Half the charm of the magpie system of shopping is that one comes across unexpectedly pretty and festive-looking things for so little money; in the window of the Empire Shop in Sloane Street there is a pyramid of white candy sugar in rocky lumps, so irresistibly decorative that one would like to hang them on the tree; and inside the shop, by-passing the chain-dairy goods which have somehow strayed in, are dark and dazzly genuine Indian chutneys, garnet-bright Jamaican guava jelly, English quince, Scottish rowan, and squat jars of shiny lemon curd.
The other day I was looking for a book on my cookbook shelves and found instead my beautiful Folio Society edition of Elizabeth David’s Christmas. It’s cover and interior decorations are by Sophie MacCarthy who makes brussels sprouts and sliced red cabbage look like jewels, not to mention Mandarin oranges and chestnuts. It was a good thing to read for an hour by the fire (I am still recovering from a cracked tailbone…), thinking of my own Christmas plans. I love the season, its capacity for plenitude and conviviality, and how it can bring out our best selves. The selves that are willing to suspend disbelief and to allow generosity and warmth into our hearts. Ours is not a Christmas of big ticket items. I remember once putting little soaps shaped like ducks and new mittens in the children’s stockings, along with oranges and chocolate, and how thrilled they were. And that has always been a kind of guiding spirit.
Just now I was thinking about the baking I’ll do this weekend and whether it’s too early to make buttercrunch (which has a way of disappearing far too quickly). I love the smell of shortbread, particularly the pans of trees with fresh rosemary. This year I thought I’d add finely grated lime zest too.
Elizabeth David’s books have been on my shelves since I was 19. Well, not all of them, but the ones I treasure: Summer Cooking, French Provincial Cooking, and this Christmas beauty. I don’t necessarily read them for the recipes but for the way she describes food, the way she praises a simple dish well made, and for her eye for what’s important. That Christmas shopping can be a magpie gathering: yes, that’s exactly how I do it. I buy small things and find ways to put them together. Pretty bowls from the Coombs market enroute to Long Beach in October will accompany jars of the olives I buy in bulk at the Mediterranean Market on Commercial Drive in Vancouver and marinate in olive oil, red wine vinegar, slices of lemon, lots of our homegrown garlic, and stems of rosemary from the pots on the deck. I love the linen tea-towels available here on the Coast, made in North Vancouver by Rain Goose Textiles. (They’re hard to give up because they’re so bright and original.) Jars of jams and jellies made in late summer when everything is ripe all at once. Old baskets or tins to carry them from our house to yours, with love.