As I walk through the malls today, lit up with coloured LED lights that wink and blink, screaming Xmas, I am reminded of a Xmas, years ago on top of a snow capped Himalayan Kingdom .
Xmas trees light up a festive corner, in most homes across the world today and they are decorated by families of different faith. It is no longer a religious festival owned only by Christians. It is a colourful time of the year, when even warring troops lay down their arms to a world enveloped in a kind soft hue . Peace on Earth . Goodwill to man.
A fat man with a white beard, travels from the North Pole in a red suit, with a sack of toys on his back. He streams across the sky in a sleigh with bells that jingle, navigated by a herd of reindeer, with no seat belt, no pilot light, no ID and no pressurized cabin. Just the light that shines brightly from the red nose of a reindeer they called Rudolph. The fat man knows which child has been good, which child has been naughty and which child has been bad. He does not care if the Mommies have been naughty, good or bad. He gets to kiss the Mommies under the mistletoe.
Fast rewind to December 24th in 1974. The Medical Superintendent’s House in The Gida Kom Leprosy Hospital Khasadrapchu, just outside Thimpu , the capital of Bhutan. A young South Indian family, a Telegu Dad, a Tamilayalam Mom, a pair of Kichidi kids, still unused to the bitter cold, huddled around a fireplace with crackling logs spitting noisy sparks into space. A toasted home sheltered from the cold howling wind outside.
A bearded Dad who refused to shave in the cold , a Mom who kept herself warm with memories of Xmases with her parents in Singapore, two hyperactive babies, affectionately called Yak and Yeti, bundled up in in woolly long johns, mufflers and caps, played in a corner of the room with some stuffed dolls. A tired teddy bear with its left ear missing and a golliwog Rag doll with tight matted curls stared back with sightless, shutter-less eyes. A temperamental tape recorder that chewed up new tapes systematically throughout the festive season, played Christmas Carols in the background, in Mono.
In a corner of the wood paneled living room, stood the drooping branches of a pine tree in a pot, replete with pine cones. A paper star made from shiny silver wrapping paper perched precariously on the top of the evergreen, threatening to fall down every time the window with the faulty latch flew open, allowing the wind to race through the house.
We had no fibre optic tree that changed colours as it glowed. No baubles or trinkets. No figurines to hang on the tree. No Nativity tableau to unpack. No Angel on top of the tree. No star to brighten the hallway. No serial lights. No buntings or streamers. No friends or family close by. No Carol singers . No Santa Claus. No midnight mass.
What we did have on either side of the potted branch of the pine tree were two magnificent scarlet red Poinsettias blooming in all its glory in two ceramic pots , defying us to be depressed just because we were in unfamiliar surroundings.
Rekha had some coloured ribbons that I cut up and tied into tiny bows to adorn the green branches from the top of the Tree. to the bottom of the Tree. Small balls of cotton wool were added as make believe snowflakes. Christmas in the isolated stations that we worked in, were always what we made, of what we had , thinking out of the humble box.
The presents wrapped under the tree were not battery operated gadgets and gizmos. No high tech trivia with short life spans to use and throw. No conversation stoppers. No smart phones . No IPads. No joysticks. No tag to say that goods could be returned within 24 hours, if it was returned with the price tag intact. No plastic cards to buy them with.
The gift wrapped boxes around the tree were practical presents like socks, shoes and sweaters for the kids to fight the cold. Most of them had been shaken repeatedly and squashed out of shape by a curious Rekha trying to guess what it was. She could never wait for Chistmas Eve to open her presents. This act of shaking, squashing and poking, is a tactile skill she has perfected through the years, every year. Whatever his sister did, Anish copied with feeling. Eventually we used to hide the presents when they were growing up and bring them out only on Xmas Eve. Sometimes the sibling sleuths would find it before the 24th much to my chagrin . Ultimately, the presents were opened in frenzied excitement, leaving an unholy mess of beautiful wrapping paper, shred and strewn in gay abandon across the room. Any attempt to save carefully-removed, pretty, wrapping paper, press them under a cold iron to remove wrinkles, to recycle later, when we did not have Malls around us to gift wrap presents, was futile.
On the dining table, sat a round Christmas cake baked in an primitive Aga stove, stoked with firewood gathered from the garden. Sam had brought a few packets of dried fruits, raisins, currants, cherries, tutti frutti and nuts when he had gone to Calcutta in September. In his hand luggage, he had a quaint glass bottle wrapped carefully in a towel. A bottle of Jimmy Contractor’s Sikkimese Cherry brandy, to soak the dry fruits, for the cake. When he returned, we soaked the fruits in the fragrant Cherry Brandy and put it away in the store, for a month, till the fruits were plump and soaked with the aromatic red of the Cherry brandy.
Thimpu had just one Bakery, called The Swiss Bakery run by a Swiss Expat. They served homemade bread, pastries and cake that we all loved. Eventually, after a few hits and misses, I learned to bake my own bread as we could not depend on daily bread being delivered to our doorstep, miles away from the capital. With time I became more confident about baking in my Aga Oven and started baking cakes and ultimately mustered enough courage to do the traditional Xmas Cake Recipe my Mum had followed for years. We had no temperatures to guide us and it was always guesswork . No timers. No electrical holocausts with electrical power surges. Sometimes the Aga worked perfectly and sometimes it did not.
Traditional Xmas Cake ….Susie’s tweaked version
10 oz butter
10 oz brown sugar , caramelise 1/2 cup
10 oz flour sifted three times
Pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 tsp almond essence
1/2 cup sharp orange marmalade
Lemon zest from 1 lemon
18 oz currants
4 oz golden raisins
4 oz golden sultanas
8 oz dark seedless raisins
4 oz mixed candied peel chopped fine
6 oz glace cherries halved
1/2 cup finely slivered almonds
1 teaspoon mixed spice
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground freshly ground nutmeg
Cherry Brandy to soak the fruits and to feed the cake after baking.
- Wash all the dry fruit and soak them in Brandy to immerse it totally for a month or two. The longer they soak the better.
- When you start the cake, heat the oven to 300 * F / 150* C.
- Line a 9 ” cake tin with a double layer of parchment paper that rises up at least 3 ” above the upper rim of the cake tin.
- Wrap brown paper around the outside of the tin to 3″ above the upper rim of the cake tin and tie with twine, to prevent the cake from burning on the outside.
- Cream the butter and sugar till light and fluffy.
- Add the caramelised sugar and beat again. .
- Add the beaten eggs a little at time, to prevent the cake mix from curdling. Add a teaspoon of flour if it curdles.
- Add the Lemon zest.
- Add the orange marmalade and mix .
- Sift the flour, powdered spices and salt at least three times. The more times it sifted together, the better.
- Drain the soaked fruits in a sieve and and place it on a flat shallow tray that has a rim to prevent spillage while tossing it with flour.
- Add the sifted flour over the fruit mix in small quantities and toss it to coat it well with flour. Avoid using a spoon or hand at this stage as it forms clumps , gets soggy and may sink during baking. Make sure that there is no flour left in the tray.
- Add spoonfuls of the Fruit-Flour mix to the creamed sugar and butter. Mix well till the Flour -Fruit mixture is over.
- Drop spoonfuls of cake mix around the periphery of the prepared cake pan leaving the centre of the pan bare. When it starts baking, the cake mix will spread out to an even surface. If the temperature is correct the cake will not crack on top.
- Bake at 300* F for 4 hours.
- A cake skewer check in the centre of the cake, should come out clean when tested .
- Add brandy to the warm cake after baking.
- Take the cake out of the pan only AFTER it is completely cooled.
- Wrap the cooled cake in several layers of silver foil.
- Seal with Cling-wrap.
- Keep in the fridge
- Open only when you need to.
- Cut with an electric knife ,so that the fruits are cut evenly in a tidy way when sliced. Otherwise the cake will crumble.
When we were in Bhutan and Nepal we did not have silver foil or cling-wrap to keep the cake moist and ant free, I developed a kitchen hack that was a life saver.
Flour Shell, to keep the Xmas cake moist
1. Knead 3 cups of flour + 1.5 cups water + 4 tablespoons of white vinegar to make a soft dough. Vinegar stops the dough from getting moldy.
2. Roll out the dough to a square 12″x12″
3. Place the cooled, paper-wrapped, round cake in the centre of the square dough.
4. Moisten the edges of the square dough with a few drops of vinegar.
4. Pick up all 4 corners of the dough and pinch it on top of the cake above its centre point. You will end up with 4 triangular pieces of flour meeting at the centre.
5. Seal the vinegar wet, apposing sides of the triangles, as a protective cover over the cake.
6. Score the date on the dough with a sharp knife.
6. Bake at 350*F for about 20 minutes till the dough becomes a hard shell with the date carved on it.
7. Cool and store.
8. Crack the dough shell open when you need the cake. It will be beautifully moist and ant free.
Baked, it looked like the Canterbury Canon’s Cap of the Anglican Church, something like the one my Dad wore to Church for special services.
In retrospect we had very little , needed even less and were deliriously happy. There were no Jones-es or gold standards to compare with and our Xmases were merry and turned out the way we made it.
We knew little else.