by Mel Wright
In my memory bank it's cold outside with maybe a sprinkling of snow and there is a fire crackling in the grate eating into the specially selected Yule logs and sending up curtains of dancing sparks. Ideally, they would be from the summer prunings of the orchard trees, certainly apple and maybe cherry. The wafts of seasoned smoke that escape the inglenook permeate the cottage, providing a base note for the essential aroma that is so much a part of this time of year. The television will be marooned in the corner, as unwelcome a guest to us as Jacob Marley's ghost was to Ebenezer Scrooge. We don't want to be a part of that commercial world that drives so much of our modern life.
Friends are expected and what better way to greet them than to prepare a bowl of warming Christmas punch? The red wine -- and let's make it a good one, say a Kendall Jackson's Vintner's Reserve Merlot -- is uncorked and sniffed. Mmm! The berry nose has an appealing smoky, black cherry aroma with just a suggestion of steeped tea. Before we commit the contents to the pan, maybe a nipperkin of the velvet-looking liquid would be sensible? Just to make sure that it really is not going to spoil the concoction. It doesn't disappoint. The rummer glass is swirled, releasing the volatile elements to be taken in by the nose and delivered to the brain. And then the first sip. It fumes and insidiously coats the mouth cavity with warmth and spice.
Ah yes, the spice! Let's not be waylaid.
Three bottles of wine are decanted and oranges, now at their Christmas plumpness, are gently scarified to release the oily secretion that is the fruit personified. Strangely, the sweet aroma of orange blossom often comes unbidden to me at this stage, the result of travels around the Mediterranean. It's amazing how the brain works. Four would be sufficient. Now gently push ten fresh cloves into the yielding skin and let the porcupined fruit bob up and down in its crimson sea. Why ten cloves? Because that's what my mother did. Molasses sugar with its distinctive honeyfied smell is stirred into the mix and heat applied very gently.
When I was in Zanzibar earlier this year the whole island was suffused with the pungent smell of spices and although I was luxuriating in the heat of a tropical Indian Ocean paradise, thoughts of chilly winter solstice preparations overrode all. Cinnamon, another staple of the Spice Island is added to taste and before long the essence of the whole sweet and spicy concoction is filling the kitchen and indeed the entire cottage.
Some folks would add apple and some the zest of a juicy lemon or two. In fact, I think I might just do that. There is nothing written down to say that this is how we do it. Apart from my mother's ten cloves, that is. And that is written on my memory card.