While most of us will be readying ourselves for the tried and tested turkey/ham/spuds Christmas Day combination, there are now more alternatives available in Galway than ever before. Our markets – both the St Nicholas' weekly market and the 'Christkindlmarkt' in Eyre Square – our restaurants and food emporiums now offer a broad array of options for those of us not brimming over with joie de vivre at the prospect of a week of heavy duty turkey consumption.
The post-Christmas binge usually leaves me in a weakened state, and full of trepidation at the mere sight of a Brussels sprout, or the prospect of yet another reconstituted turkey creation. Let's hope that the days of the 20lb turkey are behind us, and that people show a modicum of self restraint when it comes time to place the order, either because of the current economic Armageddon, or a general malaise at the excesses of Christmas. Or, indeed, some combination of both.
Galway is now thoroughly cosmopolitan, and people from all corners of the globe bring a plethora of culinary traditions. This becomes particularly evident at Christmas, with the juxtaposition of their customs and our own. A Polish colleague once told me how her mother would have a live carp swimming in the bath for several days, growing fat for one of the 12 meatless dishes that they enjoy on Christmas Eve; my Catalan flatmate would have chicken stuffed with prunes and dried apricots on Christmas Day, and leftovers fashioned into cannelloni on Stephen's Day; and a German friend regaled me with tales of his eel-based dinner, leaving me squirming, and very glad to be Irish. While fish may not be as popular here as it is in Continental Europe, we are getting more adventurous: Gannet's fishmongers will be producing Christmas recipes for roast monkfish, stuffed sea bass, and squid dishes, while crab and smoked salmon remain popular starters. The availability of fresh alternatives, either for vegetarians, or those looking for a change, brings a richness to our culinary tradition that we should embrace.
Da Tang Noodle House will be open on Christmas Day, if you would prefer a menu of lamb, duck and dumplings, instead of turkey, ham and plum pudding. They offer two menus priced €19.50 and €24.95 (www.datangnoodlehouse.com ). While most of us will be having a traditional dinner, there is something comforting in the notion that there are alternatives to be had, and if you don't care for cooking up a storm on Christmas Day – or if something goes horribly wrong – there is an alternative to the dry, carvery-style turkey available. Most people will be thoroughly sick of turkey come day three, and look forward to, if not something completely different, at least a variation on the theme, in the form of a turkey curry, pie, hotpot, or risotto.
It's not always practical to follow the way of the celebrity chef, or even advisable to try. This year Heston Blumenthal's £13.99 Waitrose Christmas puddings, which sold out in minutes, can be purchased on e-Bay for the bargain price of £250, and his foie gras and mandarin jelly canapés (which require at least two days for preparation, and all the precision of an aerospace engineer ) might be more than most people are willing to commit time, money and effort for the sake of a bite-sized hors d'oeuvre. Jamie Oliver's alternative Christmas offering is a belt-bursting synthesis of turkey, duck, pork, rib of beef, potatoes and stuffing. Those without an industrial sized oven, and a herd of commis chefs on hand might be hard pressed to replicate this at home. However, it is possible to aspire to gourmet-like heights without having to remortgage the house, or spend the lead up to Christmas Day peeling, chopping, puréeing, and sautéing. Less common vegetables such as celeriac, asparagus, artichokes, and the wide array of squashes, as well as cured meats, and fresh fish are now a common sight around Galway, as well as on cookery programmes. We can, if so inclined, attempt our own gourmet masterpiece, rename our sauce a 'jus,' and incorporate some of these elements into our own traditions.
Some people will stick to the straightforward dinner but opt for more adventurous starter and dessert options. The humble cupcake is undergoing a resurgence, being presented as a quirky, modern alternative to a Christmas, or even a wedding cake, and with continental traditional biscuits and sweet breads, like Panettone, widely available in the market and from retailers such as McCambridge's, we are spoiled for choice, and far from limited to the marzipan-covered Christmas cake with plastic Santa and accoutrements, or brandy-soaked pudding. For those who would rather not spend precious time baking when they should be basting, there are plenty of dessert options: The Foods of Athenry – who have a stall in the Eyre Square market – offer Christmas cakes for every dietary requirement, starting at €10, and their Blas award winning puddings, ranging from €7 to €25, as well as a vast array of muffins, pies, cakes and breads; Sweetie Pies on Middle Street, an ideal place for an elegant, post-shopping afternoon tea, have wares that look almost too good to eat. McCambridge's also sell cakes and pastries from Goya's of Kirwan's Lane, and cupcakes from Galway Cupcakery, a company based in Moycullen, where you can get six standard sized cupcakes for €9.99, or 12 for €18 (they also have a stall in the Eyre Square market, or you can order online from www.cupcakesonline.ie ).
Then there's the cheese. Sheridan's stock plenty of cheeses from Ireland and beyond, with one of the most popular being Killeen goat's cheese, produced just outside Portumna, east Galway. The goat's cheese is made of milk from Killeen Farmhouse Cheese's own herd, and there is also a cow's milk variety made from locally sourced milk. Sheridan's also stock wines, pastas, cured meats, free range bacon products from McCarthy's of Kanturk, and every kind of cheese accompaniment one could wish for. Their staff are well versed in their cheeses, and will recommend something delicious if you find yourself unable to decide.
While cheese or cupcakes might not be to everyone's taste, there are many other, more traditional options, and many local businesses who produce high quality products for very reasonable prices. None but the most adventurous will even attempt to replicate the weird and wonderful creations of the likes of Heston Blumenthal, and most people, I imagine, could easily find a more practical way to spend £250 than on one of his Christmas puddings, yet, there is no need to revert to the maudlin depression of yore, and settle for a pig's head for Christmas dinner, as in Angela's Ashes, with a sod of turf for afters. We should rejoice that we live in a city crammed with great butchers, vegetable shops, bakeries and markets; where we can buy cheese produced down the road, or handmade cakes and breads from a local business. Last week in this paper's Letters page a reader suggested people pick a three or four local businesses that they would like to see survive the recession, and then spend €50 a month in each. While not everyone can afford that at the moment, our economic woes do not negate the fact that we can, and should, all shop more responsibly, and take full advantage of the myriad products, markets and suppliers that operate on our doorstep.