Wednesday 14 December 2011

Victorian Christmas - in Denmark; Marie-Louise Jensen

I enjoyed reading Mary Hooper's wonderful post on Tuesday so much that I decided to post another Christmas scene, set at a similar time but in a different country. This is from my first book Between Two Seas, and is Marianne's first experience of Christmas in Denmark:

Hannah pulls the door open and hugs me before I
have a chance to knock.
“Marianne! Come and see our decorations!” she
cries at once.
“You’ve made it so pretty!” I exclaim. The tiny
house is bright and clean. There is an apple studded with cloves on the table. I smell the warm exotic scent at once. Red paper hearts are pinned to the walls. The table is set simply but prettily, with china and serviettes. Soft candlelight completes the atmosphere. Hannah beams with delight.
“The cloves came from the wreck,” she tells me. “Mother bought them at the auction.”
Hannah’s mother shakes my hand. “Welcome Marianne! Come and warm yourself by
the stove.”
“I have a small gift for you first,” I say a little nervously, laying two tiny parcels on the table. It has been a puzzle to know what to give them, as I still have absolutely no money. In the end I chose my two best handkerchiefs and embroidered them with the prettiest threads from
my sewing box. The parcels are wrapped in the tissue paper that lined my trunk. I watch anxiously while Hannah and her mother unwrap them. To my relief they both seem pleased. On Hannah’s I’ve embroidered an intricate “H” in one corner and tiny pink flowers in the others. For her mother, a blue “C” (her name is Charlotte) and blue flowers.
“Marianne, they’re beautiful,” breathes Hannah.
“That was too generous,” her mother tells me, giving me a kiss on the cheek. “It must have taken you hours.”
“Oh no,” I assure her. “I learned to sew as soon as I could hold a needle.”
They lay the handkerchiefs on their bed, and Hannah’s mother puts on her apron and begins to fry fish.
“We only have dried fish for our Christmas
meal, I’m afraid,” Hannah tells me apologetically. “And we need to eat much earlier than usual, as mother has to go back to the hotel to help prepare the Christmas meal there. They have lots of guests.”
“That’s no problem at all, I promise.” I am glad the supper will be early. Having not eaten yet today, I’m starting to feel faint.
“But just wait until you see what we have for dessert,” Hannah adds. She hugs herself in excitement, her eyes gleaming.
“Dessert?” I ask, surprised. I can’t remember the last time I had any kind of dessert.
“You look like you could do with some,” Hannah’s mother tells me, coming back into the room. “Are you going very short of food at Jacobsen’s?”
I hesitate, unwilling to lie outright, but not keen to admit the truth either. “We’re managing,” I tell her.
“Well, there’ll be no fresh fish while the sea stays frozen,” says Hannah’s mother seriously.
Hannah must have been teasing me when she said there was only dried fish for supper. There are also potatoes and carrots with melted butter. It’s the best meal I’ve had in months. I eat hungrily. Then Hannah proudly helps her mother lay two serving dishes of dessert on the table.
“It’s ris à l’amande,” she explains.
I don’t realise for a moment that Hannah’s using a French name. Then I understand. Rice with almonds. It looks as though there’s a generous amount of cream stirred into it as well. The second dish has fruit in a sauce.
“Does this have a French name too?” I ask.
“No, that’s kirsebærsovs,” she laughs. Cherry sauce. “They’ve made a huge portion for Christmas at the hotel. They gave mother some to bring home,” Hannah explains, handing round bowls and spoons. “It’s what they’re eating later tonight, so we are as grand as they are!”
I taste a spoonful of my portion. The rice is rich and creamy, and the pieces of almond crunch deliciously. The cherries burst on the tongue adding sweetness. Hannah and her mother are watching me expectantly, waiting for my reaction.
“It tastes so good,” I assure them. “I love it.”
I eat very, very slowly, tasting every spoonful, making it last as long as possible. I store up the memory of the taste. When we’ve eaten every last bit, we clear away, and Hannah’s mother
brews some rosehip tea from the rosehips they picked in the autumn. Then she wraps herself in her shawl to go to work while Hannah and I settle down by the fire to drink our tea and talk.


mary hooper said...

I love hearing about other sorts of Christmasses. A friend of mine, married to a Portugese chap, cooks dried salted cod for their special Christmas meal. It just doesn't sound very appetising, does it? But - yes, please - I could certainly eat a dish of almonds and rice with cream.

Leslie Wilson said...

Like Mary, I am enticed by the rice with almonds. Maybe I'll make a rice pud tomorrow!
For Christmas Eve, we always have a special Silesian dish with poppy-seeds - but I shan't anticipate my own 23rd December post. I did enjoy this, Marie-Louise. I think it's the contrast between the simplicity of the first course and the luxury of the pudding that makes it interesting, not just gastronomically, but narratively, too. I did enjoy Between Two Seas, anyway.