A partridge in a pear tree
Already we’ve gone wrong. Apparently, the pear-tree is supposed to be perdrix, the French word for partridge, pronounced per-dree? What you should have sung was: ‘A partridge, un-e per-drix.’
This goes straight to the nub of the seasonal catering dilemma. Why strangle some vast tasteless turkey at a time when any countryman’s freezer is collapsing under the weight of not only partridges, but the biggest glut of pears in recent memory? Here’s a Norfolk recipe that will solve your problems at a stroke. I’m serious.
Brown four skinned partridges, adding a spoonful of redcurrant jelly, a quarter of a pint each of chicken stock and red wine, plus salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, add four peeled and quartered conference pears, cover, and simmer for 40 minutes.
Remove the partridges and pears from the casserole and keep hot on a serving dish. Thicken the sauce with a butter-and-flour beurre manie, stir in four tablespoons of double cream and heat gently. Pour some over the dish and the remainder into a sauceboat. Garnish with watercress. Oh, and cancel the turkey.
Two turtle doves
Or 22, in fact, by close of play. Monogamous, mournful, they’re synonymous with devoted love, from the Song of Solomon to Cockney rhyming slang. Sourcing them may prove problematic: UK numbers have dropped by 88%. The remaining few are sensibly enjoying winter sunshine in sub-Saharan Africa, if, that is, they haven’t been shot when passing over Malta. My tip is to head for the RSPB project at Westhope’s Lodge, Suffolk, where the Barker cousins are laudably planting the diet of choice for these enchanting birds: fumitory and vetch, which sound like the after-effects of too much Yule.
Three French hens
Not any old French hens. Marans, if you want those amazing chocolate-coloured eggs that were James Bond’s favourite. Introduced into Britain in the 1920s by Lord Greenway, their breeding is now supervised by a nice woman in Hampshire. However, in the depths of winter, the more likely French layers are Faverolles, the ones with beards, muffs, and five toes rather than four. Lord knows
what got into their breeding stock.
Four calling birds
Wrong again. Colly-birds, apparently, which are blackbirds. (Colly, coal, geddit?) Now, I’ve never eaten blackbirds baked in a pie, but in the Brendon Hills a century back, they’d stuff them with liver, wrap them in bacon, bed them on mushrooms and onions, and cover them with a suet crust. That’s Somerset for you. If it’s all the same, I’ll stick with the partridge.
Five gold rings
In the Muppets’ classic recording of this song, Miss Piggy lets rip on this line, joyfully hymning the true meaning of Christmas. With 2010 gold prices estimated to spike at $1,300, she can dream on. So you’ll be glad to hear that these, in fact, refer to ring-necked pheasants. We’re back to poultry in motion.
This section of the tune, I should warn you, is still in copyright. The English composer Frederic Austin added it in the early 20th century. You may not have heard of him. That’s because he never had to lift a finger again. (And, on the subject of five rings, my favourite Olympic joke concerns the builder who entered the new stadium with a roll of barbed wire under his arm. He won
a medal for fencing.)
Six geese a-laying
Golden eggs, one must hope, after shelling out for those rings. Vexingly, geese stop laying in August, which is welcome news for your cholesterol levels: goose eggs are shockers. But for the smoked-salmon omelette on Boxing Night, you can use frozen goose eggs (beaten lightly before storing). Otherwise, go to the Adlard family’s splendid company, Norfolk Geese, at Chestnut Farm, Pulham Market.
Seven swans a-swimming
By now, you’ll have realised that this entire song has been about murder most fowl. But does The Queen ever exercise her exclusive royal prerogative and eat swan? (Exclusive is a bit of a myth actually-the Orcadians, under Udal law, claim a similar right. Pepys adored a bit of roast swan, and there’s a recipe in Mrs Beeton. The students at St John’s College Cambridge famously ate them, before they discovered Pot Noodles.)
Here in the Fens, one hears of the odd swan being taken, but it’s not something I’d advocate. Treason, for one thing, and they taste, like pike, mostly of mud. At Welney, the swans arrive at this time of year to watch thousands of birdwatchers, often accompanied by their young, being fed by RSPB keepers. The haunting sound of their cries-Oooh! Oooh!-is unforgettable.
Eight maids a-milking
Hang on. I’ve thought of one song that’s even weirder: Green Grow The Rushes, O!. It has ‘Eight for The April Rainers’. What’s all that about, then? As with the Twelve Days, there are explanations (of varying degrees of lunacy) of hidden religious meanings. Others maintain that the April Rainers are the Hyades constellation, which the Greeks believed inaugurated the April showers.
Nine ladies dancing
It’s been an age since Strictly Come X Factor, Brother Get Me Out Of Here! started its season. Empires have come and gone, generations have passed, mountain ranges have risen and decayed, and it still hasn’t got to the final. It’s not safe to come out yet.
Ten lords a-leaping
Some versions have Ten Fiddlers Fiddling-but people assumed that was the House of Commons,
so they had to change it.
Or, as one vicar in Walsall had it in his rewrite of a couple of years back, Eleven Lottery Losers. His list concluded ‘Three Starving Children, Two Addicts Shaking, And A Poor Homeless Re-fu-gee’. I know, I know-he meant it for the best, drawing our attention at this season to those less fortunate, and so on, but to that happy, happy tune? You try it. It’s just wrong. And I don’t like being made to shake hands in church, either.
Eleven pipers piping
Or, as one vicar in Walsall had it in his rewrite of a couple of years back, Eleven Lottery Losers.
His list concluded ‘Three Starving Children, Two Addicts Shaking, And A Poor Homeless Re-fu-gee’.
I know, I know-he meant it for the best, drawing our attention at this season to those less fortunate, and so on, but to that happy, happy tune? You try it. It’s just wrong. And I don’t like being made to shake hands in church, either.
Twelve drummers drumming
That’s it, and not a moment too soon. Since 1984, the tally for the whole list has been used as an economic indicator by PNC Bank. For the purposes of calculation, human items were hired rather than purchased, but it came last year to a whopping £13,700. At least, this year might be cheaper. That’s something to be said for the Austerity. Gawd bless us, every one.