Caerleon Remembered - Christmas Time
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Christmas time at the Tan House was always a busy time.
I remember when I was about fourteen years old...

First, John would kill the pig about a fortnight before Christmas in an open shed with a concrete floor which was by the back door. After killing it, the pig was scolded and the hair scraped off. It was then rinsed down with cold water, and a potato placed in its mouth to keep it open. Then 'all hands to the fore' to help lift and drag the pig on the bench into the back kitchen. It was then hauled up and hung on to a huge iron hook fastened to a large oak beam in the ceiling. Its innards were removed, including a large amount of fat, which was later rendered into lard. The carcass would then be left to hang for a couple of days to set.

After two days John would cut up the pig. It was lowered on to the bench again and John would cut down the middle making two sides, or flitches as they were called. He would then remove the backbone, or chines as we called them, on which there was quite a lot of meat. Then underneath the backbone he cut away a lot of lean meat, which the shops call undercut and charge the earth for. We always enjoyed supper the evening when the undercut was cooked. The flitches would then be carried into the dairy ready for salting, and were placed on a large stone slab.

John was very good at killing pigs and dressing the carcass, he was so clean and careful about cutting it up. His knives were like razors, he was quite well known amongst his farmer friends for doing a good job. He was good at other skills too taught by Grandfathers and Dad, such as castrating lambs and docking horses' tails (which is illegal today, but in the days of horse drawn vehicles their long tails became entangled with the reigns and so were docked).

Dad taught him a few veterinary skills too, such as removing warts from cattle with a secret recipe passed down the generations to the eldest son to Dad's father. And although Dad was not the eldest son, his elder brother John passed it on to him as he was not at all interested in farming and did not have a son. And so Dad passed it on to my eldest brother, John. The recipe was good and proved successful removing very large warts. Again, John was well known for providing this service.

Grandfather Davies as a blacksmith and wheelwright attended to horse aliments such as lampas, fistalow, treating horses with colic and drenching them, coldshoeing and repairing carts, which he taught to Dad and so it was passed on to John.

In the long winter evenings he was taught how to weave baskets and make walking sticks. He would search the hedges for a young hazel branch and train it by tying it to a stronger branch to grow tall and straight, long enough to make a stick. The root formed the handle which he would trim and shape. The baskets were weaved from long straight hazel wood, split into strips. They were very strong and hard wearing. He also made large skip baskets for carrying fodder to the animals.

Now, back to the salting and curing of the flitches. First a thick layer of salt was sprinkled over the stone slab. Then the rind side of the flitch was rubbed well with salt and placed on the slab, rind side down. A thick layer of salt was rubbed into the meat side, paying special attention to the ham and around the ham bone, around which salt peter was added and rubbed well in and then a sprinkle of sugar added around the bone. The other flitch was placed on top having had the same treatment, with a thick layer of salt to cover.

After two weeks the flitches were turned and changed over, and more salt added, during those weeks always keeping an eye on them, for as the salt penetrated more salt was added.
At the end of those two weeks (a month in all), the surplus salt was brushed off. The flitches were tied firmly to iron rods and taken outside and washed down with cold water to remove any salt left. They were wiped dry and taken into the kitchen and hung on hooks in the ceiling.

My parents were very good at salting, I don't remember us having any bacon turn bad, ever. When my mother began to ail and couldn't help Dad, I helped him and so learned from him.
Then there was faggot making using the pig's liver, which was quite large. Mam would use other ingredients: bread, onions, apples and herbs too, and so would be able to make three to four dozen faggots. They were lovely.

Next came the rendering of fat from the pig into lard. It was placed in a large crochon, or pot, with a handle over the top, which sat on the fire hob all day to melt slowly into lily white lard for making cakes and general cooking.

After that came steaming the puddings, using the crochon again sitting quietly on the hob all day.

Christmas Week we would be feathering the poultry, hoping the weather would be frosty to keep the poultry fresh, there no fridges around at the time.

The winters seemed much colder in those days. The mats were taken up in the living kitchen and feathering was done besides the fire. Dressing the poultry would be done in the back kitchen. Next day, Mother would insist on papering the kitchen for Christmas Day and all the brass on the wall of the chimney breast would be cleaned and polished. Fortunately the room was panelled half way, which left only half the wall to be papered.

Christmas Day after breakfast and the usual chores done, the brass spit was clamped to the mantelshelf. It was wound up with a special key which made it revolve, so many turns to the right, so many turns to the left. This would rotate the goose and cook it slowly. Underneath, a large dish was placed on top of a brass stand to catch the goose grease. John would supervise the cooking with a long handled toasting fork and a glass of Mam's home-made orange wine at the ready.

Some of the goose grease was saved for medical purposes, such as a cold on the chest. I remember as a child having a tight chest, so mother would smear the grease on brown paper and place it on my chest. If we had a sore throat or nasty cough she would put a small ball of butter in a cup, roll it in sugar and a tiny spot of vinegar and we were made to swallow it. The alternative was having to swallow a spoonful of goose grease, or a spoonful of fat when frying bacon, which always seemed to sooth the trouble.

During World War II, Stan my brother was with the Eighth Army in Italy. He became friendly with a local farmer who was elderly and suffered with his chest. Stan sent home for some of his favourite cure, goose grease, to doctor him. Mam sent him a tinful. Stan had great faith in the grease. He was always 'doctoring' himself, and would swallow it by the spoonful. We never heard whether the poor man recovered!

We would be all morning preparing vegetables etc. I can remember about twelve to fourteen sitting down to dinner which was laid in the dining room on the large table.

Auntie and Uncle Powell came for Christmas and stayed for a couple of weeks. They came for Michaelmas too, when we always had goose.

After dinner was over and the table cleared it was a route march to the kitchen, no dish washing machines about at that time! We usually finished in time to hear King George V on the radio at three o'clock. At four, Mother and Dad would go to milk the cows. Tea was laid, a waste of time as everyone had eaten a big dinner, no room left for tea, but we all enjoyed a cold meat and pickle supper. It had been a long day for the women folk.

Some years later Stan and his wife and six children came for dinner on Boxing Day. Cecil and Winnie usually joined us for Christmas Dinner plus Cecil's two boys, Terry and Martin.

Dinner was laid in the kitchen and the children served first. Auntie Powell was so taken at the sight of seven little boys all looking so innocent and cherubic, hair parted and rosy cheeked, sitting all in a row, on the bench at the table, eagerly awaiting to be served with dinner. After dinner the children went into the dining room, which they had to themselves, with plenty of fruit, nuts and sweets to romp and play at will, and have a happy time. Whilst next cleaning the room one would find nut shells everywhere. I think they had a happy time and enjoyed themselves. It was lovely to see them happy, but rather tired, as they left for home.

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Memories of Caerleon Past:

[ Brian Blythe ] [ Mary Isobel Davies ] [ Cosette Allsopp ] [ Lionel Turner ] [ Lyndon Watts ] [ Evacuee Mavis Robinson ]