As yet another year comes to a close (where did it go to?) I realise that I have now been writing professionally about food and drink for almost 55 years. At 85 I wonder if I am – or on the way to be – the world’s oldest food and wine writer? Who cares! Not I. (The Internet can’t enlighten me either!) I am so happy to be doing it and even happier when now and then someone lets me know I still have readers.
Today, December 26th., we Brits are enjoying the public holiday called “Boxing Day”, which The Oxford English Dictionary defines as "the first week-day after Christmas-day, observed as a holiday on which post-men, errand-boys, and servants of various kinds expect to receive a Christmas-box". In my childhood, I remember these “tradesmen” as they were called – those who delivered the post, milk, fish, meat greengrocery and so forth – knocking on the door and asking for their Christmas Box. Today, none does. The refuse collectors barely touch rubbish bins, such is the mechanisation of the collection process. You have to be quick and enterprising to offer them a “Box” and they don ‘t seem over-pleased when you do so. Postmen are among the lower-paid, but their pay averages more than Euro26,000 a year. Refuse collectors’ lowest pay is about Eur20K, but many get as much Eur60K a year. All this is good, I think. And I don’t have to part with any of my modest pension to tip them!
ROASTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST
Although I had travelled to Cyprus several times in the 1960s, my first holiday in the island was in 1972. We based ourselves in Kyrenia, hired a self-drive car and explored the whole of the country. Culinary explorations were also in order – one discovery was that Kleftiko was Kleftiko, i.e. slow roasted, because the meat was stringy and tough!
It was not until 1977 that we (my wife and two of our children) spent Christmas in Cyprus, when we stayed for two weeks at the Apollonia Beach Hotel in Limassol.
The hotel food then was almost entirely “European” – on just one night did we have a “Cyprus Buffet”. This is the menu for Christmas Day 1977. The Head Waiter was a middle-aged Limassolian with sparse greying hair, mostly at the sides and back of his head. He was quite plump, very efficient and multi-lingual. He had to deal with Cypriots, British, Arabs, Israelis, Germans, French, Italians and more – which he did with some panache. Slightly oleaginous, we christened him “Olly”. He was good at his job.
Look at the cost of the meal! Three and a half “Old Cyprus Pounds”, or about Six Euros! And, although the meal was created for foreigners, the cooking was outstandingly good. At dinner there was music and song and brave attempts by the compère to create harmony between Israelis and Palestinians sitting at neighbouring tables.
We loved the Apollonia then, but it was driving around the country, meeting people, eating at little local village tavernas and enjoying the winter sunshine that planted in our minds that it would be good to live here – a dream we fulfilled in 1991.
When Christmas wasn’t the Season of Joy
It seems a long time ago, but 1941 is not even a blink of history’s eye. But it was the saddest one of my life. Two weeks before Christmas, my father and mother received the letter everyone in war-time dreaded – the information that a son, brother or father had been killed. So it was for us, My older brother, an RAF bomber pilot had been killed over Libya. A week after, this postcard arrived, despatched two days before his death. Note the pipe, pencilled in to the camel’s mouth – this is a reference to our father’s pipe-smoking, a habit disliked by our mother and made fun of by my brother, sister and me.
Fast Forward 20 years… to 1961…
…and one of the happiest Christmases of my life and my daughter Susanna’s first. I felt truly blessed then, and I still do.
Susanna Skinner, aged two, modelling one of my clients’ products
And to 1991 and 21 super Cyprus years…
Vouni at Christmas time 1992 – note the “Municipal” Christmas tree. The blue door is that of the village taverna, for some years presided over by British Cypriot “Willy” Willingham, a great character and the village “Mr Fixit”. Some of the happiest evenings of my life were spent there, when the food was fresh, and good, the diners wonderful fin and the local wine flowed in rivers!
Willy was a great “Flambé” artist, and his flaming steak Diane was as good an example of its kind as I ever had. The only surprise was that he never set fire to himself or the restaurant!
Our neighbour Maria was neither a great cook nor gastronome, but had successfully reared seven children by two husbands, both of whom pre-deceased her. Her Kati Meri was also right up there in the “best of kind” category. In winter she was a regular by our kitchen fire – a sweeter soul, better pillar of the Church, you couldn’t find.
The response was simple and clear: “Cypriots don’t, won’t, eat pigeons”. So we froze them and dined on pigeon pie, “game” paté and other delights for some months. Hughie is pictured with just a few of them in our kitchen in Vouni.
A Happy, Peaceful New Year to all our Readers!