I have loved the month of December ever since I can remember. An endless blue sky where white puff clouds float giving it an extra depth; smell of woodsmoke from the kitchen fire; slow awakening of the neighbourhood. And into this delightful equation, throw in end of the school year with the added bonus of approaching Christmas, and you have a very satisfied individual.
With school over by the first week and a long winter holiday on the horizon, we had the run of the house. When dusk approached, we took refuge indoors to escape from winter’s bite. Yes, our winter in Bihar in the eastern region of India was cold. Frost covered the ground at night. Sleeping under a mosquito netting is mandatory in India. I remember our mother draping a blanket on the mosquito netting to provide an extra layer of warmth for us. Homes in India, even where winter is quite cold, do not have indoor heating. Some homes have a fireplace in every room but ours didn’t. We three sisters shared a bedroom and here we had a charcoal burning brazier around which we gathered until it was time to go to bed. Our brother taught us how to roast potatoes in the warm ashes of the brazier, all done on the sly. I like to think our parents never found out.
Since the oven was a rare commodity in those days, something only the baker possessed, our mother sent in all the ingredients required to bake a dozen Christmas fruit cakes to the baker. When ready, the cakes were picked up and brought back to be stored in a box in the kitchen. I wasn’t interested in cooking or baking so regrettably don’t have the family recipe. But, was it ever good!
What I do remember is the fragrance of oranges that filled our house during this time. Those days we ate what was seasonal. Oranges did not grow in our region and were brought in from other provinces where they grew in abundance. The cost of an orange would have the built-in tariff since it was produce shipped from another province. This made the orange an expensive commodity and bought only during special occasions, Christmas being one.
I have never tasted another orange like the ones I ate as a child. I see myself sitting in the winter sunshine with an orange in my hand. We have just finished lunch and this is dessert. I peel the skin inhaling its citrusy fragrance while the juices run through my fingers. My sister and I sit side by side on the stone steps of the verandah which leads down to the courtyard. When the fruit has been eaten, we collect the peel in a bowl. Over several days a good amount of peel will be collected; we will lay them out in the sun and when dried they will go into the tea caddy. Our Darjeeling tea will get a natural orange flavour – absolutely organic.
Now, when I peel an orange, I unpack that childhood memory made more precious over the course of time.