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A Christmas tale
24 Nov 2011

IT’S less than 10 days to Christmas and Herself is not finished up for the year yet. “Still a few things to attend to at the office,” she says. I am lazing on the veranda testing the theory that a G&T fluoresces when the proportions of gin to tonic are just right. I am not alone. Younger Daughter and son-in-law One have arrived for the holidays with our first grandchild and several suitcases of ­baby-girl type clothes. Elder Daughter and Son-in-lawTwo have also arrived. Conversation turns to food. Not just any food you understand, but Christmas food — that special kind that the next generation comes home for at Christmas time.

“What will we have this year?” I ask, in a general type of way; just to help the conversation on. I am generous like that. We have this same discussion most Christmases, knowing quite well where it will lead. Son-in-law One answers quick as a flash: “Gammon,” cutting right to the predictable conclusion. The two daughters and Son-in-law Two say “Yeah”, even though they are a bit alarmed at this breach of protocol. Me? I adjust the fluorescence level in my G&T and, nodding approvingly, I concur: “Gammon it is”. Son-in-law Two, though, is a bit cannier. “I’ll bring my thermometer,” he announces, alluding to what they uncharitably regard as my untrustworthy history with lying thermometers and my reputation for having to leave the meat “just 10 more minutes”.

Herself, though, is not so sure. We have a newer, smaller microwave oven that won’t take a gammon. Seeing her worried frown over the G&T, I say “No prob. I’ll fire up the braai and we will start a new tradition.” I am helpful and supportive like that. So it’s settled then. “Have you checked your braai book?” she asks, “What does it say about a gammon? Can you do it? What should I get? I think it should have the bone in.” What can I say, but: “Yeah, that’s probably right.”

Next day I check, but the book is no use at all. Thank heavens for Google. A search for “Kettle-braai gammon” delivers about 71 700 results in 0,26 seconds, which is both impressive and reassuring. I happen upon a supermarket recipe for “Kettle Braai Gammon”. I print the page and show Herself. “See, it’s going to work out fine,” I say confidently. “Can you get a gammon, some marmalade and two sacks of briquettes?” She is still of the opinion that the joint must be on the bone. I suggest that carving might be a tad easier if I don’t have to negotiate my way around the tricky bone chicane. However, she is sure she’s read somewhere that the “heat is conducted down the bone and so is more evenly distributed throughout the joint”. I don’t argue. I am generous like that.

Next day Herself arrives home in triumph, having chatted up the butcher whose little brothers she taught when we were all much younger. “He is always so helpful,” she tells me. “I have selected a 3,5-kilogram gammon, on the bone, and he is keeping it in the freezer until the 23rd. And here is the marmalade and the two sacks of briquettes.” Now there is no turning back.

The morning of the 24th dawns bright, clear and hot as you can imagine. Herself has reminded me that I “need to get ready early”, because I know “how long it takes”, and I should “be aware of the grandchild’s schedule”. Of course, I know all that, but I smile the enigmatic smile of a man on a mission and tell her I love her. I allow the women folk to fuss in the kitchen (I am generous like that), while I check that I can still remember the proportions for the great fluorescing G&T while consulting the literature. It seems that a large kettle-braai gammon requires a large fire. The recipe is a bit wimpish on this, talking about using a “½ bag of briquettes”. I shake my head in disbelief. That’ll never be enough, I just know. They seem to think 2 ½ hours will do the gammon in their pathetic little fire. It will require a bigger and better fire. Fortunately, I am up to the task.

I build and light the fire with just the faintest hint of ceremony for the small crowd — Herself, Younger Daughter and the beggar who was passing the gate at the time. I do the maths and predict we can eat at 19:00 hours, plus or minus five minutes. Plenty of time for a quick practice with the London Dry, and then in an hour the charcoal will be covered in a desirable grey ash.

At last the gammon’s time has come. I lovingly pat it dry, and anoint it with the best extra-virgin olive oil. I carry it out onto the veranda where the braai is almost glowing from the excellent fire. I am handy like that. The briquettes have a cheerful rosy glow and the heat is furnace-like. I place the gammon on the grille and lower the dome of the braai. Small problem. The gammon sticks up too high — that wretched bone. The gammon can’t be turned as it has stuck to its holder. No worries. I replace the lid and just lean on it a bit to squash it into place. It’s too hot to do anything else.

Some time later, Elder Daughter nonchalantly suggests that there is an awful lot of smoke coming from the braai. “Ja,” I say, “it’s because of the bone. It won’t lie down so I squashed it a bit. The meat is swelling as the heat penetrates, causing the fibres to plump up.” Nice scientific touch that, I thought. “No,” she says, “it’s really pouring off.”

Lifting the lid, I see the problem immediately. The fibres have indeed swelled and fat and juice have formed a flaming column right down onto my nice hot fire, causing the smoke. The gammon is a bit darkened near the flame. Okay, it’s black and cinder like. Damn. I rush inside and grab a spray bottle from the bathroom (for getting my hair to lie down if you must know), and dash to put out the fire. By now a chorus of “Oh no-es” has rippled through the festivities and amateur firefighters are gathering fast. The water has the effect of spreading the flames rather than dousing them. Soon there is bedlam tending towards chaos.

Herself suggests we lift the gammon, holder and all, off the fire. Good thinking. No time for gloves so I grab some newspapers as a substitute and offer her some. We each grab one end and lift, but the column of fire is stuck fast. The roast holder is fiercely hot and cares nothing for the insulation properties of wadded-up newspaper. The holder and gammon are dropped back on the grille. The column of fire is of Biblical proportions, but we manage to sever it and the holder and gammon are lifted. The gammon itself is now a ball of merry flames — sort of like a meaty Christmas pud really, after the brandy’s been ignited, only fiercer. Herself and I are yelling instructions to each other, and to two brace of daughters and sons-in-law. I favour putting the thing on the floor (original Victorian clay tiles). She favours the table (brocade table cloth). What with the contradictory instructions, the fatuous advice from the merrymakers and rising heat blisters, I cannot hang on any longer and the holder slips from my grip.

The ball of flaming gammon falls to the veranda floor and rolls playfully towards the merrymakers who shriek, jump back, yell or, in Elder Daughter’s case, begin to beat the poor gammon with a wad of newspaper. The sorry lump of meat, now thoroughly chastised and black from its third-degree burns, is scooped up.

With a look intended to convey a jolly camaraderie (I am generous like that), I use the oven gloves which Herself has by now thoughtfully brought out, and take the gammon through to the kitchen. Carefully removing the burnt bits (all the skin and some meat in places), I lovingly coat what is left of the gammon with my yummy glaze (I am creative like that) as a kind of peace offering, and return it to the now much-tamer fire.

After another 30 minutes and with the concurrence of the brace of sons-in-law and the unreliable thermometer, I declare the gammon done. Another mission completed.

Carving is easier than I thought, and I managed the chicane around the bone rather well I thought. Even the sons-in-law came back for seconds. Just goes to show what a man can do when he puts his mind to it. Christmas dinner? Done and dusted.

About the author

ROD Bulman is a public-participation practitioner who specialises in environmental issues. He has lived in the midlands most of his life, and in Pietermaritzburg since 1980. He and his wife have two daughters on whom he dotes, and a granddaughter who is the centre of his universe.

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