The heat before Christmas

Juan-Carlo Tomas is tired of trying to convince his traditional, meat-and-three-veg migrant parents that they don’t need to fire up the oven again this Christmas.

I’ve had enough.

Not of work, mind. I’m just back from six weeks away, so it seems churlish to complain about this not a week before we all head off again.

What I’ve had enough of is trying to convince my traditional, meat-and-three-veg migrant parents that we don’t need to fire up the oven again this Christmas. No, we don’t need a bronzed roast turkey. There’s definitely no need to glaze a ham. And please, no stuffing, or flamed pudding for that matter. It’s too hot and frankly, out of step with the glorious summer we’re just on the cusp of.

Since migrating here from Manila in the late ’70s, my family Christmas has always been a traditional affair distinguished by its traditional fare. Placemats and plates in formal array. Crackers, placed just-so and glasses, all sparkling and shiny surround the centre of the table where the giant proteins land. My mum will angst with the turkey all morning. “Is it cooked?,” she’ll ask, then wonder if it’s burnt, before taking it out to rest in the vain hope this will make it juicy.

The ham, on the other hand, is a different story. Coming from a Filipino-Spanish background, there’s no day of the year we won’t indulge in pork product. This makes the prospect of a whole leg of the stuff, on the bone, an annual highlight, but years of oven-door openings to glaze the thing have left me scarred and, possibly, more tanned than I would normally be. Sometimes we glaze it with pineapple juice, other times brown sugar and then, occasionally, with Coca Cola, reduced to a thick syrup. While the aromas are nostalgic the heat is my most enduring memory, since every 10 minutes someone needs to dive in and baste it.

So enough of this. No more hot kitchens on what is usually one of the hottest days of the year. All this century I’ve urged my family to look to the seasons and celebrate with what’s most in abundance. Prawns, for starters, are a natural festive food for this time of year and in plump, prime condition, though I can’t forget the sight of my mum being berated for trying to ‘taste’ them at the fish market early one Christmas Eve.

Cherries, too, are at their seasonal peak, with white cherries my personal favourite. For nearly a decade, I’ve sourced particularly crisp and fat specimens from Tasmania for our Christmas table, and there are rarely leftovers. Red cherries, pitted and added to sangria lends it a festive edge, while any chocolate dessert always feels more decadent adorned with them, all the more if you can retain their delicate stems.

Mangoes are, of course, also at their best this time of year. And where we used to only have one variety to sate our appetite, the very fine-eating Kensington Pride, there are now dozens available, from rose-tinted Calypsos to sugary Honey Golds and the cannonball-sized R2E2. While the latter might sound like Star Wars product placement, its long shelf life and firm flesh make it perfect to dice and use in salads, or slice and lightly grill before using to top a pavlova with passionfruit, or serve alongside Greek yoghurt.

Which makes me pause. I’m really not all about disrupting tradition – not all of them anyway. So this year, like the others before it, I’ll still show up with a cold buffet of prawns and mangoes for everyone to snack on while avoiding the inferno of my parents’ kitchen.

But where I’m over tradition for our main course, I’m all for tradition when it comes to cold desserts. So hold the ham but pass the pav – and here’s to the one Christmas dish I can’t get enough of.



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