Laura Mason draws on her childhood experiences for her farmhouse cooking. Fiona Russell reports.
Christmas on the dairy farm near Addingham where Laura Mason grew up was keenly anticipated. "I remember my mother making mincemeat and putting chunks of candied peel through a mincing machine. You bought candied peel in large pieces in those days, not little pots. She made lots of it and stored it in stone jars in a very cold larder."
Laura and her sisters took a particular interest in the mince pies because they were allowed to eat them before the great day itself. Christmas cake, however, was reserved for Christmas tea. "You'd cut the cake and then eat it with a little piece of cheese." Laura's mother made her own cheese in the summer-time, but by Christmas it was long gone. So Christmas cheese was bought – Wensleydale for the cake, but also Blue Stilton.
Laura's mother, Kate Mason, was a good cook (as well as an historian and writer) and her grandmother – who she never knew, but whose recipes Laura includes in her books – had trained as a professional. Both were what Laura calls "experts in plain cookery in the English sense. They had an innate sense of what tasted good". It was a sense which had developed in an ideal environment – on a farm, where you cooked what was good and to hand.
Today, Laura is recognised as one of the best exponents of British farmhouse cookery. It is a tradition that has suffered over the last 50 years. It has been sentimentalised in endless books filled with soft-focus photography and belittled by writers and critics who, as Laura points out, often admire very similar culinary traditions abroad. For Laura, the key to farmhouse cookery is the relationship between food and the land. Her recipes are rooted in particular regions, landscapes and farming practices – not least those of her native Yorkshire. She has been a pioneer in the appreciation of local food – she was a founding member of Slow Food North Yorkshire and also compiled a regional inventory of British food, recently republished with an introduction by Hugh Fearnley-Whitingstall.
In her hands, farmhouse cookery is neither old-fashioned nor static. A meat and tatie pie, for example, based on her grandmother's recipe, contains two cloves of garlic as well as a handful of fresh herbs. The taties are sliced thinly and laid under a pastry lid so that they cook in the fragrant steam from the meat below. "My books are not about restaurant cookery, but they're not recipe museums either."
So Laura is an ideal person to consult about Christmas dinner. For, no matter how much culinary advice we consume in the run-up to the great day (Nigella, Jamie, Rick and umpteen supermarket magazines), most of us will end up cooking one of a relatively small number of birds or beasts, fairly simply. The question is how to do it really well, and have a little fun at the same time.
The secret of success, as every "good plain cook" knows, is high quality ingredients. Laura's bird of choice is a goose: her family invariably ate one of their own little flock at Christmas time, and geese continue to be humanely reared, thus the quality of the meat is generally good.
"The trick is to get the skin crisp. One method which works well is to pour a kettleful of boiling water over the bird about 12 hours before cooking. Make sure you dry it well afterwards, then put it in a cool place until needed. Start it in a hot oven and then reduce the temperature to moderate after about 30 minutes. And keep pouring the fat out of the roasting tin – the amount seems enormous if you're not used to it, but it keeps well and is great for roasting potatoes.
"The bird will only feed about six and there won't be much in the way of leftovers. But the bones make good stock and any soggy bits of skin can be rescued by crisping them up in a hot oven for a few minutes – they're good scattered over a salad."
While her choice of bird harks back to her childhood, Laura has an interesting alternative to the traditional Christmas cake.
I point out that increasing numbers of people (certainly most children) find Christmas cake too rich. Laura too has noticed this, and that people have taken to buying the Italian Christmas speciality, panettone, instead.
But do we really need to? "We have a similar tradition of spiced bread in the north of England", Laura tells me, "yeast-leavened cakes. I like them because they have an interesting texture.
"Most families in Yorkshire seem to have had their own version, which varied the spices or the dried fruit added. I'm sure the recipes are 19th century or even older, in fact I've come across similar ones from the 18th century."
Unsurprisingly, Laura's house is very popular at Christmas time, and never more so than a couple of years back when she was completing her book on roasts for the National Trust.
"I had to cook two turkeys, two geese and one saddle of venison, all within 10 days. It was the only time of year when I could get them all."
She is just completing another book for the National Trust, on stews and pies. But when she finishes she will be turning her hand to something completely different, but equally seasonal – a short book about pine trees.
An enlarged version of Laura's Farmhouse Cookery has just been published by the National Trust.
Laura's recipe for Ellerbeck Spice Bread
1 dessertspoon dried yeast
200ml/7fl oz milk, hand-hot
325g/11oz strong plain flour
160g/6oz Demerara sugar
1 teaspoon mixed sweet spice
25g/1oz mixed candied peel
Grease and line a 900g/2lb loaf tin. Whisk the yeast into the milk with a pinch of sugar and leave aside until frothy.
Mix the flour, salt, sugar and spice. Rub in the butter until well distributed. Make a well and pour in the yeast mixture. Stir in a little of the flour from around the edge and leave to work for 20 minutes. Mix to a dough adding milk as necessary. Knead well and place in an oiled bowl. Cover with a damp cloth and leave in a warm place for an hour or so. The mixture is unlikely to rise much.
Knock back and knead in the fruit, peel and egg. Shape into a loaf and place in a prepared loaf tin. Leave for another hour (again it won't rise much) and then bake at 180C/350F/ gas mark 4 for an hour and twenty minutes. Test with a skewer and bake a little more if necessary. Cool on a wire rack and spread with butter.
YP MAG 18/12/10