Food milestones - Alexander Armstrong
The Pointless presenter, singer and popular comedian shares his festive plans and memories of '70s school dinners.
Alexander Armstrong, 47, presents Pointless on BBC One with Richard Osman. He found fame as one half of the comedy duo Armstrong and Miller (with Ben Miller). In 1996, their sketch show was nominated for a Perrier Award at Edinburgh Festival, and their TV show won the 2010 best comedy BAFTA. Alexander has released two top 10 albums, A Year of Songs and Upon a Different Shore, and has just released a Christmas album, In a Winter Light. He lives in Oxford with wife Hannah, and their four sons, Rex, 10, Paddy, eight, Edward, seven, and Henry, two.
We are having an urban Christmas for the first time in our children’s lives...
As we’ve just moved to Oxford to be closer to their school. Food, drink and music will be at the heart of it. A friend provides our turkey every year, so we know where it has come from. The food critic Giles Coren is married to my wife’s sister and is a central part of our Christmas scene. He’s in charge of bringing smoked salmon from a place in London that does fantastic lox.
We always make festive drinks.
After a few days, drinking at Christmas can be a slog, but if you keep the cocktails varied and fun, even the dog end of Boxing Day can be a party. I’m a fan of a White Lady, a gin and lemon cocktail. It traditionally includes Cointreau, but we also make it with King’s Ginger –a Ginger Lady. I’ve also made chilli sherry, which is great in cocktails. Put dried chillies into a bottle of Tio Pepe until they fill a third of the bottle – drink some of the sherry to make room for them! – then leave for a month. A tiny capful of it gives soups and casseroles a lovely warm kick .
Our guests arrive on Christmas Eve. We put on carols from King’s Cambridge, and sing along to the last few with Christmas cake and tea. Then it’s time to wrap presents, pack children off to bed early and have a jolly supper.
On Christmas Day...
We open stockings and then go to church. Of course, the boys resent having to leave the tempting pile of presents under the tree, but an hour of restraint does them good before chaos reigns in the wonderful way it always does on Christmas Day.
When I was young, our holidays were always in Northern Ireland, where my mother’s family are from.
We stayed in a cottage with no electricity or running water – it was idyllic. It’s on the Derry coast near a very dramatic cliff where they film Game of Thrones – whenever I see it on TV my heart skips a beat. We used to eat porridge for breakfast – it was a religious thing – and if you have porridge on childhood holidays, you’ll love it forever. There was a cup with the Three Bears on it that lived above the porridge pot, and the recipe we used was two cups oats to three cups water, with a bit of salt. Once cooked, we added milk and brown sugar. To this day I just can’t eat under-salted porridge: it has to be salty and sweet.
In the ’70s, when I was at school, the cooking was ropey and you had to eat it all.
I lived in utter dread of the day we had butter beans. Mr Hogan, the cook – chef is pushing it a bit – was a really angry man. He’d put a huge spoon of beans on your plate even if you said, ‘Please, not too many’. But there were happy times too: on Wednesdays we had meat pies with brown sauce. The pies came ready-made, so Mr Hogan couldn’t do anything to muck them up.
In my year off between school and university, I did an haute cuisine cookery course.
It was great because it meant I knew my way around a recipe and wasn’t scared of making anything. I love nothing more than being in a well-equipped kitchen with a stack of delicious ingredients – it’s one of my favourite ways to spend an afternoon. But I rarely cooked as a student – the institutional hot plates would take ages to heat up. Very occasionally I warmed a carton of soup.
The first meal I cooked for my wife was pasta.
I have a long list of pastas I make, which I like to think are more sophisticated than spag bol. There’s a delicious one where I cook broccoli in with the spaghetti. I make a sauce with the finely cut broccoli stems and half a jar of anchovies in oil, then I toss in roasted pine nuts, capers, garlic and chilli. It’s one of my absolute favourite things to shove down my neck.
Our 10-year-old, Rex, is a gourmand in the making.
Paddy, eight, is a bit more discerning. He doesn’t like anything he’s told he will, even things like chocolate cake. We have eight or nine dishes that we cook for the boys on rotation – things like mince served with potatoes, but never mince with potato on top like shepherd’s pie. For some reason, they don’t like it. Mince and potatoes – yum! But call it shepherd’s pie – yuk!
Breakfast is hard to top as a meal.
In 1992, I was in Virginia on tour with a choir and I had grits for the first time. They were made with chilli – it was the first time I had a hot and spicy breakfast. My brother used to live in Malaysia, and when I visited, I discovered nasi lemak, a fiery curry with nuts and little dried fish called ikan bilis. It strikes me as the most indulgent thing in the world to be have rice and curry that brings you out in a bit of a sweat for breakfast.
My last supper
This would be a homemade curry with lots of different dishes, dips and breads. Some would be fiery as hell, some nice and bland. The great thing about touring is you get to visit lots of towns for one night only, and one of the best uses of Twitter is finding a good place to eat in each one. I’ve tried all sorts of great curry places. One Keralan curry that I ate in Northampton was truly memorable.