Are you hoping for a kindler, gentler holiday season this year? Something that feels good AND looks good, no matter the temperature, and goes great with last year’s haircut? Trade the flashing lights for glimmering candles, and the plastic packaging for home-spun, hand-made gifts.
While commercial messages may insist that season’s greetings are only available through manic mall spending, in fact our wilder places (and even our own backyards) provide plenty of inspiration for those who trouble to look. Coupled with local food and drink, woodsy treasures can set a scene that is both timeless and very, very central Virginia. Here’s your guide to homespun holiday cooking, decorating and gifts.
Decking the halls
When imagining holiday decorations, do yourself a favor by clearing some surfaces and stashing a few things away for the holidays—suddenly your home may look like a stylish photo shoot with no more effort than throwing some pears on a wooden platter. Clear space on the refrigerator for displaying holiday cards that arrive in the mail, or homemade holiday mantras (“Out with the old, in with the new”? “All we need is love”?).
A wreath on the door is an obvious symbol of hospitality and cheer (and painstaking spotlighting!); for the folks in house, consider decking the inside of an oft-used door with a fragrant wreath like cedar, bay laurel, white pine, or any green interspersed with dried herbs and bells. Each time the door is opened, your room will be blessed with a waft of olfactory and auditory cheer.
To get started on a foraged arrangement, take your favorite companion for a walk in the woods, and bring gloves, clippers, a thermos of something warm, and some bags or baskets for your booty. Keep your eyes open for treasure as you walk! Early winter is wonderful for admiring the texture and silhouettes of trees; look up for orange persimmons, hanging on bare branches like Christmas decorations and just getting sweet enough to eat.
Look for cedar, bay laurel, white pine, and juniper if you aspire to deck your own halls with homemade wreaths or swags (more about this on our Your Garden page); collect acorns, pinecones, feathers, Osage orange, black walnut, deer antlers, and anything else that lights your fancy. Watch where the squirrels go; they are foraging for bright red, succulent berries that are ripe this time of year, like holly, dogwood and magnolia.
Consider making each arrangement portable; that is, easy to pick up and relocate in case cookiemaking takes more of the table than you imagined. In a larger space (like a table) big baskets, oversized bowls, or a diagonally sliced piece of wood from the back
Go outside and see what you can find to dress
forty can sit atop odd napkins and among garish ornaments. Smaller spaces will be brightened by several bowls or small baskets of nuts and citrus, which can be moved and used to tie together place settings, party favors, menus and mantle dressings.
Begin with a container to fill and find the best spot for it—perhaps a side table, coffee table, dining room table, or even a trunk or wooden wine box. Use a holiday-flavored cloth or bag (or tissue paper) underneath the vessel—and don’t worry if it looks awkward at first! Think of it like dressing for cold weather: This is a base layer and there is plenty of room to accessorize.
First, select your largest (or favorite) foraged or food object, like Osage orange (or large pinecones, pomegranates, blushing grapefruits) and pile them in the middle of your vessel. When you feel good about the base shape, wind some ribbon in and around the pile (or even a string of small lights—make certain they’ll reach an outlet!). Leave plenty of extra material hanging out on each side to “tighten up” later.
Next, choose something slightly smaller and in a contrasting color, like pinecones (or pears, apples, magnolia seedpods, or even smaller citrus like lemons and limes); strew these jewels about the larger pile and around the base of the vessel. If kitsch is your thing, mix in ornaments from the ‘70s, gaudy glistening stars, overstock shot glasses, and other holiday bric a brac.
Finally, use a combination of greenery (pine boughs with cones, magnolia leaves, ivy) to frame the base of the pile and to soften the area around and underneath it, perhaps even twining some through the arrangement. At this point, you either have an inspired seasonal centerpiece or a steaming behemoth—either way, press on and add some feathers, votives and glitter. Another option: Line the outermost layer with edible items, such as nuts, clementines, and candy—but don’t be surprised if a guest starts nibbling a pinecone.
Wick and flame
Light a candle while you are cooking, or cleaning, or wrapping presents. Candles say the party has already started, and also provide soothing light and a warm holiday feeling. Encased in glass, candles are perfect for portable atmosphere—now in the bathroom, now in the guestroom, now in the garage when the lights go out. By grouping candles on plates or trays, you can easily move them and clean up the drippings. For single candles, line a small plate or saucer or wine glass with homemade snowflakes—tin foil will magnify the light, while wax paper will be more soothing.
Good enough to eat
Let’s face it: The best eating of the year happens around the holidays. If food is an inspiration to you, consider using it as a centerpiece and a theme in and of itself. There are edible items that can be displayed on and around your table; their cunning shapes and the natural variety in color and texture provide a palette of edible, sustainable decorations and party favors. Consider nuts, apples, pears, pomegranates, citrus, herbs and nuts to be the multi-tool of your holiday season, serving as snacks, party favors, and decorations.
In sourcing your wintertime citrus (and other exotics like tea, coffee and oil) check out Local Harvest (localharvest.org)—it’s also a great resource for buying food gifts for loved ones far away. For locally relevant durable goods gifts (like clothing and housewares) check out Charlottesville’s own Locallectual (locallectual.com).
Piedmont party platter
Bagna Cauda (or “Hot Bath”) is a Piedmontese party event that coincides with the end of the grape harvest and the advent of the strongly flavored fall vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower, fennel, cabbage, and turnips. Bagna Cauda is served as finger food, and is best appreciated by a lively, hungry group that doesn’t mind standing around the table. For a twist, set up multiple bagna cauda stations throughout your party pad, and watch as mingling magically happens. One could even ask guests to bring something to contribute to the feast—any vegetable or bread that goes well with garlicky anchovy vinaigrette. Thanks to a long, mild autumn this year, many of these items are still available from local farms, so get on the phone and see if you can find them.
Sweets on display
If yours is a cookie and dessert home, put the goodies on display so as to encourage people to take one or two for the road (casual droppers-by, the mail carrier, carolers…). If temptation is a problem for your children, lift the plate up and out of their sightline to save them from the holiday haze of ribbon candy, iced snowmen, and Russian tea cakes.
Over the river and through the woods
When invited to wassail at someone else’s home, consider extending your earthy holiday spirit to their celebration by offering to bring a local spin on a holiday classic, like eggnog (see recipe) or a plate of perfectly poached apples with whipped cream. While many hosts will deflect your offer, letting them know that you are willing AND able to whip the cream by hand on site (!) may just raised an eyebrow and some interest. If the eggnog seems like too much (and believe it, it really is!) choose locally made Starr Hill or Blue Mountain brews or a fine Virginia wine.
Truly local gifts
If you want to give a gift that outlasts December and looks toward greener times, consider a CSA subscription, which will usually cost around $500 and last from May until October (buylocalvirginia.org). Usually there is an option to split the share amongst two households, giving you a great excuse to collaborate with your friends on a weekly basis. This is a gift that requires participation, enthusiasm, and cookery, but pays dividends in nutrition and community.
What to get the all-knowing foodie? Feast! in the Main Street Market (feast virginia.com)
Bagna Cauda is a Piedmontese tradition that welcomes in cool-weather begies and encourages your guests to munch and mingle.
offers a package called the “Year of Cheese,” which delivers a monthly dose of local, domestic and international artisanal cheeses and a complementary local seasonal item (think Mozzarella di Bufala with local heirloom tomatoes in August).
Or, give the always-welcome gift of spring. To force a bulb to bloom in the winter, it must be convinced that it is springtime; the tuber must have been chilled for two to three months and then gradually awakened in the right environment to put on a show for the holidays. Most garden centers will have “pre-chilled” bulbs on hand; let them know that you want to “force” it for the holidays and then ask for instructions. In general, plant the bulbs in a crowded, shallow manner for the best display, then start them at your house in a warm and partly sunny space where you can keep the soil moist. If this is a gift item, consider writing or printing a card with care instructions (including storing and “forcing” the bulb again the following year) along with a wish or quote that you would like to propagate in the coming year.
Local, step by step
Hot Apple Cider Room Perfume
1 gallon local apple cider
2 cinnamon sticks, broken into pieces
a few cloves or cardamom pods
a few gratings of citrus zest (grapefruit, tangerine, Clementine, and/or orange)
Place all ingredients in a heavy bottomed pot on low heat. Bring gently to a simmer (making your home smell delicious!) but not above; the object is not to cook the cider, but to infuse it with the aromatics and to perfume your home. The cider can be served warm or strained and stored in the refrigerator for drinking, hot or cold, or for mixing into other drinks.
Any combination of:
broccoli, cauliflower (cut into bite-sized pieces)
fennel (shaved raw on a grater or mandoline)
cabbage (torn into chip-sized pieces, each with a bit of stalk to provide rigidity)
radishes (served whole, or cut in half)
turnips (served raw if small, or boiled in salt water until slightly tender, then sliced into 1" wedges)
potatoes, sweet potatoes (boiled in salt water until slightly tender, then sliced into 1" wedges)
For the “hot bath”:
Mince 4 cloves of garlic and cook them lightly in 1 1/2 cups of olive oil—do not let them brown. Add 12 minced anchovies (drained and rinsed, but reserve the oil in case you’d like more fish flavor at the end) and cook on low heat until the anchovies begin to dissolve. Taste a bit of the mixture to determine if you want more salt, or some anchovy oil. Finally, add 3 Tbs. butter and serve the dip over a low flame to keep it warm. Surround the Bagna Cauda with prepared vegetables and crusty bread like ciabatta. Optional garnish: lemon wedges around the vegetables, in case a squirt is wanted.
Poached Apples (or Pears)
1 bottle sweet wine, like Gabriele Rausse’s Maquillage
cranberry juice and apple cider to cover apples
12 apples (Virginia Gold or Albemarle Pippin would be perfect)
Peel apples using a sharp paring knife; then core apples from the bottom, leaving the stems intact (or all the way through using a corer). Drop apples into a non-reactive pot along with wine and enough cranberry juice and cider to just make the fruit float. Add a few teaspoons of brown sugar and/or honey, along with “infusion” spices like cardamom, black pepper and star anise. Cook at a simmer until fruit slides right off of a sharp paring knife (about 30 minutes); take pot off of heat and let the apples cool in the poaching liquid (apples can be stored in the poaching liquid for up to 5 days). To serve, use a slotted spoon to pull out each apple and place it on a platter; ladle out a cup of poaching liquid and reduce it until it thickens, then taste and adjust for seasoning (may need more sugar, or more acidity in the form of lemon juice or sharp white wine) before drizzling atop the reclining beauties.
The Real Eggnog (with local eggs and whiskey!)
12 eggs, separated yolk from white
1/2 cup sugar
1 qt. whole milk
1 qt. heavy cream
Three days before serving, beat yolks with sugar until thick and lemon colored. Beat heavy cream until thick but pourable. Stir both into up to 7 cups of any ratio of bourbon, white rum and brandy (this is a great chance to try Laird’s Apple Jack and Apple Brandy, distilled right in North Garden!). Stir together. Beat egg whites until almost firm; fold whites gently into yolk/cream/booze mixture, then pour into lidded glass jars to season in the refrigerator along with a broken cinnamon stick and broken nutmeg and a bit of citrus zest in each container. Taste before serving; it make be wise to add a bit of vanilla, more milk, or some honey to balance the taste. Shake the large jar (or use a cocktail shaker to make frothy, individual concoctions) and garnish with fresh nutmeg.
Alternate: As you prepare the above, mix half the quantity of booze with just one half of the ingredients; on the day of serving, use the unspiked half as breakfast, to pacify children, and to even out the boozy portion.