Lucy Brazier came to be at River Cottage over 16 years ago. She was working as a theatrical agent in London, looking after actors and presenters while raising her child. “The two things didn’t go very well together,” she says, and while searching for a different pace of life, she met Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall on a fishing boat off the Dorset coast; soon after, she began to work with him as a writer.
Every day brought something different and Lucy got stuck in, whether gathering escapee sheep or planting apple trees for the orchard. “It was very different from what I’d done before, but I loved the fact that it was really hands-on,” she says. The office there used to be in a shed, and Lucy always worked cocooned in a coat and wellies. “It was brilliant because we were really close to the kitchen, so we'd go over to head chef Gill Meller and often get a tray of pork crackling.” When the office moved a little further away from the action, she found herself having to venture out to remain immersed in River Cottage life.
Lucy began teaching cookery classes, such as the Edible Gifts Christmas course. “For that, we focused on foods that people can put in a hamper or stocking, but also things to store in your larder,” she explains. “So when it comes to Christmas, you can put out some jams and chutney, biscuits, things that you've made in advance.” She finds it helps with preparations for the festive season. “You don't have to make everything yourself, but if you've made a few things early on and you can open the cupboard and get those things out then it really helps.”
Teaching the festive courses led to her latest book, Christmas at River Cottage. Originally intended to be part of the River Cottage Handbook series, as Lucy began compiling what she would include, it became apparent that it would become a much larger work. It incorporates not only recipes, but tips on planning ahead, sourcing the best produce and decorating the home using what is close to hand. “We looked at what is important for River Cottage, as well as what I find personally important,” she says, which is “to embrace a more natural Christmas.”
Lucy has seen a huge shift in the amount of people pursuing a more sustainable way of living as time has passed. “The ingredients we use, the way our livestock is looked after and our focus on local producers was really quite innovative when River Cottage started,” she says. “Hugh was seen as a bit of a maverick campaigner, but thankfully over the years a lot more people are sharing our point of view.” They are all still learning and looking at how to do things better. “It’s important to be honest about that,” she says.
She began writing the book last March, and due to the pandemic, sadly there was hardly anyone at River Cottage to help test her recipes. Luckily, Hugh and Gelf Alderson, Executive Chef, were around to offer their opinions and assistance. Due to the quiet atmosphere and the fact that they couldn’t do party shoots, the book conveys a sense of peacefulness and anticipation for celebrations and gathering with loved ones. “We were limited on what we could do,” Lucy says, “but the positive was that I got to escape into the spirit of Christmas, testing recipes and eating turkey in June. It was a really lovely thing to do.” A big part of the recipe development involved making sure they worked on a smaller, domestic scale. “Things that we make at River Cottage sometimes feed 60!”
Initially, Lucy was going to include a schedule for Christmas dinner, in keeping with all of the Christmas cookbooks she has at home. “It turned out to be one of the hardest things to write,” she says, “and at the end of it, it just stressed me out. I thought, anyone reading this is going to feel the same way.” She took it out, and wanted the book to feel like you could pick as many recipes as you liked, and not have the worry of having to do things by certain dates.
Last year, just being outside with loved ones was a big part of Lucy’s celebrations. “You don’t have to have big feasts,” she says, which are usually integral to the festivities at River Cottage. “I take pleasure in just taking a flask of coffee or a tin of biscuits with me while enjoying the company of friends outside.” She lives ten minutes from River Cottage, and the same distance from the Lyme Regis coastline. “It’s a small hamlet, but there are lots of families,” she says. “When we were able to be in people’s gardens, we lit fires and everyone gathered together. We do have a big social life in a tiny space.”
She often enjoys wild swimming in the sea with friends, bravely venturing out year-round. In the colder months, her friend Tracy often brings hot chocolate, and Lucy loved it so much she wanted to include it in the book. “When she wrote the instructions down for me, it said, sometimes I might do this, but at other times, I do this.” She began making lots of different combinations, taking them to Tracy for her to taste. Finally, she found the right proportions of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, chilli and ginger to create the perfect cup.
During the winter, Lucy likes to bring the outside in, often gathering greenery from her garden. To create a festive atmosphere, she creates pomander balls by sticking cloves in oranges, and makes sure there is a big pile of blankets. “Then, the smell of something baking is just lovely,” she says. Her winter rituals include a long, meandering walk on Christmas Day, with a late roast lunch, followed by Christmas pudding and mince pies in the evening. “Then Boxing Day is my favourite because we eat all the leftovers.”
Below, we share two recipes from Lucy’s book, for a chocolate tiffin and ginger and honey switchel. “The tiffin was a recipe Hugh started,” Lucy says, “I really enjoyed collaborating on it with him.” The switchel is composed of water, vinegar, ginger and honey. “It’s a little unusual, but I absolutely love it.” You can watch Lucy making both in a video on our Instagram.
Hugh introduced me to this more virtuous version of a tiffin. True it still has all the joyous flavours and texture of a traditional tiffin or fridge cake but without the sugar overload. It makes an ideal mid-afternoon treat or gift, wrapped in greaseproof paper and presented in a tin. One note of caution, tiffin needs to be kept in the fridge as it will begin to melt a little at warm room temperature. This is another recipe that I make all year round and vary some of the ingredients, depending on what is in the store cupboard.
100g dried sour cherries (or dried cranberries or sultanas)
1 tbsp rumtopf liquor, cherry vodka or brandy
75g jumbo oats
50g whole hazelnuts, roughly chopped
40g sunflower seeds
35g pumpkin seeds
50g coconut oil
150g plain chocolate (at least 70% cocoa solids), broken up
2 pieces of preserved stem ginger, finely chopped, plus 1 tsp syrup from the jar
You will also need:
A shallow baking tin, about 20 x 15cm
Line your baking tin with baking paper. Turn the oven on to 200°C/ Fan 180°C/Gas 6. Put the dried cherries (or cranberries/sultanas) into a heatproof bowl with the 1 tbsp alcohol. Put the bowl in the oven as it heats up to warm the fruit, taking it out after 5 minutes so you don’t cook it!
Once the oven is up to temperature, spread the oats, hazelnuts and seeds on a baking tray and toast in the oven for 7–9 minutes, checking regularly. The oats need to be crispy and the nuts slightly browned. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.
Put the coconut oil and chocolate pieces into a saucepan over a low heat and stir occasionally as the mixture starts to melt. Remove from the heat just before the chocolate is completely melted and stir in the toasted oats, nuts and seeds (they can still be warm but not hot). Add the fruit with any boozy liquid, the chopped ginger and syrup.
Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared tin and leave to cool for a few minutes then place in the fridge. Leave until completely cold and set before cutting into squares.
Ginger & Honey Switchel
Even though I say so myself, this is a recipe I cannot stop making. I certainly don’t want to show favouritism to any dish or drink in this book but if I had to write a poem about just one it would be this beauty. A non-alcoholic refreshment, it was known as haymaker’s punch to nineteenth-century farmers, who drank it to quench thirst. A tonic of water, vinegar, ginger and honey in its basic form, it is less acidic than a shrub but more sour than a cordial. And it tastes just as good served straight up on ice as it does diluted with tonic, gin or vodka.
Makes about 600ml
50g fresh ginger, roughly peeled and thickly sliced
120ml raw pear vinegar or apple cider vinegar
1 pear, sliced (if using the pear vinegar)
You will also need:
A medium jam jar
A sterilised 1 litre airtight glass jar
Put the ginger into a saucepan, pour on 600ml water and bring to the boil. Remove from the heat and let it sit for 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, combine the honey and vinegar in a jam jar with a screw topped lid and give it a good shake to combine.
Pour this mixture into your airtight glass jar and add the ginger water. Give it all a good stir and add the sliced pear if you’re including it. Leave in the fridge for at least 24 hours (up to 48).
To decant, pass the liquid through a sieve into a jug to extract the ginger, pear and any sediment. Pour the switchel into a bottle and store in the fridge. Use within a week.
Interview by Alice Simkins.
Recipes extracted from Christmas at River Cottage, with seasonal notes and recipes from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, published by Bloomsbury.
Lead image by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall.
All other photographs by Charlotte Bland, also from Christmas at River Cottage.
Watch Lucy create the Christmas tiffin and switchel in a video on our Instagram.