After Covid, many of us are looking forward to Christmas this year, but perhaps not as much as Lucy Brazier, who’s bringing her festive dreams to life in a new cookbook, writes Prudence Wade
Christmas is known for being the most wonderful time of year, and that couldn’t be more true for Lucy Brazier from River Cottage.
She wrote Christmas At River Cottage during England’s third lockdown in early 2021, which involved cooking and eating at least three turkeys. “There are probably very few people who could really get through it and still be excited about Christmas,” she says with a laugh. “And I am one them – I probably was the right person to write it because I’m clinging onto the magic.”
Brazier has worked with chef and telly presenter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall at River Cottage for over a decade, and now she’s finally bringing her festive dreams to life in the cookbook, which is full of Christmas recipes, craft activities and more.
For Brazier, a love of Christmas runs in the family: “My mother’s really good at it, and my grandmother was as well,” she says. “So I was brought up in a house where it was the finale of the year and we saved up so everything was special and magical, and we had a lot of food. It’s sort of classic working-class, saving all year to throw a bit of a party at the end.”
Now cooking and organising duties fall on her, Brazier admits Christmas is quite different. “I still want that buzz I had when I was a child – that true excitement, which I think you only get when you’re not the one doing Christmas,” she says wistfully. “But I always try and find that moment in whatever I’m doing.” There are a few perks of being an adult during the festive period; for starters you can drink mulled cider (“a massive plus”) as well as being allowed to “open the fridge and eat what you want”, she says
When you’re a dedicated Christmas lover, it’s certainly not a last-minute affair. Brazier started preparations in September, both at home and at River Cottage, by stacking the larder with “lots of treats – pickles and chutneys and things we can then pull out”. Then came Stir-up Sunday, the last Sunday in November when you make your Christmas pudding. “That’s the start of Christmas proper for me,” explains Brazier. “I stir up my pudding and make some mincemeat for the mince pies – that’s the signal it’s going to start. But I have already got a lot in the larder… No one wants to get to the middle of December and think, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got this massive list of things to do’ – when in fact you can reach into the cupboard and get out your chutneys and pickled cabbage, it’s quite handy.”
Despite her diligent preparations, Brazier admits things will still likely go wrong on the day. “Every Christmas is not perfect,” she says, and is not here to tell you there’s a magic fix to make everything go smoothly. “My honest answer is it’s quite stressful,” she says. “Having spent years doing it, being organised, writing a book about it and working at River Cottage, I still feel stressed – there’s always a moment just before everything when I feel stressed about it.”
To alleviate some of this anxiety, she advocates for “old-fashioned organisation”. “I tend to have a stack of stuff like a spare couple of jars for presents or a bottle of brandy – if there’s stuff that I’ve forgotten or I’ve used up, I’ll have a little store of things I can go to,” she says. And if things do go wrong – maybe you’ve forgotten an ingredient or burnt a dish – “it really doesn’t matter”.
Brazier is particularly looking forward to this Christmas because last year’s was so muted due to Covid-related restrictions. She hopes people “will celebrate it maybe in a more traditional sense – just in getting together and eating something delicious and having a lovely drink, just having a lovely time together without the pressure of presents or whatever those stresses people have.”
Despite her love of the festive period, there’s one tradition Brazier could do without: sending cards. “I hate Christmas cards and have done for a long time,” she says passionately. “That’s partly to do with waste, and partly to do with – what’s the point of giving someone a Christmas card that you’re seeing? You hand it to them and they hand you one back, it seems a pointless thing to me. If I’ve got family in America that’s different, I would send them a card, but when it’s your neighbour or someone you work with, you don’t really need to.”
Minimising the eyewatering waste of Christmas is a big part of Brazier’s mission. “It’s close to the heart of River Cottage and everything we do there, and it’s been important to Hugh from the beginning of his career,” she explains. “We’re still learning, but we’ve tried to find answers to all those sustainable questions. When we get to Christmas, personally I feel we really don’t need half the things we have.”
She suggests easy swaps, such as using old tote bags instead of wrapping paper. “There was a period of time in the Eighties and Nineties when decadence and excess and luxury [were everything],” she muses. “We’re not in that anymore – it’s great we’re not in it, and we can all make little changes for a sustainable life. It’s harder at Christmas because people want the excess and we want to be surrounded by enough food and drink, but there are other ways to achieve it.”
Ultimately, she says these small changes don’t make “Christmas less Christmas”.
‘Christmas At River Cottage’ by Lucy Brazier and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall i(published by Bloomsbury Publishing, £22; photography by Charlotte Bland), available now.