Christmas is Custard, Custard is Christmas
Around our dining table were a Serbian woman, a German man, an East Berlin German woman, two Cork men and one Cork woman, three growing children (German by birth, Irish citizens by adoption) and one Eastern European baby girl. We three Irish people got it, but, after the flaming of the pudding, as I served plates of trifle around the table, I had to explain to all the others the significance of custard. “Discustard” my mother used to call it. Were she alive, my mother would be 103 and I use the same glass bowl in which she made trifle. It is pressed, not cut glass and the ‘hold’ of the soft-worn diamond facets is comfortingly familiar for I have carried it to the table over many decades.
We had been talking about the names the Empirical British call the people of other countries; not so much ‘pet names’ or ‘terms of affection’ but rather disparaging to show superiority. Germans were “Krauts” “Why?” asked 15 year-old German, Irish-passported Paul . “Because the Germans eat cabbage.” “And if they are bad tempered” I added helpfully “we call them “Sour Krauts.” The French were “Frogs.” “Why not ‘Snails’?” asked curious Paul. All I could answer to that one was “alliteration.” The English call the Irish “Spuds” (Paul again): “Why?” “Because they reckon we only eat potatoes” “…and what do the Irish call the English?” The three Corkonians chorused in unison: “Fecking Brits.”
Therefore, when explaining the cultural significance of custard to the assembled company at the Christmas table, the admission that it was an English custom was a tad embarrassing. As is my wont, I was immediately able to produce literary evidence: a copy of “Woman and Home” magazine, dated Christmas 1949, the year I was born. On the front cover is a picture of a woman smiling over a fat baby in a cradle. In 1949, after the ravages of war, death, poverty, homelessness and unemployment, food shortages and rationing in Europe, it was fashionable in the United Kingdom for babies to be fat. In fact, ideally they should all look like Winston Churchill, for it spoke of the socio-economic status of the parents: they could afford food. On the back page of the magazine is an advertisement for Bird’s Custard. Bird’s custard powder, rather than a home-cooked egg and sugar emulsion, was the essential basis of the traditional Christmas trifle, as exotic and special a treat as white sliced bread, ‘shop bought cakes’ and ‘chipper chips.’
There are essential basics and there are hard-defended personal derivations. As recently as this Advent, my sister was horrified when I said I make the sponge trifle base in a Swiss Roll baking tin but do not actually spread it with jam and roll it to line the bowl. “No jam?” “No.” “Not even fresh/frozen raspberries?” ”No.” Her husband knew better than to bring up his Anglo Saxon family’s addition of jelly, for after 40 years of marriage, he has learned the scorn with which that inclusion elicits in our tight intolerant niche.
I make the sponge and merely break it into squares, which all but disintegrate after the addition of the juice from the (tinned) peaches and the sherry. The other important factor, I told our friends (as per the advice of Darina Allen of the East Cork Ballymaloe culinary dynasty) was when adding alcohol to a recipe – any recipe – it should be measured with a fork.
I keep back half of the peach syrup to mix the custard powder, before stirring it into the hot milk in the saucepan. This year, because I had some left over after making the Christmas puddings, I decorated the whipped cream top with the traditional glacé cherries and angelica, along with walnuts from our trees in France, not a million miles (actually less than 100 kilometres) from the fabled walnut groves of Grenoble.
It was delicious. Even Daniella, who is breast-feeding Marta (a long, not wide, baby) initially concerned by the (exaggerated) claims of the amount of sherry in the base, gave her enthusiastic approval of the layered sponge cake (broken, not rolled) and slithery peaches, custard, cream, preserved fruit and wild walnuts.
The snow does not lay all about this Stephen’s Day in the morning. It is just cold and grey and damp (i.e. quite Irish) in Berlin. The kitchen table is littered with delicious detritus and the ‘fridge is full. It is also a family tradition that on Stephen’s Day one has spiced beef and trifle, fried plum pudding, pickled pearl onions, chocolates and red cabbage for breakfast. In one’s pyjamas. All is quiet. In the luxury of solitude (Himself had retired for a long winter bath) after days of hectic, I opened my high tech contraption and found a Literary Hub article from 2016 by Jeanette Winterton, writing on the exact same topic….and then some….even to the inclusion of Dylan Thomas and the origins of custard powder. “Christmas is Christmas and custard is Christmas” this learned, fabled and accomplished woman emphatically declares. A woman after my own heart. Oh I love the internet. And the luxurious, full-and-plenty lolling ease of St Stephen’s Day. And custard.