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Short and sweet

I had intended to write about Friday afternoon cocktails today, but that outing was kaiboshed, so I shall hold that idea for another posting. I do have a redeeming thought, brought about by a dinner inspired by our purchases from a recent visit to Granville Island Market in Vancouver (one of my most favourite foodie haunts).

We had a winter picnic tonight, enjoying treats such as raw milk cheeses and fresh exotic fruits. I read an article in SAVEUR magazine recently about a newly appointed cheese from Switzerland called L’Etivaz (appointed in that they have designated a style and protocols for the making of said cheese). I looked for it, and was thrilled to find it at Benton Bros., the cheesemonger. It was deliciously nutty, and went very well with the tomato chili jam I had.  Martin splurged and got a beautiful mango – it cost $12.38 ! He made a delectable salad with jicama, cilantro and an Asian vinaigrette. A bottle of local wine gave us the chance to toast our good fortune, while bringing back memories of my time in France – Quails’ Gate’s Cailleteau, a light red in the style of Beaujolais Nouveau.

cheese-and-wine-picnic

It was a wonderful way to round out the holiday season. After all, today was Epiphany, the 12th night. I made a traditional torte, just as I remembered from France. (It sounds even more grand when you say “Galette des Rois“, I think. “King Cake” is what they call it in New Orleans, where they eat it at Mardi Gras.)

twelfth-night-torte

 

Here’s to celebrating every day of the year in its own way. Life is short, why not make the most of it?

I Know Santa Claus

Santa Claus Happy Gourmand

Okay, have I got your attention? That’s the idea. Santa Claus is an important part of Christmas and he doesn’t just belong to the children, either. He is an integral part of the spirit of Christmas I think, and his importance has very little to do with his big list of toys.

In an age where everything is about knowing the intimate details and having the “behind the scenes” scoop, people seem to think that reality is never what it appears to be. Famous people must not really be happy; there must be some scandal behind their smiles. Spectacular events are not really as special as you initially thought; special effects done on computer and stunt doubles are the reasons behind it.

This kind of skepticism is infectious and it makes us think twice before believing anything. But does that mean there is nothing worth believing in?  Quite the contrary – we need to believe now more than ever.

In 1897, Francis Church wrote that now famous letter to a young girl named Virginia. Today there is talk of the newspapers folding their operations because no one is reading them. Somehow we still need to get the message out to the world that just because you cannot understand the magic of how something good works does not mean you need to discount its value. If we are ever to achieve greater heights in our existence, there needs to be something out there we have not yet imagined to which we can aim our sights. Otherwise, quite frankly, what is the point?

In 1947, a movie was released called “Miracle on 34th Street”. It was the story of Kris Kringle, a department store Santa who showed skeptics how important it was to believe in Christmas… he also talked about the importance of imagination, and faith. All of those, he said, were wrapped up in the spirit of Christmas.

Christmas frame of mind Miracle on 34th

In 2004, Robert Zemeckis directed a movie entitled “The Polar Express”. In it, a child gets a ride on the mysterious train that goes to the North Pole on Christmas Eve, and he learns the secret of Christmas. Believing in the power of Christmas – with its spirit of giving, and forgiveness – is the key to it all.

Christmas spirit Polar Express

I am calling on all souls that wish upon stars and throw pennies into fountains – you are needed now to share your faith with those less fortunate, and to ensure that children keep that twinkle in their eye that makes them want to believe. For you see, it is the children that save us all. Those of us who can hold onto the glimmer of wonder that comes from believing are trying to keep some of the magic of childhood with us.

 

And by the way, for you skeptics in the crowd, I really do know Santa Claus. I have touched his beard and felt his smile warm my heart; I have even shared coffee with him! He is alive and well, and quite busy this year I am happy to report. You see, there is hope for us yet, if we keep believing. If you would like to get in touch with him, you can always start writing again. He doesn’t mind if he hasn’t heard from you in a while 🙂

In closing, I am reprinting Mr. Church’s original letter for you here as I think it still says the right thing, more than a century later.

Merry Christmas, everyone!

 

From the Editorial Page of  The New York Sun,
written by Francis P. Church, September 21, 1897

Virginia, your little friends are wrong.  They have been affected by the scepticism of a sceptical age.  They do not believe except they see.  They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds.  All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s are little.  In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy.  Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus!  It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias.  There would be no child-like faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence.  We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight.  The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Not believe in Santa Claus!  You might as well not believe in fairies!  You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if you did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove?  Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus.  The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see.  Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn?  Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there.  Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived, could tear apart.  Only faith, fancy, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond.  Is it all real?  Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus!  Thank God! he lives, and he lives forever.  A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

Happy St Nicholas Day

st nicholas Happy Gourmand

In many European countries The Feast of St Nicholas is the start to the holiday season. Do you know, the real St. Nicholas was a Bishop in Turkey in the 4th century, a particularly generous man who was especially devoted to children? His popularity increased to such a point that by the 12th century, he had become a Patron Saint in most European countries and a church holiday was created in his honour, one that became known for gift-giving and charity. The tradition of hanging Christmas stockings was apparently started because St. Nicholas helped out three young ladies whose father had squandered the family fortune after the death of his wife. This prevented the girls from having dowries and being able to marry. St. Nicholas wanted to help them anonymously, as was his custom, and so he rode his white horse to the nobleman’s house and dropped gold coins down the chimney, where they were caught in the stockings hanging by the fire to dry.

Were you aware that mistletoe has been a symbol of winter celebrations since Druid times, before the time of Christ? It was said that ancient Romans would lay down their weapons if they encountered an enemy under a branch of mistletoe. The Celtics believed it had magical powers and could ward off evil spirits, and the Scandinavians included it as a symbol for their goddess of love. It is thought that this link is the beginning of the custom of kissing under the mistletoe. This act is said to give those lucky kissers good fortune in the coming year. (I am proud to be from such sociable roots!)

Here’s another one for you… poinsettias are another giving gesture for the season. Legend says a small Mexican boy heading to the nativity scene in his town realized he had no gift for the baby Jesus. So, he gathered green branches that were by the side of the road. The other children teased him but once the branches were laid in the cradle, red, star-shaped flowers appeared on the end of each branch.

There’s more! Candy canes were invented alongside Christmas trees, but there is a bit of a twist to this story (full pun intended here). Cookies and candies were used to decorate the first Christmas trees, Apparently it was a choirmaster at a cathedral in Cologne who suggested twisting the plain sticks into the shape of a shepherd’s crook. This not only made them easier to hang on the tree, but it also provided a treat for children. It became a custom to hand candy canes out to children at church ceremonies across Europe, to help keep them quiet. And I really can’t resist – I have to tell you that there is another ironic twist to this piece of history: it was another man of the church who automated the process of making candy canes – Catholic priest, Gregory Keller.

I am sure you see the running theme here…that the season seems always to be about sharing with others. Whether you share your wealth, your generosity of spirit or the fruits of your labour, the result is all the same: we are all better for it. So, in case the aforementioned ideas don’t do enough for you, here is my bit of sharing for this week – one of my favourite recipes for Christmas, Shortbread Cookies.  My brother and I used to both help my Mom make and decorate these cookies; great discussions sometimes went into the decorating details. My Mom placed the completed cookies in the oven like they were works created by Michelangelo.

If you don’t have someone to help make these cookies, give some away to friends or colleagues – they are a bit different than the usual shortbread but still melt in your mouth. Decorate them with candied cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, coloured sugar, almonds… as inspiration strikes you. If you feel you have overindulged leading up to the holidays and can’t eat them all, then feel free to share!

BROWN SUGAR SHORTBREAD

1 cup Butter

½ cup Brown sugar, firmly packed

½ teaspoon Vanilla extract

2-1/4 cups Flour

½ teaspoon Almond extract (optional)

 

Preheat oven to 325F.

Cream the butter and sugar in a medium bowl until fluffy. Add extract(s) and mix well. Add flour ¼ cup at a time, saving ¼ cup or so for the rolling.

Divide the dough into 4 equal portions. Place one portion on a well-floured surface. Pat it down and turn it over. Roll out to 1/4-1/2 inch thickness. (Do not roll too thin or the cookies will burn; thicker cookies will be even more “melt in your mouth”.) Cut into desired shapes and place on ungreased cookie sheet. (If you have a silicone baking sheet you can still use that on the pan.) Decorate cookies and bake for approximately 12 minutes or until golden. Store in a sealed cookie jar.

 

NOTE: If shortbread is not your thing, check out my blog’s recipe archives for other ideas.

An Afternoon with Santa’s Reindeer

Santas reindeer

I was lucky enough to spend last weekend in Calgary with one of my dearest girlfriends, in honour of my 50th birthday. One of the activities on our radar was to attend the Spruce Meadows International Christmas Market, and it did not disappoint. After all, shopping and sampling goodies amidst children singing holiday tunes is lovely, but how can you beat a sneak peek at Santa’s reindeer?

If you’re like me and you love the hustle and bustle of artisan markets, then Spruce Meadows is a delicious blend of funky, kitschy, homespun and intriguing. There are vendors big and small, with all manner of gift and decor items. Every food vendor offers samples, and the concessions have such delicacies as Hungarian goulash and gluwein, in addition to good old hot dogs and mini donuts. Outside the buildings are toasty warm fire pits where you can snuggle and enjoy your treats, and inside the pavilions are seating areas near performing stages. You’ll need a bit of sustenance to manage the whole fair!

There is something here for everyone, so I encourage you to stroll the aisles and check out what strikes your fancy. The vendors in the stables are particularly charming in their stalls, and that of course, is where you’ll find the reindeer, too. You can even get a posed picture for a fee.

I found some perfect Christmas goodies, and so I’d like to offer a few suggestions from my list of favourites, just to get you started:

In Reindeer Alley (right after the guests of honour)-

  • pet stuff – I loved the funny signs and toys at DOG GONE HEALTHY in Reindeer Alley, but in all fairness there are a number of vendors selling all manner of dog and cat paraphernalia

    Dog Christmas tree

    Dog Gone presents for, and from, the dog!

  • home decor and entertaining accessories – BURGUNDY OAK BARREL DECOR has stylish, well-made wine barrel platters and other accents.

In the Riding Hall-

  • KOOTANA GALLERY – featuring some lovely chimes, crystals and beautiful jewellery that is all about spirit animals, symbols and the energy in stones. You’ll feel good just checking it out!
  • AFRICAN BUTTERFLY hair accessories – these masterful works of art are the best for putting up long hair, whether it’s thick or thin. I bought one years ago and was happy to see Daniel again and get Christmas presents.
  • KATTINAT Swedish dishcloths – ingenious and fun! Look for the colourful designs on these organic cotton cloths that wipe up like nobody’s business! (there were 2 booths carrying these cloths; same price at either one)
  • western style gifts – COWBOY CHRISTMAS has some lovely accessories and fun gift ideas, and the art at RON CHURCH FINE ART & DESIGN is stunning.
  • COZY COTTAGE INTERIORS  brought much of their store inventory to showcase. Great country-style kitsch.

In the Gallery on the Green and outside

  • REAL TREAT cookies – I know, you’ve tasted lots of cookies, what’s the big deal? Try the smoked pecan ones, or the salted caramel shortbread and you’ll get it.

    A "Giggler" puppet!

    A “Giggler” puppet!

  • GIVE A LITTLE GIGGLE puppets – These wonderful people were only at the market for one weekend but check their website to see where else they are, or buy online. A great gift for little or big kids.
  • garden gizmos galore – CREATIVE IRONWORKS has beautiful garden sculptures and furniture; SPRUCE IT UP GARDEN has accents and greens, and RED BARN MERCANTILE has lots of fun Christmas accents and decorations
  • home decor – LITTLE MONKEY METAL WORKS has a striking display of silhouette metal art.

In the Equi-Plex (this is also where the main food concession is – think Hungarian Goulash – as well as many of the performances)

  • BIG BLUE MOMA jewellery and textiles – if you want something handmade and unique, the collection here will do the trick for sure. Jewellery, cushions and table linens all made in Canada with materials made by hard-working entrepreneurs in Ghana. They are one of the delightful booths featuring international wares – be sure to wander this aisle and check out all the unique items.

    Ghanaian fare by Big Blue Moma

    Ghanaian fare by Big Blue Moma

  • TORILL’S TABLE – delectable Norwegian waffles, made from a mix – try a sample!
  • KRUSE’S BAKERY – has stollen, and some delicious-looking cookies. Save some time and enjoy someone else’s baking!

There are 2 more weekends left to enjoy this market in Calgary’s south end. Easy access is available through public transit, and there is a parking shuttle too. You can save $2 per ticket if you buy online through their website. Plan on spending about half the day if you want a good look around; my list is only the tip of the iceberg. If you are there after dark, you’ll get the added benefit of all the lights!

If you’re not in the holiday spirit yet, this is sure to do the trick. Thanks to Spruce Meadows and all their volunteers for putting on such a professional and welcoming holiday event.

Spruce Meadows International Christmas Market

Spruce Meadows International Christmas Market by night

Spruce Meadows Christmas market

lots of room to browse and enjoy at the Spruce Meadows Christmas Market

The Secret to a Happy Christmas Dinner

happy Christmas dinnerChristmas is my favourite time of year, and Christmas dinner seems to epitomize the festive season: the food and drink and best of all, the company. Just think – at what other time of year can you argue about whether the dressing should be traditional or adventurous, or agonize over which tablecloth would look nicer, and which serving pieces to put out to make sure Aunt So-and-so sees the gift you never otherwise use! (Okay, maybe in the closest families that happens every Sunday, but it seems most of the other days of the year we are far too busy to spend that much time on dinner.) On that point I agree with the Chef – be grateful you have those people you care about enough to argue with, and toast their good health before you dive into that sumptuous dinner.

As far as the menu goes, I have always been one who liked to “upset the apple cart” so to speak, by trying to suggest some new (or old) twist on the Christmas dinner. I wanted to try goose after having read Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. I always wondered what Brussels sprouts tasted like and figured they couldn’t really be as bad as my Dad said. And who wouldn’t marvel at the idea of marshmallows at the dinner table, all toasted over a dish of sweet potatoes! Then there was the stuffing. This was a topic that was hotly discussed by my parents, as my Mom read more cooking magazines and my Dad pined for the “good old days” when celery and sage were all it needed. (Years later, he would be the one saying why hadn’t we added walnuts or used cornbread earlier!)  But if you ask me what I remember about Christmas dinner, it is not the specific menu items but rather that warm and fuzzy feeling that came once the plates were empty.

I for one don’t think it was merely the tryptophan that made me groggy and light-headed at Christmas; it was more that sense of euphoria that comes over you when you immerse yourself in the spirit of Christmas. If you truly believe in the essence of Christmas then as you let it into your heart and take active part in the festivities and the giving, you cannot help but feel better yourself. Children know this intuitively, and it is only as our hearts harden if we don’t practice such things that we lose sight of the true meaning of this holiday. Christmas is not for children, but for the child that lies within us all, hoping for a chance to believe in something pure and good, and listening for that magic signal which says that something exists.

Grinch carving the roast beast

So if you need a dose of “It’s A Wonderful Life” or “The Polar Express” before Christmas dinner to get you in full gear, go right ahead. When you sit down to dinner, cherish the meal, and those around you, and of course the cook who made it possible. It is important to take Christmas to heart, for if you do it right, it just might stay with you until next year. Wouldn’t that make the world a wonderful place?

As Tiny Tim said so long ago, “God Bless us every one.” Merry Christmas from our table to yours. Tiny Tim Bless Us Everyone

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