It's the winter solstice today which I guess is the true midwinter - theoretically spring is on it's way from tomorrow, though it hardly feels like that. The last couple of months have been such a blur of work that it's hard to realise that Christmas is almost here. When I first started working in retail Christmas was exciting, even more so when I got my first wine job (it was 1999 and everybody was going to celebrate in style). That basically wore off some years back and I'm increasingly ambivalent about the whole thing now. The rhythm of work horribly seems out of sync with the rhythm of the year, as I get older that's harder to cope with.
What I feel I should be doing is slowing down and taking time to appreciate friends and family, sharing the good things, and banishing the dark with light and colour - or embracing it with well fed and contented laziness. What I'm actually doing is bracing myself for the 3 busiest days of the shopping year, counting down the hours until I go home on Christmas Eve and reminding myself that I will survive it without ever once explaining to any of our more challenging customers that good manners cost nothing. Or at least nothing more than an extreme effort of will and years of practice/restraint.
Meanwhile I've baked and preserved my way to a more than usually home made Christmas and that at least has been deeply satisfying. Starting with jams and jellies in September, mincemeat in October, chutney cakes and puddings in November, and finally biscuits fudge and oranges in December I've watched the season turn. Making cakes and puddings has probably been the most pleasurable part of the process because I love what they represent. They feel both ancient and exotic; filled with spices which were once more expensive than gold and still need to come from across the world. I made my first proper fruit cake a mere 4 years ago but have truly embraced the tradition to the point that I'm getting evangelical about them.
I've given 3 away this year, each (more or less grateful) recipient has commented on how large they are (I do feel for the person who had to carry one a good distance home) but I think a Christmas cake should be big. Big enough to keep you going until the days are properly lengthening again, big enough to share liberally, and definitely big enough to make their presence felt on the table.
My favourite cakes this year are the 2 I painted owls on. Painting cakes turns out to be more fun than I expected, the icing goes very sticky so best suits something quite sketchy - which best suits my limited painting abilities but I think the results are effective. Once you've decided what to paint and had a bit of a practice on paper the whole process is fairly quick, and best of all mistakes can be sponged off quite easily.