A question that people never seem to tire of asking us South Africans abroad is: “So what do you guys do to celebrate Christmas?”. Here’s a hint, people – we were a British colony for over a century… You don’t think there might be a few, erm, familiar features? Despite the dramatic difference in temperatures, we still have European-style Christmas decorations everywhere – plastic mistletoe, fake snow on shop windows, great big evergreen Christmas trees, Boney-M singing “Mary’s Boy Child” booming out from every PA system… And for many of my school friends, the traditional Christmas lunch was a hot meal of turkey and trimmings. Having said that, large portions of the country are not of British stock and therfore do not feel bound to sweat their way through a turkey dinner while the swimming pool beckons outside. My family falls squarely into the latter category.
We had the same Christmas lunch, with a few variations in the starter and dessert departments, pretty much my whole life. After the mid-morning gift-opening, my mom would head for the kitchen and remove from the fridge the enormous glazed gammon. Then I would help her decorate it with whole cloves, pineapple rings and glace cherries and it would be surrounded by salads which also remained pretty constant through the years: asparagus, potato salad, watermelon balls, and spanspek (cantaloupe) & grape salad. Once my brother met his future wife, she added another component that was to become a fixture: her 7-layer salad. The starter varied – chicken liver pate, smoked salmon in some form, or a plate of antipasti. But always cold. And of course, then came the main event. First my dad would open the champagne, shooting the cork right into the garden (where my brother would always be waiting to catch it!) and then he would get down to the serious business of carving the cold gammon.
I remember the Christmas gammon being one of the tastiest things in the world. I loved the saltiness of the meat, the sweet stickiness of the glaze and the yielding, delicious layer of fat. Of course, afterwards there was always dessert – usually Christmas pudding with my mom’s home-made brandy sauce. But to me, the gammon was the thing; that was the taste of Christmas and I doubt whether that will ever change. When my mom died in late 2003, she had already selected the gammon for a Christmas meal that she would not live to see.
I found it in the freezer that Christmas when I went home and that was the first gammon I cooked, as a tribute to my mom and as a source of comfort to myself. I realised then how many things I had never got round to aslking my mother – like how do you roast a gammon?? What the hell goes into the glaze?? How do you get the fat just right? So many questions, but no Mamma to ask. I think that’s one of the first times I realised how irretrievably gone she was. But with the help of the internet, plus a glaze recipe from my friend Bronwyn’s mom, I tackled the gammon like an old pro and learned (surprisingly) that it’s not that difficult, and it certainly made me feel more Christmassy.
For any of you who are intimidated by the thought of cooking such a huge chunk of meat, fear not – here comes the idiot’s guide. I also used to fear this kind of cooking: what if I didn’t know the One Crucial Thing you needed to do a successful roast? Such a lot of meat to mess up if things went wrong!! But even though my mom never went through the basics of gammon roasting with me, she did tell me a thing or two about roasting chickens, and when you get down to it, the principles she taught me will stand you in good stead whatever you roast: don’t be in a rush, and take steps to make sure the meat cannot dry out. In other words, all you really have to do to a gammon is stick it in the oven with some liquid, for a long time at a relatively low temperature, make sure it is covered, and wait! What could be easier – or more rewarding?
GLAZED CHRISTMAS GAMMON
1 large gammon (bone in or out – it’s your choice)
2 carrots, sliced
2 celery sticks, chopped
1 small onion, chopped
2 bay leaves
about 6 black peppercorns
Rinse the gammon and pat dry. Place it in a large roasting dish (preferably one like this – deep with a lid). Slice/chop the carrots, celery and onion and place them in the roasting pan together with the gammon. Add 1 to 1.5 litres of water to the pan, depending on how deep your pan is.
If your roasting pan has a lid, cover it (alternatively cover the gammon with aluminium foil) and place in a 160C oven. Cooking time is 30 mins for every 500g, plus an extra 30 mins.
Once done, remove the gammon from the oven and allowed it to rest for 5 mintes while you made the glaze. For the glaze you will need:
3/4 cup tightly packed brown sugar
1-2 Tbsp cider vinegar
1-2 tsp wholegrain mustard
pinch of ground cloves (optional)
Heat them all together in a pan until the sugar has completely dissolved (the quantities are kind of variable – I add more sugar if the glaze is too watery) I usually allow my glaze to boil for a minute or two, but as long as the sugar is dissolved, this isn’t necessary.
In the meanwhile, carefully peel the skin off the gammon. Lift a corner and tug gently – you will see it comes off surprisingly easily. I then score the fat to create a diamond pattern – the pattern is a matter of personal choice, but the scoring helps the glaze to stay on the fat instead of just sliding off. Baste the fat liberally with the glaze and return the gammon to the oven, uncovered. Baste frequently until the glazed fat has browned nicely (it should take about 15-20 mins)- you can always use the grill to finish it off.
If you want to go the full distance with decoration, allow your gammon to cool and then decorate with tinnned pineapple rings and glace cherries. Break toothpicks in half and use them to fasten the fruit onto the gammon. If yours is a realy big gammon, affix whole pineapple rings all over it and then spear a cherry in the middle of each. For smaller gammons, cut the pineapple rings in half or even into chunks and spear them evenly over the gammon, alternating with cherries.
MERRY CHRISTMAS TO ALL SA ROCKS READERS!
A version of this post has also appeared on my blog CookSister!
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