My friend Annabel Whitby, an Englishwoman of uncommon good sense, once defined New Year’s Eve as “an assault course that forces you to drive down icy lanes to join the same people you’ve seen a dozen times over Christmas, all behaving frightfully, and try to think of something new to say to them.” The night used to provide an annual anticlimax for me, too—until Bill Baker took the problem in hand.
Bill could be John Bull’s twin. Broad-backed, ample-bellied, Falstaffian in his love of good grub, good grog, and good times, he is now the majordomo of all our New Year’s Eves. We didn’t set out to create a tradition; it all began very casually about a half-dozen years ago when several of us (who see each other far too seldom) fell to talking about meeting at a restaurant for a year’s-end feast. When that seemed impractical, especially in view of the heightened highway vigilance of the British police, it occurred to Bill that his house, a former flour mill built near Bath in the 1830s, had enough beds for everyone. So we gathered there, and we ate, drank, laughed, told tales, and resolved to do the same the following year.
All of the original miscreants were British, except for my wife, Betsey, and me—and you might describe us as aspirant Brits, since we lived in England for a good ten years and return often. Last New Year’s, in addition to the four Bakers (Bill, his wife, Kate, and their two Campbell’s Soup kids, Polly and George) and the two of us, the cast included Betsey’s daughter, Catherine Brown, who lives in Jakarta, and her friend, Scotsman Grant Collins; the wine writer Jancis Robinson, her husband, Nick Lander, a restaurant reviewer for the Financial Times, and two of their three kids; Ian Doherty, a droll bachelor from Derry in Northern Ireland who knew Baker at Cambridge; and Simon Hopkinson, who until recently presided over the stoves at London’s chic Bibendum and remains an owner of the place while working as a food writer. At 6 months, George Baker was the youngest reveler. At 61, alas, I was the eldest.
Britain has experienced a gastronomic revival in the past couple of decades, especially in its restaurant cooking. Culinary progress, however, has come at great cost to tradition. The way I calculate it, “Modern British Cooking”, as guidebooks call it, is about 40 percent French bourgeois, 30 percent Italian, and—after factoring in bits of Thai, Japanese, and American Southwestern—only about 20 percent British. At Bill’s, I am pleased to report, another ideal is pursued—that exemplified not by Elizabeth David, who played a large part in bringing Mediterranean breezes into English kitchens, but by another culinary writer, Jane Grigson. Hers is meticulously timed, unadorned, traditional cooking, based on seasonal local ingredients of the best possible quality. Once commonplace, it is now rare.
Food plays a larger part in New Year’s traditions in Europe than it does in the United States. In France, the second half of December sees most of the year’s consumption of foie gras and caviar; in Austria, piglets and mushrooms are esteemed as seasonal good-luck charms; and in Hungary, January 1 is met with a fortifying bowl of sauerkraut soup. For our New Year’s Eve in England, we eat cold-weather comfort food, and, for six years running, our piece de resistance has remained the same: beef. (Lamb, Baker tells us, is not at its best midwinter.)
I guess I had better stop and talk a little about bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as “mad cow disease”. It was already a topic of discussion in Britain last New Year’s, though it had not yet come to rival the weather and the serial infidelity of the royal family as the mainstay of conversation. I called Bill, a contrarian and a paragon of political incorrectness, at the height of the mania and asked what he was having for dinner that night. “Beautiful sirloin, old boy,” he replied. “Got it for nothing.” He views the British beef crisis the way modern investors view a 200-point drop in the Dow—as a buying opportunity.
At 9:30 a.m. on December 31, a dank, foggy morning with hoarfrost on the trees, Bill parked his Range Rover on a nondescript stretch of road a few miles from his mill. He jumped out, and in standard work gear—tattered army field jacket, corduroys held up by a knotted rope—he began crunching along the frozen roadside berm, his eyes fixed on the ground, his pick slung over his shoulder. “There!” he cried joyously, pointing at a few feathery, vaguely reddish shoots poking through the ground, barely an inch high, all but invisible to my untutored eye. Bill swung his sturdy weapon two, three, four times, and pulled from the earth a half-dozen pieces of horseradish to be finely grated and mixed with cream and a bit of sugar before we sat down to dinner. Our New Year’s ritual had begun.
Actually, the Bakers had been getting ready for days. Kate, a former maitresse d’hotel at Bibendum and at Gidleigh Park, the remarkable country house hotel in Devon, had tied red ribbons on the six-armed iron chandelier above the dining table, hung the mistletoe, dressed the mounted stag horns with glass balls, and set up a 13-foot Christmas tree. Bill had laid a fire in the immense fireplace and, as wine steward and chief cook, had taken charge of the grocery list. Most of the food had arrived the day before: the beef (Scottish, of course) from Jimmy Stringer, a small butcher in nearby Midsomer Norton; the smoked salmon and tiny, brown Morecambe Bay shrimps from James Baxter, up near the Lake District; eel from Severn & Wye Smokery near Gloucester; oysters from Rossmore in County Cork, Ireland; cheese from the Fine Cheese Company in Bath; and a couple of large tins of caviar, our contribution, from the manifestly un-British Caspian Sea via a duty-free shop in the airport. The majority of the vino came from Bill’s on-site wine cellar. His business, Reid Wines, which specializes in fine old vintages, is headquartered in the mill.
As is typical at year’s end in England, the skies never brightened. By 3 p.m., the atmosphere was dim and misty; by 4 p.m., it was dark. This was indoor, sit-around-the-fire weather, straight out of Wuthering Heights. The Bakers’s big main room was a cozy clutter of kids’ toys, overstuffed furniture, objets trouves (like stuffed birds in glass bells), and plants—lilies, orchids, three-foot-tall paperwhites, hyacinths in old chamberpots, and a daunting spilt-leaf philodendron that looked big enough to devour a small horse. Between walks, naps, nibbles of this and swigs of that (bottles under consideration for Reid Wines’ forthcoming list), we tumbled over each other all day long—cooks, kibitzers, kids, and Dipper, the lovable but not-quite-right liver-colored labrador.
Bill beavered away in the upstairs kitchen, polishing wine glasses (battalions of them) and making membrillo (savory quince paste) to go with the cheddar. Ian spent hours talking soccer with Will Lander; Polly, jumped maniacally on her trampoline; I managed to get a little writing done; and Rose Lander, practiced for her late-afternoon dance performance. (“I simply must have peace and quiet,” she announced gravely when my typing disturbed her concentration.) Downstairs, I spied the lean and elegant Jancis balancing George on her hip with one hand while holding—and intently reading—a book in the other. Simon was downstairs as well, in the smaller kitchen making a pair of Old English desserts: apple hat, a variant of apple pie, and, from Grigson’s English Food, a spectacular Sussex pond pudding made with butter, brown sugar, and whole lemons. “Health food,” Simon joked, chopping up a pound of freshly trimmed suet.
When we officially assembled at 9 p.m. for drinks, Grant showed up wearing a Green Douglas kilt, a fashion statement that, in Ian’s words, “fired a sartorial Exocet” at us all. To launch the serious drinking, Bill popped open a magnum of Krug Private Cuvee, at least 20 years old—but it turned out to be flat. Undaunted, he opened his backup, a magnum of Dom Perignon 1971, one of the greatest vintage champagnes ever, then he dashed a few hundred yards down the road to his all-but-inexhaustible cellar and returned, breathing hard, with a second magnum. Minus a child or two, we finally sat down for dinner at around 10, glasses gleaming.
The oysters, the smoked fish, and the caviar made a properly auspicious start, especially when paired with Chassagne-Montrachet Morgeot 1986, Gagnard Delagrange, courtesy of Jancis and Nick. This was followed by the beef, or “stegosaurus” as we all called it. The mighty 13-inch-thick hunk of steer—like a dozen T-bones in one piece—was cut from a side that had been hung for two weeks, roasted in the old Aga stove for an hour and a half, and then, after a seemingly interminable half-hour’s rest, carved and served. With this came bowls brimming with buttered boiled carrots (better than any I have ever eaten, although Bill and Simon both insisted that they used no secret ingredients), roasted parsnips, roasted boiled potatoes, and the classic Yorkshire pudding made with beef drippings. Sigh. “This is the kind of food,” said the quiet, scholarly Nick, “that people ate in grand English houses with hordes of servants before World War II ended all that. These days, you either have to make it yourself or go without.”
Red wines came and went as fast as Italian governments, though with less ceremony. First a pomerol, a northerly neighbor of Petrus: Chateau Lafleur 1971 in magnum (“good fruit, ready to drink, but not very complex,” said Jancis). Then came a Chateau Palmer 1959, also in magnum (“elegant, epitomizes margaux, but showing a bit of age,” said Bill), and one of my favorite Rhones, Chateau Rayas 1978, a highly concentrated, peppery Chateauneuf-du-Pape. It was perfect with the cheeses, the most international part of the meal: pecorino from Sardinia; munster and foul-smelling epoisses from France; Colston Basset stilton; Mrs. Montgomery’s 18-month-old cheddar from North Cadbury in Somerset; and Mrs. Kirkham’s lancashire—all, incidentally, still made from unpasteurized milk.
Then came the puddings. Once turned out, just as Mrs. Grigson promised, her Sussex pond produced “a moat of butter-brown liquid”. When I tasted it, I understood why food writer David Wheeler completely lost his cool over it. “If you have not yet stumbled upon this heavenly confection,” he once wrote, “you have the kind of treat in store which, to my mind, can only rival the first hearing of the final 20 minutes of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier.” With the desserts came a Chateau Rieussec 1959, a 1963 port from Dow, and Cossart Gordon Bual Madeira from 1934, the year of my birth. And finally, for the Stakhanovites among us, coffee, an old white Chartreuse from the turn of the century, and marc de la Romanee-Conti 1949 (“as rare,” my spidery notes seem to say, “as rocking-horse manure.”)
The biggest mishap in two hours at the table was probably a blob of candle wax in a glass of sauternes. Simon, characteristically hard on himself after a bravura performance, insisted that his parsnips were slightly overcooked (and therefore ruined), but every last bite was eaten. Overall, though, the shouts, taunts, and railery made for a very jolly evening. We all managed to get to our feet to watch Big Ben chime twelve on the BBC telecast, but I can’t testify to much after that. Some of the others remained alert enough to take care of a little kitchen cleanup—and plan for the following night’s Sunday supper as well.