A time for unadulterated tradition

Salmon is naff and goose a waste of time. As for the wine, if George III couldn't drink it, then nei

By this stage you will have been sickened by the endless pretentious articles, in every colour supplement and magazine you have looked at in the past fortnight, telling you how to have the most wonderful culinary experience of your life this Christmas. You will also, no doubt, have reflected upon how many ways there are in which the same old bollocks can be served up - literally and metaphorically - to create the pretence that tradition and originality can, in some way, be merged. It is hard not to conclude that the whole subject of Christmas eating is not, already, in exactly the same place where the stuffing goes.

It is no wonder so many families fall out over Christmas, when such a preposterous performance as numerous of our most celebrated (and uncelebrated) chefs have been suggesting is attempted in so many households. There is no getting away from it: what is suggested for the proper English Christmas menu is pretty unappetising, and the more it is fannied about with (to use the phrase of one of my more thoughtful friends) the less appetising it becomes. Also, if one wishes to be pedantic, it is highly questionable whether much of what is suggested is remotely English. So let us begin by bearing one thing in mind: Christmas Day is supposed to be, as the song goes, a time of good spirits. We are supposed to be enjoying ourselves. This applies irrespective of whether or not one is in any way religious. The fundamental proof that God was not Australian is that He allowed us to have Christmas at the darkest, coldest, most bloody awful time of the year in order to cheer us all up.

There are three golden rules if one is to have the perfect atavistic eating and drinking experience at Christmas. First, the ratio of the latter to the former should be superior. Second, in His infinite wisdom, God designed various drinks long ago specifically for this most awful time of the year, and they should be adhered to at all costs.

Third, and perhaps because of rules one and two, it is highly advisable never to contemplate cooking anything that is, how shall we say, too ambitious. Such dishes are best attempted only by teetotallers, and we all know what a jolly bunch they are.

The Victorians (with whose festive practices we remain, in our sad and innocent little way, so obsessed) would have had their main Christmas Day meal at about four or five in the afternoon. For our tastes this might be somewhat late, but it is certainly preferable to trying to have it in the evening. Under our plan, one is fit in the evening only for a little gentle sipping and nibbling. In an ideal household a light breakfast will have been consumed at about nine o'clock, enabling the assembled to survive until about two in the afternoon without needing to consume heavy quantities of food. Extremists may have eggs and bacon for breakfast, especially if a hearty walk is envisaged before lunch; toast and marmalade will do for the rest.

The most crucial time in the day is 11 o'clock, for that is when it is correct to have the first drink of the day. The explicit nature of rule two is this: that if King George III couldn't drink it, then neither should you. It is, above all, a measure of great tragedy for anyone to drink champagne on Christmas Day: it shows a failure to understand what the event, or indeed that particular drink, is about. At 11 o'clock you will want a glass of sherry. Now, it is considered the height of vulgarity by people who think they understand these things to drink anything other than the driest of bone-dry sherries. Worse, they insist on putting it in the fridge, which is about as un-British as it is possible to be. The depths of winter are not, however, a remotely appropriate time for one of those sherries that inevitably cause you to suck in your teeth. What we need in the middle of Christmas morning is nothing drier than a mild oloroso, just to set the tone for stickiness, and to instil that essential feeling of warmth.

Then you superintend the installation of the luncheon in the oven before participating in the holiest ritual of the day: the trip to the boozer, which also provides the opportunity for that hearty walk we talked about. But first things first. It is thought to be the height of sophistication these days to precede the turkey with some high-class smoked salmon. Forget it. Christmas Day was the one day in the calendar when it was possible to ignore Lord Curzon's imprecation that gentlemen do not take soup at luncheon, so treat yourself to a good old-fashioned lobster bisque. Extremists will want a proper starter that connects them with the romanticised poor of Victorian England, which is why they will long since have arranged with the local fishmonger to collect several dozen oysters on Christmas Eve. These do not need to be considered until you return from the pub, when you can have the entertainment of trying to open these shellfish while mildly inebriated; the main course, however, does.

It is, needless to say, not turkey. No self-respecting table should be disgraced by this disgusting, mutant foreign bird. No; in celebration of the forthcoming lifting of the ridiculous ban, you will have seen your butcher and be preparing to feast upon a roast rib of beef, which is what our people properly eat on Christmas Day. In the event of your butcher being too gutless to oblige, sirloin will do as a substitute. You will have it with roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, horseradish and mustard to taste, carrots and peas, and with a gravy of the meat's juices laced with cooking port.

Perhaps here, as a parenthesis, I ought to dilate on the goose. There is nothing wrong with goose. It is a damned sight tastier and more appealing than the turkey, and infinitely more challenging to shoot. Its various bits - its liver, naturally, but also the fat it produces - can be put to all sorts of attractive uses. However, it is a bugger to deal with. If you are feeding more than half a dozen people you will be lucky, unless you live truly baronially, to have an oven big enough to get the goose in. For those of you inexperienced in these matters, let me explain. Goosey is a fat bastard. You put the vastest goose in the oven; you bring out a shrivelled little bird and gallons of hot, tasty fat in which you can have a series of the most heart attack-inducing fry-ups for days ahead. He works out to be phenomenally expensive. Anyone wanting to go down the goose road deserves to be saluted for their courage.

But back to lunch. Your appetite will have been sharpened by the two or three pints of dark, mild ale you have drunk in the pub. On return you will join the cook in a glass or three of more serious sherry, one of those stonkingly thick and viscous olorosos in which you can place a spoon and it will stand up of its own accord. You will share this delightfully raisiny concoction around among your guests, for whom it will be one of the most memorable parts of the day. In our fathers' time they used to make something straightforwardly called brown sherry, which did the job, and you can carry on drinking it with your lobster soup. If there are oysters, a glass of Guinness is more than appropriate.

The claret with which you will consume the roast beef needs to have had careful consideration. If the piggy bank does not run to an '82, you will not want to insult your palate or the rib of beef with anything less than an '85. Most of the '86s are not quite ready and the '89s and '90s want another three to five years at least. Stand the bottles in the kitchen the night before so that the wine gets to a decent temperature, but do not boil it. Decant it an hour before drinking so it can breathe. The recent fad of opening older wines at the table is fine for a '45 or a '61, but even then only provided you like the taste of death for the first ten minutes.

Without wanting to be too shockingly traditional, Christmas pud is unbeatable for the next course. A Sauternes at cellar - not fridge - temperature is called for, but deal with this in moderation. Brandy butter is acceptable, provided you have made it yourself and not bought that Vaseline-like supermarket equivalent. The bottle or two of 1970 port, which you had standing upright for the past week and which you decanted carefully 24 hours ago, is now brought on to accompany the cheeses. Naturally, these are a Colston Basset Stilton and a Somerset Cheddar that have been in the cellar, not the fridge, for the past few days. By this time it is probably five o'clock, and time to sit by the fire with this year's improving book.

The evening is when decadence can take over. Ignoring George III, radicals may want a heart-starter at about 7 o'clock, which best comes in the form of the world's greatest cocktail, the White Lady (two parts gin; one part Cointreau; one part lemon juice; a dash of egg white; shaken not stirred). When hunger sets in at about 8.30pm there will be the Suffolk cured ham, reeking of molasses, with which you will enjoy a few pickles (not least the holy of holies, the pickled egg) and some bread. More of the claret can be brought into service here, and then there is the Christmas cake, which you took the precaution of having Grandma make in October, and some proper homemade mince pies to mop up the leftover brandy butter. Some madeira slips down well with this, or some of the port you will have if you plan to return to the cheese.

With the end of the day comes the final indulgence. True sybarites will demolish a big bar of fruit and nut chocolate (rekindling memories of the Cadbury's selection box from all those years ago) with a half bottle or so of white port, which was, I have always felt, invented specifically for this purpose. Those requiring more traditional fortification will have a very old and smelly whisky, which they will not affront by diluting in any way; or a glass of brandy topped up with a measure of port to ensure a properly sleepful night. What could be better?

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition