For Brits abroad, festive cooking can be challenging

From six-mile hikes in search of marzipan to cold Christmas puddings on the Trans-Siberian Express.

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Freda Palm Muyambo is the Mince Pie Lady of Lagos – a title the Botswanan-born food writer acquired quite accidentally on her first Christmas in Nigeria. Missing the festive pastries after ten years in London, she rashly volunteered to bake some for the playgroup Christmas party – “I had never made a mince pie in my life, and no one sold ready-made mincemeat either!” Or, as she quickly discovered, suet. Nevertheless, Freda’s first batch disappeared in minutes. Orders had her running all over the city with boxes of pies before, with some relief, she flew off to Zimbabwe for Christmas.

It’s not just in West Africa that suet is hard to come by – food writer Elisabeth Luard remembers her Andalusian butcher’s fascination with such “outlandish foreign habits” 50 years later, while a Twitter correspondent tells me he was directed to the bird food section in his supermarket in Minnesota. In Seattle, one Brit took ten buses and walked six miles in search of marzipan to make her boyfriend a proper Christmas cake – “he clearly wasn’t impressed as he dumped me in January”.

A teacher has fonder memories of celebrations with the Filipino maids in a Saudi palace, eating “sort-of mince pies” made with fresh dates and dried figs, and tasting “surprisingly homely”. Roast camel and bustard took the place of turkey on that occasion – though others tell tales of hauling frozen birds in hand luggage all the way to Phuket or driving a Norfolk Black down to the south of France in a Fiat 500. Plucked and trussed, one assumes – though growing up in Thailand, food writer Kay Plunkett-Hogge recalls the year “the ‘fresh’ turkeys jumped out the back of a van on Christmas morning and buggered off to roost in a palm tree”.

I’m reliably informed “the only place you’d get a parsnip on the Costa del Sol ten years ago was – inexplicably – a franchise of CarpetRight”, and that things were even worse in New York: “I scoured every deli in Manhattan… drawing bad pictures and explaining ‘it’s like a white carrot you eat at Christmas’,” someone reminisces ruefully.

Chef Jane Baxter has bittersweet memories of Christmas cooking on one of the most remote islands on Earth, Tokelau, where “nothing really grows”. “I was determined to make something from the UK, so I scrounged some potatoes and eggs and gathered a fern that grew on the atoll, whose inner leaves tasted a bit like leek. I had some anchovies and frozen peas, and with the local fish and UHT milk made a fish pie that I was incredibly proud of. We put it in a basket woven from coconut palms to take to my mother-in-law’s… on the way the basket flipped over and the pie ended up… well, yeah. It tipped me over the edge!”

But such travails often bring people together. Journalist Felicity Spector tells me how, in 1987, she took a Marks & Spencer Christmas pudding on the Trans-Siberian Express – “six of us shared it cold, on Christmas Day, when it was -40°C outside”.

Perhaps my favourite story of far-flung Christmas catering comes from Dr Mike Prior-Jones. In 2006, he air-dropped a fruit cake to the British Antarctic Survey’s nearest neighbours, the Argentinians. Strictly speaking, the cake was ballast to ensure more essential supplies weren’t blown into the sea but its recipients were delighted, announcing online that “Father Christmas came in a red plane!”.

Happy Christmas, wherever you’re celebrating. 

Next week: John Burnside on nature

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article appears in the 13 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special