - teachers of literature, writers and translators - gathered at the Unthank Arms in the city centre for our version of the office party. Professors in paper hats: what a delight to witness. The food was atrocious, but we had a lot of fun none the less. Thinking afterwards about the poor quality of ingredients and cooking, I felt that the chef must be a cynic or a misanthrope. We had to provide our own comfort and joy.
December: the year's long night. Solstice: the hinge of midwinter. We need a ritual to get us through. So we build fires, light candles, lug in green branches, make evergreen wreaths, stand a green tree in the corner. The feast forms the centre of these ceremonies.
Easy at this cold, black time of year to remember the dead. My friend Penny, a magnificent cook who loved gathering people around her table, had second sight. Terminally ill, she described how she could see the dead waiting for her, good friendly ghosts hovering in the corners of the room lit by the flickering flames, stretching out their hands to our warmth. I would like to cook a Christmas meal in remembrance of her and other friends and relatives who have died. I'd invite all my living friends, too - lots of writers. I'd cook a wide array of dishes to celebrate some of the writers I admire.
They crowd in, grumbling about advances and royalties, seat themselves around a big oval table, white napkins spread over their knees, sparkling wine glasses in front of each plate. Candles give us light. The edges of the room are in darkness. We can smell the resin, like incense, of burning pine logs.
In honour of Colette, and her childhood foraging in the woods of her native Burgundy, I have made a chestnut and mushroom soup scented with sage. For Simone de Beauvoir, who does not wish to learn to cook, a special treat: a pate studded with truffles. For Flaubert and Andre Gide, those good Normans, a dish of pork chops served on a puree of apples sauteed in butter and Calvados; a duck baked in cider; a rabbit roasted in a jacket of mustard. For Virginia Woolf, who remembered all her life seeing Vita Sackville-West, in her pearl necklace, appear like a vision in the fishmonger at Lewes: a dozen oysters. For George Sand, so skilled at collecting herbs, a salad of sorrel and winter spinach. Henry James toys with veal stewed with prunes in a cream and redcurrant sauce; he remembers eating this years before in Tours. Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas provide pudding: hash cookies. Proust, as usual, sticks to madeleines dipped in cooling camomile tea.