John Gregory-Smith is a food writer specialising in travel and Turkish cuisine. He is the founder of Eat Travel Live, and has penned three sumptuous cookbooks – Mighty Spice, Mighty Spice Express and Turkish Delights. His appetite for travel knows very few bounds – which makes him one of our favourite dinner companions. His stories flit from flaming meats with Berbers in rural Morocco to tables groaning with homemade feasts in a village near the Black Sea. But when we asked him to tell us about the one meal that truly defines him, he found it not in the mountains of North Africa or the alleyways of Hong Kong, but at his parent’s dinner table at Christmas, sharing turkey and trimmings and wine with his big, boisterous family…
If you asked me where I stand on a roast dinner I would say it was pretty low down the food pecking order. I like the idea of eating one, sat around a table with loads of mates and booze. And when I get a good one I do enjoy it. It’s just that I would just rather eat something else. Something more exciting, with chillies, garam masla or a hit of zingy citrus. I am drawn to anything made using coconut milk or soy sauce, and I have a natural affinity to meat cooked on fire. I love ripping bread for dunking, slurping noodles loudly and rolling rice with my hands to dip into thick sauces. So a roast is not my first choice. But ask me what meal it is that has the most effect on my life and I would have to say that it’s the roast dinner I have with my family on Christmas Day.
I would love to say the time I bought a whole lamb and cooked meshwi BBQ high in the Atlas Mountains, or when I prepared Indian food for the first time with a family in Old Delhi (in fact there are so many to chose from), had the most profound effect on my life, but they didn’t. None affect me as much as my Christmas dinner. And there’s a reason for this. It goes beyond the food. It’s the package, the whole bonkers package that makes this meal legendary, and one I never want to miss.
Every year my entire family, apart from the odd stray who has drifted to SE Asia, but yoyos back every other year, get together for dinner. We alternate between my mum’s house and my auntie’s, and who ever is not hosting dinner does the boxing day buffet, ideally with a whopping great big ham, cheese everywhere and my rather delicious leftover turkey pie.
The festivities start on Christmas Eve. With presents wrapped and hoyed under various trees, we go to the pub in Richmond to disuses the main event. Will the potatoes be as crispy as last year? Will auntie Jackie cheat and win every game? And most importantly; who will be the last man standing? This often rolls on late into the evening and we head back to the closest kitchen for an after party. In years past, when we were all a little younger and far stupider, this went on well until Christmas breakfast was served – sorry Jesus!
Regardless of who is hosting, or how sore heads might be, the whole of Christmas Day is spent cooking. There are between 20 and 30 of us to feed, and then the kids. A bonkers gaggle of under twelve’s, who bring a whole new dimension of hysteria to the table.
So the food – well, the turkey - and then all the trimmings; potatoes, roasted vegetables, peas, mini sausages, stuffing, bacon, slightly odd indistinguishable white sauces that my dad just loves, and lashings and lashings of gravy. There should be enough to bathe in should one desire. To go with the food we have loads to drink. We are a boozy bunch, so expect plenty of fizz, different reds and whites, dessert wines, possibly some port, and if my cousins Sean or Anna are in the mood, cocktails before and, fingers crossed, after dinner. And finally the dining table, strewn with candles, crackers and condiments, everything twinkles, as it should do at this time of year.
As it’s a special occasion, we all get fancied-up and meet for drinks at seven. In the past, the kids would have already eaten and be running around, until hypnotised by the latest Christmas movie. Now they join us, and we eat early, sat around the dining table, our plates overflowing with food, laughing loudly and chatting, whooping and generally relishing every second of it.
The meal carries on late into the night. The booze is plentiful, and every year we try and play Pictionary with a broken easel that always ends up falling to bits, but as are too sloshed too remember, it gets packed away for another year, and we move into the final phase of the night, the sitting room disco.
The whole event is incredible. I get a warm fuzzy feeling just thinking about it. I am the luckiest person in the world to have a family that is so much fun, and one that is growing continuously - hello Isla, born a few weeks ago, and baby Anya, who will be one this Christmas.
This is not a meal that has changed my life, but it is the one that defines it. And to me, this is what every meal should aspire to be like. I am at my happiest with this gang, and there is something extra special about our Christmas dinner. I can sit back and just watch everyone. They are amazing. That’s me at my most content right there. It’s this feeling of food and family that is so special and something I try and emulate in everything I do.