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Paul Vallely: Magic of Gran’s rum sauce lives on

23 December 2022

Preserving Christmas traditions anchors us, suggests Paul Vallely

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NOBODY but Gran ever made the rum sauce for the Christmas pudding. It was a dark art — darker even than the other practices that took place behind the closed kitchen door when I was a boy. In later years, I was set to peeling sprouts, but that happened in the breakfast room. The little kitchen was a female preserve.

We were five children for Christmas dinner, plus my mum and dad, our bachelor uncle, and my grandmother. I don’t well recall how much Gran helped in the kitchen. I think she arrived after all the hard work was done. She came with my uncle, or my dad would drive over to her after Christmas morning mass to bring her to our lunch festivities.

I remember, after he died, when I was 16, I went to fetch her on the Link bus that circumnavigated the perimeter of our home town. I picked her up, and we got the next bus back. Rather daringly, when we alighted, she suggested that we should pop into the local pub. She had a port and lemon and got me, in defiance of the licensing laws, a half of shandy.

It was a portal into the adult world. I remember being surprised how merry the lunchtime drinkers were, even though the pub had been open only half an hour. “Warm broth soon boils,” she said with the elliptical sagacity of a wise elder, though she was younger then than I am now.

When the turkey had been consumed, and the bejewelled bowls of cranberry sauce had been plundered, it was time for Gran to go into the kitchen to perform her magic. Although she may have been happy to share her wisdom about pub lore, she never revealed to me the secrets of the rum sauce.

Gran has been dead these 50 years. Since then, I’ve been responsible for the sauce to go with the Christmas pudding. I’m pretty sure that she used full-fat milk, white sugar, cornflour, and Lamb’s Navy Rum; for that was what my father had on the Christmas drinks trolley. She never disclosed the quantities that she used, although, knowing Gran, I think she probably sploshed the rum in and dipped her finger in to taste.

Over the years, my cooking, thanks to a brief sojourn at a Parisienne école de cuisine, became more estranged from her style — although, when I am lunching alone, I still eat tripe straight from the butchers, as she taught me, sprinkled with white pepper and drenched in malt vinegar. But my rum sauce is now made with butter and flour, and the sugar is brown, and I grate in nutmeg.

We did not watch the Queen’s Christmas broadcast. We were still always only on the main course when the clock struck three. More recently, thanks to catch-up TV, we time-shift to watch the monarch’s Christmas message. It will be poignant this year, as the King does his first. All across the country, most particularly in these post-pandemic times, there will be newly empty seats at Christmas tables in too many homes, ours included.

Still, tradition is what anchors the past, through the present, to our future. So I shall be serving Mabel Smith’s Christmas Rum Sauce again in Gran’s honour.

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