I was being doubly ambitious here. First, I'd never cooked a dinner for as many as eight adults.
Second, I'd never cooked a goose.
But given a fair wind, and if necessary the sacrifice of a dozen horned oxen and a score of uncircumcised goats to the god that watches over hapless cooks, I thought I might pull it off. Also, my fantastic friends were pitching in. Jo was doing the starter. Valerie was doing the dessert. And Jackie next door was handling all the roast vegetables. I had only to cook those vegetables that would be boiling or stir-frying on the hob. Plus the home-made stuffing in the small oven. And the goose in the main oven. So in theory the kitchen at Melford Hall shouldn't become a scene of terror and despair. Such hubris!
I drove over to Henfield to pick up the goose mid-morning on the 19th December. Here's the shop.
I took pictures of it because by now I'd learned that they were closing down at the end of January 2018. It was a rent problem - the landlord wanted a lot more, which made the shop unviable. So, very sadly, one of the best butchers in all Sussex was going to shut forever. They stocked only farm-assured Scottish fresh meat, and other choice items sourced from farms that the shop owner knew personally. I'd made friends with the shop staff Eddie and Pete, and had even met Alan Woodward himself. I felt quite choked about this shop shutting down. In my dreams, I stepped in to buy the freehold and make a go of it, with myself in charge. But in real life, I'd have to stand by and see it vanish, and then, like its many other customers, begin the search for a substitute.
But for now all was as usual. Here's Eddie serving a customer, while Pete halves and cores some lambs' kidneys for me.
I was buying bacon and gammon steaks too. This was their cured pork section.
My goose was behind the scenes. Pete got it for me. The overall bill was enough to make me gulp, but hey, it was Christmas. And I had plenty of cash with me.
I got Pete to take this shot of myself, holding the goose in its rather nice box. It felt very heavy.
Back home, the bird joined the rest of my recent Goose Dinner purchases. On the previous afternoon, I'd bought a lot of whatever I might need. The ensemble had looked most impressive.
I was trying to be comprehensive. Not everything would get used on Goose Dinner night. Some of it would instead be consumed on Christmas Day, when I was visiting a friend in Hastings - Alice - who was unexpectedly on her own this year, having sold her car, and without wheels, and unable to travel. We'd pool food and drink resources and make a day of it.
Back to the goose. I put the box on the conservatory table, alongside the big oven pan I already had, and a roasting rack recently purchased for the Big Event. It soon became clear that pan and rack were hardly big enough.
Well, let's have it open, and view the carcass!
I hadn't been quite sure what to expect. It was all a lot neater and cleaner than I'd thought. Remembering the hash Mum and I had made of plucking a pheasant one Christmas in the late 1960s - 1969 I think - it was amazing to see the result that professional pluckers could achieve. Touching the bird was another thing. It was strangely like touching a human being, albeit a cold one. Hmm. I was also conscious that not so long ago, this carcass had been a living creature, with a personality. I supposed that abattoir and butchers staff must develop a detached attitude to flesh. But I wasn't so neutral. The thing reminded me of a torso in a suitcase.
But the show must go on! This was a Christmas delicacy for which I'd paid a small fortune! No flinching now.
And, transferred from conservatory table to kitchen worktop, the goose did begin to look like food rather than a corpse. I got out a knife and made numerous little stabbings in the skin, all over, so that while cooking the fat would drain off easily into the pan. Then. ignoring the lard I'd bought, I sprayed the goose lightly with one-calorie Fry Light and rubbed sea salt in.
The goose wasn't by any means all solid meat. There was a big cavity inside, supported by a stout ribcage. I didn't try to fill it. I intended to prepare home-made stuffing from scratch, and cook that in a dish. So the only thing left to do was turn the main oven on, cover the goose with foil, pop it in the oven, and give it a twenty-minute hot blast to get it started. Then to turn the heat down and cook it slowly for four hours, periodically taking it out to baste and drain fat off into glass pots (my friends wanted the goose fat for their own roasting). That was the 'Welsh Method'. For the last half-hour, the goose would rest under a cover in my study, prior to carving. But that's for the next post. Once the oven was warmed enough, in went the bird. My goodness, it only just fitted!
I shut the oven door. The die was cast.
Next, I began to lay the table properly. I wanted it to look suitably festive. The place mats (showing fox-hunting scenes, and Thelwell cartoons) had been Mum and Dad's. I think they dated from 1980, as did the table and matching chairs. But they might well have been older.
It was almost 3.00pm. Time to send a text message to my guests. This was it.
Good afternoon, my honoured guests for tonight's Goose Dinner at Melford Hall! Kick-off is at 6.30pm with drinks (gin and slims courtesy of Clive, I think), closely followed by the starter (courtesy of Jo) so that we are ready for the main course at 7.30pm, with dessert to follow (courtesy of Valerie) within the hour. The only foody things I've forgotten to get in are nibbles, crackers and cheeses. As for drink, I have four bottles of wine, mostly white, but nothing else, so if you fancy something different or special, please definitely bring that for your own enjoyment. Also I haven't much ice. Jackie is helping me out with the vegetable cookery and any plates and cutlery I lack. She is also doing a yummy veggie roast which I for one will wish to try. Dress: comfortable - no need to impress too much, we all know each other - so ordinary gowns will do (I mean jeans) but vainglorious bling is fine if you are so inclined. Men can wear mess jackets and kilts if they wish, but risk a ribald laugh or two. Otherwise golf sweaters or rugby shirts might catch the zeitgeist best. As for the goose, it's a cracker: farm-fresh, and weighing in at 6.175kg (13.5 pounds). It will barely fit into my oven! Let's hope it turns out as good as it looks. Very much looking forward to seeing you later. Lucy XX
I was attempting some humour, while I still felt chipper about the result of my bold endeavour. But as the afternoon progressed, and the vegetable-prepping seemed endless, I began to think that, despite he solid assistance of my girl friends, I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I abandoned any thoughts of making a special sauce. But I invented a wok-cooked courgette-tomato-onion-garlic side-dish on the fly, and got that going (and then simmering, to concentrate the flavour) before anybody turned up.
As the goose-cook, I thought it best not to wear a dress. So it was jeggings and a blue top, donned before any kitchen preps whatever had been undertaken. Good enough.
With the time at 5.00pm, and guests due to arrive at 6.30pm, I took one last major step. Although I was cooking a big goose, I had bought a gammon ham from Waitrose as a backup, in case there wasn't enough meat.
It was an insurance policy. It was right to make a claim. I broke it open, put it in a pan, covered it with foil, and started cooking it according to Waitrose's instructions in the smaller oven.
I had barely got everything under control than my doorbell rang. Here we go!
(The next post covers serving and eating, with the verdict)