Book Friday: Christmas at River Cottage by Lucy Brazier

River Cottage has always had a reputation for being ecologically aware, country-based and very proud of local food and customs. I know I’ve enjoyed watching the series, because the situation is about as far away from my modern, suburban house as I can imagine. I’m not a gardener, I don’t keep lifestock and I have every shop I need close at hand.

That said, the River Cottage philosophy: eat local, waste little, grow your own or be connected to the food you eat, has been one that has only grown more popular as the years have gone by. Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall has pushed for safer fishing, safer farming methods, an emphasis on seasonal crops and living closer to the land whether you have to dig your wellies out every day just to cross the yard or once a year for an annual welly walk in the local park.

I was really pleased to get my copy of Christmas at River Cottage this October. I do love recipe books (as any long time reader of Book Friday will know) but I have a real fondness for books that combine cookery with living well. I suppose they get classified as ‘lifestyle’ books, but a good one, done well, is more a ‘living well’ book. I like books that have a lot of the recipes you need, a few you hadn’t thought of and essays or chapter introductions between that give you food for deep thought.

Christmas at River Cottage is more than a recipe book, of course, but it’s nothing as easy as just a book about how to celebrate Christmas. It’s like a look inside the workings of the Cottage. When do they start Christmas? In the summer, when they start collecting the fruits of their harvests and setting aside goodies. What does Christmas mean to them? It’s a “joyous blend of celebration, seasonality, tradition and sustainability” that forms a festive climax to the year (Lucy’s words). Hugh says in his foreword that “The essence of Christmas is best expressed by bringing people together in a spirit of generosity and hospitality, and giving them just what they need to cast their cares aside and talk, laugh and eat”. Since one of Hugh’s contributions throughout the book is a recipe for a mean blackberry whisky (sic) that I am desperate to try next year, I’m guessing guests are well prepared to cast cares aside when they visit!

The book has recipes in, of course it does, but they don’t actually form the stars of the show. It’s a good balance of baking, cooking, crafting and explaining how River Cottage and Lucy herself celebrate. There are sections on choosing native foliage, making wreaths, card making, present wrapping and natural crafts. I’m especially struck by one simple idea: a twig trivet that Lucy made after being inspired by one she saw in an off-grid cottage where she goes for breaks. It’s environmentally friendly, easy to source and make, and practical. What’s not to like?

The recipes themselves are not pretentious, but useful. Of course, they emphasis local produce, seasonal vegetables, hearty food. The book is organised into chapters called Planning Ahead, Decking the Halls, Advent, Feeding a Crowd, Christmas Day and Closing the Year and each chapter has a blend of explanation, crafts and recipes but the demarcation between recipes is beautifully jumbled. In other words, in the planning ahead section you get alcoholic recipes suitable to give as presents, such as cherry vodka or creme de cassis, but sloe gin appears in the Decking the Halls chapter. The baked ham recipe features in the Advent chapter, but other large meat dishes are in Christmas Day or Closing the Year. I quite like the fact it’s a jumble: it’s so much less clinical than dividing everything strictly by ingredients, but I could imagine in a hurry you would either need to know the book extremely well to know where the recipe you want is, or be content to flick through and risk being derailed by an interesting sidenote.

The book oozes hygge throughout: of course, River Cottage preach a very hyggely lifestyle with simple food, friends and family, a focus on natural and always, always an emphasis on comfort and relaxation. The shots of crafts, food etc are as hyggely as they can be. Sink into this illustration for the Mulled Wine recipe and tell me your toes aren’t defrosting at the very thought…

And, of course, the emphasis on nature and the natural world is hyggely as well. You need to feel the cool of winter to appreciate the warmth of a proper fire. The book has suggestions for eating outside and, at the very least, spending time outside at this time of year. I love taking a walk on New Year’s Day as a way to start the year right, so I was please to see that as part of the advice offered.

I’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg on the book so far: having flicked through it, read it properly once and refreshed my reading for writing the review, I am beginning to know where my favourite parts are and which recipes I will be trying. I love that it is so tied in to the whole season of Christmas, from Autumn harvests to Twelfth Night. And the personal anecdotes that Lucy and Hugh share add to the comfortable feeling you get when reading. From summer’s Rumtopf of fruits, through the rice pudding of Christmas Eve to the Twelfth Night cake and tidying the season away, this is a book to savour again and again.

Sadly no flipthrough of the book this week… time ran away from me, as it so often does at work, but the header is a shot of the book along with my desk decorations. They’re not out yet, but I will be putting them out properly in early December. I’m wondering about a jug of red berries instead, though.. or ivy from the garden, or holly or snowberries….

How to Hygge the British Way is my gift to the world. I don’t get paid for writing it, I’m not in it for the kudos, financial rewards, to become an influencer, work with brands or otherwise make any money from the blog. That’s why there are no ads, and any products I mention and recommend have either been gifted to me or bought by me with my everyday wages or donations from supporters. Every book I review has been bought and read by me, unless stated otherwise.

I do get a couple of pennies each time someone buys from the Amazon links on my page, as an Amazon Affiliate, but otherwise if you’d like to support me, I like to give something back in return. That’s why I write books. It always feels good if you get a book back in return for some money. You can find a full list of my books at my Author’s Page on Amazon, but especially recommended for this time of year are:

Cosy Happy Hygge: Setting up a rhythm to life and rituals to enjoy it to make for a more balanced life that handles waves and storms better. It has daily, weekly and monthly ideas for ways to craft a life that supports you in living happier.

Happier: Probably my most personal book, it’s the story of how I used hygge and the little things in life to help boost my happiness. I still go back and reread to remind myself what I need to do to be a happy human.

And how to Have Yourself a Happy Hygge Christmas? Christmas is about the small things in life, much as hygge is, and establishing what you want from Christmas and then being able to say no to the excess is important. The book has hints and tips that hopefully will help you enjoy what is, too often, a frantic season.

Available as just an ebook, and a short, sharp read, is Enjoying a Self-Care Christmas: Easy Ways to keep the Joy of Christmas, and your Sanity, intact. It’s an easy read, with ideas and hints to keep you sane through the season. The self-care advent calendar is one I’ve followed for a few years now, and it really is a small daily dose of calm in a manic month.

And on the basis that we may well find ourselves in Lockdowns or unable to enjoy an absolutely normal Christmas under Covid regulations if numbers spike, why not read and plan alternatives? Celebrating a Contagious Christmas was written in response to the pandemic last year, and will need updating soon, but it is about celebrating whatever the situation, and does have good advice on stocking up an emergency cupboard, celebrating when travelling to relatives is impossible and putting the heart of Christmas back into the heart of the celebrations.

If you’d like to support me, but don’t want to buy a book, I have a Paypal.Me account as Hygge Jem. Every little helps, so even a few pence goes towards the books, goods and courses I use and recommend on the site. I’m grateful for every little bit that brings me closer to my dream of full-time writing, and I know I couldn’t still be writing if it weren’t for the support of many readers and friends out there. Thank you all for every little bit of support, emotional, physical and financial, you give me.

If you’ve enjoyed this article, don’t forget to share it or save it so others can enjoy reading, thinking about and living hygge as well.

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