– when the world moved at a gentler pace and our material expectations were fewer. In those days there was ‘a’ Christmas present – maybe two, if you were lucky. My late mother, Beria, was generous, and apart from the annual pair of bathers, there were books – often about the royal family, and a packet of muscatels and almonds a special treat which I did not have to share with anyone. To this day, I still love clusters of Muscatels! It is a curious thing, but if I close my eyes and travel back in time, I still recall the excitement of the advent of Christmas – counting the number of sleeps.
For the five-years I lived with Beria and Steve in Grinning Joe’s house, Christmas was a magical time. The preceding weeks were filled with anticipation, and everyone looked forward to being part of it. The celebrations began on Christmas Eve with the Christmas tree and presents in the park followed by midnight Mass for the adults. The festivities continued through to New Year when families headed off for their annual two-week holiday. I was curious about the Fresh Air League holiday camp in Esperance but was too embarrassed to ask why the air was so fresh, and did it come in a bottle? For the Italians and the Slavs in Gwalia, European food and traditions formed an important part of ‘Buon Natale’ – a link with the old country. There was no roast turkey or plum pudding with brandy sauce. Instead, Beria cooked a leg of ham in the copper, which she scrubbed with salt and vinegar until you could see your face in it. She added a bottle of beer or red wine, a handful of peppercorns and a pound of sugar to the water. She boiled the ham for an hour, removed the hot coals from the fire, covered the copper with a pile of old towels and blankets, leaving the ham to cook in its own heat and lifting it from the water the following morning. She carefully removed the flap of skin and covered the remaining layer of white fat with breadcrumbs. The skin was used to seal in the freshness.
On Christmas morning Steve killed a rooster to make risotto which we ate late morning, and following which we joined a crowd of between thirty and forty adults and a swarm of kids going from house to house, eating and drinking, and travelling around the town on the back of Ike Nye’s old delivery truck which was nothing more than a motorised open tin cabin with a gigantic wooden tray.
Isabella Pennefather was a large woman, and everyone knew she had to travel in the front. The rest of us clambered onto the back and we chugged from one location to the next. Beria and Steve always walked.
Wherever we went on Christmas Day, kitchen and dining room tables were weighed down with roast chooks and roosters, legs of ham and pork, potato and pea salad, traditional Italian cakes and paneforte, glace and marzipan fruit, tiramisu, lasagne, spaghetti, and bowls of homemade cheese straws, potato chips. Beria made ice cream from powdered and sweetened condensed milk. Once a year she bought a tin of SPC fruit salad – her favourite which never tasted as good as it looked in the cut glass bowl. I picked out the maraschino cherries and grapes, leaving the small pineapple triangles, still spotted with remnants of the tough outside skin, which stuck into your tongue.
Beria’s rich Christmas cake took several weeks of preparation.
First the loose currants, raisins and sultanas were picked over, washed, and then left in a bowl for a couple of days on the back verandah to soak in lashings of brandy and Muscat. It was stirred regularly and finally the spices were added in preparation for baking day. I stood at the end of the kitchen table, watching and asking the same questions. She knew the recipe by heart: a pound of butter, a dozen freshly laid eggs which I collected from the chookhouse on the day; a pound of brown sugar, four or five cups of self-raising flour, a cup of plain flour, two heaped serving spoons each of golden syrup and treacle, and a teaspoon of cinnamon and allspice. She had the same nutmeg seed for years and it was my job to grate it for the cake. Beria stirred it with a large wooden spoon, allowing me several tastes along the way. However, the best bit was licking the yellow English mixing bowl because Beria always left me two big spoonfuls of the thick brown mixture.
Using my father’s cake tin, she let it cook for about three hours, keeping the temperature constant with a supply of kindling wood Steve cut for her, especially. The smell floated through the house and hung on the air outside. Beria checked its progress; opening the oven door just enough to allow her to gently push the kitchen knitting needle into the centre of the cake. Only when it came out as clean as a whistle was the cake taken from the oven, left to cool in the tin, and wrapped for four weeks in an Irish linen tea towel. With a sigh of relief she remarked: ‘I’m happy it’s not cracked.’ The cake was never iced and my fingers itched to pick out and eat any fruit which had broken through the surface. With great anticipation, the cake was removed from the tin on Christmas and decorated every year with same sugar Father Christmas, which belonged to me. Beria bought it for me from the chemist in 1951. It cost two and sixpence.
Every year after we had finished the cake I asked her the same question: ‘Mum, can I eat Father Christmas?’ And every year she gave me same answer: ‘No, Ronnie, you cannot eat Father Christmas. Now put him back in the kitchenette and leave him there.’ And that’s where he sat for another year.
One year as I was putting him away, Beria commented: ‘Ronnie, I think a little two legged-mouse has been having a bit of a nibble at Father Christmas.’ Happy Christmas to you.
Roland can be heard each MONDAY morning on 3BA at 10.30.