Christmases past

Christmas at Belsize Lane

A trip down a holly-festooned memory lane. A version of this article is published by the Financial Times.

We always drink good wine at Christmas but the only time we’ve opened a really, really good (for which read seriously expensive) bottle was last year when social gatherings were limited to a single household, which for us meant, for the first time ever, just us two.

In 1993 a canny fine-wine trader spied a 12-bottle case of Ch Lafleur 1982 in our cellar. He had a client who would pay a fortune for it and persuaded me to swap that case of luscious red bordeaux for wines then worth a total of £1,415: six bottles of a less-rare bordeaux, Ch Latour 1970 (long since drunk, unfortunately), a case of Ch de Fargues 1983 (a particularly fine Sauternes – one bottle remains) and a 12-bottle case of red burgundy, the 1989 vintage of Domaine Armand Rousseau’s famous Chambertin, then selling for £540, the equivalent of £45 a bottle.

Today’s burgundy lovers will snort incredulously at this price. Such has been the meteoric rise in interest in burgundy, made in so much smaller quantities than bordeaux, as well as in the number of wine-loving billionaires, that a wine as rare as a Chambertin from one of Burgundy’s most admired producers of it sells for thousands of pounds a bottle today. And the 1989, a fine vintage, is effectively impossible to buy (but would now be even more expensive than Ch Lafleur 1982).

Over the years I had given away a few bottles from my case of Chambertin 1989, including one to my brother-in-law who insisted on keeping it a wine rack in his far-too-hot kitchen, but a year ago one remained in our (13 °C/55 °F) cellar. So when Christmas socialising was effectively cancelled in the UK last year, I decided this was the bottle to compensate us for the lack of the usual crowd of children, grandchildren, siblings and strays. Besides, I always think one of the richer red burgundies, or Pinot Noir grown elsewhere, goes particularly well with turkey and the sweetish accompaniments so often described as the trimmings.

In 2020 our Christmas turkey was – poignantly – sliced in two, the other half eaten a 20-minute walk away by our son and his family. We needed distraction and we got it, in glasses of the sort of sweet delicacy that only a really fine red burgundy can offer, with notes of mushrooms and violets building up over time – and actually even more powerful in the inch or two that we kept for the cold turkey on Boxing Day. But the other highlight of an otherwise rather forlorn Christmas was the sunset, a blaze of red richer than any of the many sunsets that are a boon in the eyrie to which we moved five years ago (see A Christmas bottle).

We would usually be nearly 20 round the Christmas dinner table. As grandchildren have arrived, my husband’s tendency to invite anyone who might enjoy a seat at it has had to be curbed. Over the years perhaps the least-appreciative guest was the Russian girlfriend of someone we knew only vaguely who spent most of Christmas Day flicking through Hello! magazine. Various lone neighbours seem to have enjoyed our hospitality rather more.

While the children were growing up, we had a succession of families from distant parts at the table, notably from New York, Singapore, Auckland and Adelaide. The Australians loved celebrating Christmas in cold weather and were very welcome, not least because they brought a magnum of Penfolds Grange, Australia’s most lauded wine. But in the pre-Uber era it was the devil’s own job to get them back to their hotel. Well, actually it turned out to be Nick’s job, after he had, as usual, cooked and done much of the clearing up after Christmas dinner. (As for my contribution, it’s hard work pulling corks, I can assure you – and I do graciously make the brandy butter.)

For at least two Christmases we entertained the best editor the FT never had, Robert Thomson, another Australian, who then edited the Life & Arts section of the paper and is now head of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. He came with his elegant Chinese wife Ping. They’d married when he was working in Japan and Christmas Day was their wedding anniversary.

For many years another family joined us at Christmas dinner with the mother, having already celebrated Chanukah with her family, supplying masses of wafer-thin smoked salmon on rye bread that was handed round while we made serious inroads into magnums of champagne before the main meal. After the couple separated, smoked-salmon duty fell to our older daughter. When I asked her for her memories of our family Christmases they included ‘Kettle Chips before they became famous’ and ‘you always had a pen and paper to keep a record of the thank-you letters we needed to write’.

Christmas stockings

She also reminded me that on Christmas Eve we would leave my father’s stuffed shooting socks (like the skinniest one above) in front of the fireplace, each labelled with a child’s name (the picture above shows stockings for both children and grandchildren), and then lock the door to that room and hide the key. She claims we tortured them with things like ‘we’ll just make a mug of tea’ or ‘let me put the oven on’ before finding the key (not always a given) and letting them in to a room perfumed with the piney scent of the Christmas tree, mingled with that of the dregs of the glass of madeira that had been left for Father Christmas. The three of them were certainly hugely impatient to open their presents, and there was a time when our son was so uncontrollable that we had to put the tree girded with presents inside a playpen.

Christmas table at Belsize Lane

The first time the girls took over decorating the Christmas dinner table (seen above at our old address) – my mother-in-law’s embroidered tablecloths and silver with lots of candles and red – seemed like a massive rite of passage. But it did leave me more time to fuss over the wine. White for the red-phobic daughters and good, rich red (not usually red bordeaux – too dry) for the rest of us. Towards the end of the meal I’d set an array of sweet wines on the table, almost always including a decanter of port (great with the Stichelton), before we all went back to the fire for, variously, sleep (see main picture above), Trivial Pursuit and one last present for each child that I had carefully kept aside. Quite unnecessary of course. But then Christmas for most of us, thankfully, is not about necessity.