It is a fine line between feast and farce. A slice or two from a glistening bird, a scrunchy nugget of roast potato, a drizzle of gravy and an ivory puddle of bread sauce is surely celebration enough. Add to that the all-singing, all-dancing entourage of sprouts, chestnuts, sausages, bacon rolls, cranberry sauce, roast parsnips, mashed potato and game chips and you have a pantomime of a meal. Throw in a starter of pté or soup, the (delicious) pudding, mince pies and chocolate truffles and you are in the realms of slapstick. A gaudy paper hat perched on your head and a guaranteed encore of flatulence is, I am afraid, all part of the show that is Christmas lunch.
I prefer something simpler. A meal that celebrates the spirit of the season without descending into an orgy of gluttony. A meal that holds up its glass as a toast to the day rather than jumps headfirst into a barrel. I want a Christmas lunch of understated luxury rather than in-yer-face extravagance.
I have always found a ladle more hospitable than a carving knife, and when that ladle is dunked into a pot of simmering seafood - an opulent mixture of shellfish, spice and saffron - I know I am in the right place. This year, Christmas lunch will be a small but steaming cauldron of golden seafood.
Gilded with saffron and chilli it may be, but our soup will need some white fish to give it body and stop it falling to a mush. I guess we should steer clear of cod, but the stocks of ugly but succulent monkfish show few signs of diminishing and it will give us some meaty, pearl-white lumps to tuck into. Eel is even firmer, but its inclusion should remain just between us. Let slip the dreaded word eel and the elderly will shudder and the youngsters will scream. Failing this, haddock, although it will need a shorter time in the pot.
The rest is a matter of what we can catch. A big-name supermarket should have something to interest, but steer clear of mackerel, salmon or anything with dark, oily flesh - it makes for a greasy and overpowering broth. A fishmonger, if you still have such a thing, may have more to offer. Mullet would be good, either the small red or the larger grey. Get them to fillet. Hake will work, and there may be bream. Tiny grey clams - they may be labelled palourdes - scallops and even oysters could go in as a last-minute surprise.
We should be prepared to dip our fingers into our soup as well as our spoons, even tuck a napkin into our shirt front. This, after all, is a feast. It is not a French recipe as smooth and greasy as a Park Lane matre d', but a rustic version, as thick and chunky as a Hoxton bouncer. There will be fat fish and plump tomatoes, giant prawns to tear apart, open clams singing their little hearts out, maybe even a mussel or two. If richness is your goal, you could stir in some crab meat but you risk turning your lunch into a seafood chowder, a piscatorial brew so rich that even a little is enough to make one queasy.
Spices seem fitting here, and not just because of the cinnamon sticks and star anise currently hanging from the most fashionable of trees. A pinch of dried chilli will give a brick-red colour; saffron will lend a musty, earthy note. All will warm the soul and spread good cheer. Don't get carried away, though. It is worth remembering that spices were once used as currency.
You can add wine or water as your wallet takes you. You could add cream if you want. I like the idea of launching tiny ovals of toast on its surface, cut from a baguette or a thinner, trendier fiscelle and spread with a traditional rouille - that tongue-tingling mash of chillies, garlic and olive oil - or, as we already have all that in the pot already, a mound of grated Gruyère cheese. An enticing play of textures and tastes.
Once everyone has scooped up every drop from their plate and worried every mussel from its shell, they will look at you beseechingly for pudding. I am not sure you can better a small wodge of plum pudding after a bowl of soup such as this. I only tire of it after meat and 10 veg. Try a wibbly-wobbly crème caramel or panna cotta, its even wibblier Italian cousin. You want a dessert that will slide down cool as a cucumber after the spicy soup.
I shall save the fruit-laden, brandy-buttered pud for Boxing Day. Christmas Day dessert chez Nigel will be a mixture of sharp mango sorbet and creamy vanilla ice cream, eaten in alternate spoonfuls. And very probably straight from their tubs.
A mildly spiced fish soup
2 tbsp olive oil
a medium-sized onion
a large carrot
2 cloves of garlic, or more if you wish
a small handful of flat-leafed parsley, chopped
a little crushed dried chilli
a long piece of orange peel
a couple of bay leaves
a big pinch of saffron threads
750g tinned or fresh, skinned and seeded tomatoes
a handful of sprightly coriander leaves
for the fish
You will need about a kilo of mixed white fish, such as monkfish (get the fishmonger to skin and bone) and eel, a couple of red mullets, filleted, and a few handfuls of clams or mussels in their shells
Warm the oil gently in a large pan set over a moderate heat. Meanwhile, peel and roughly chop the onion, then add it to the oil and let it cook until soft and pale. While that is happening you can peel and finely dice the carrot, and peel and chop the garlic. Add them to the onions and continue cooking until soft.
Stir in the dried chilli flakes, the length of orange peel and the bay leaves. Put the saffron on a saucer and moisten with a tablespoon or so of water. When it has softened, add it and the liquid to the vegetables.
Crush the tomatoes - I do it over the pan with my hands - and add them along with every scrap of juice. Let them cook down a bit to see how much juice they reveal, then add liquid - water or white wine - accordingly. You want it to have the consistency of a loose, soupy stock. Now let it bubble gently towards a boil.
Check the fish over for any stray scales and loose bones. Any fish still firmly on the bone is probably a good thing. Cut the eel, monkish, haddock or whatever into large chunks, much longer and fatter than you could eat in one go. Too small and they will shrivel to nothing. You add the fish according to how long it will take to cook. The very meaty fish such as the eel will take longer than the neat, thin fillets of, say, red mullet. Slide them into the thick broth and let them cook until opaque. A matter of a few minutes, but at any rate less than 10 minutes. You will be surprised as to how much flavour they will add to the soup.
Scrub the mussels and clams, scrupulously discarding any whose shells refuse to close when tapped. Rinse them all thoroughly; any grit or sand would be a disaster. Add the clams first, they take longer to open and slightly - I am talking seconds here - longer to come to tenderness. Then the mussels. Prawns fall somewhere between the two, depending on what type they are. The most suitable here will be raw (grey) ones. Ready-cooked ones will toughen.
The shellfish is ready when it has opened. Taste for salt, adding it gingerly along with black pepper and the green herbs.
Elizabeth David's rouille
Recipes for rouille can contain hard-boiled eggs, anchovies, tomato purée, mustard and pretty much anything else you can think of. The results are sumptuous. I also like Elizabeth David's edited version, which you will find in her classic A Book of Mediterranean Food . What follows is hers, although I should add that you can make it in a small blender or food processor. Smooth the finished rouille onto small slices of toasted bread and serve in the soup, together with some grated Gruyère.
a clove of garlic
a red pepper
Grill the red pepper until the skin turns black. Take out the seeds, rub off the burnt skin, rinse in cold water and pound with the garlic. Soak a handful of breadcrumbs in water and squeeze them dry. Add them to the mixture then slowly stir in 4 tablespoons of olive oil. Thin the sauce with a few teaspoons of the soup with which it is to be served.