Keep The Home Fires Burning

by Sandra Harris Ramini


Happy Christmas!

I’m told that I might offend some of my readers by using Christmas to describe this fabulous festive time. I simply don’t believe it. Here in Britain we couldn’t be more multi-cultural or diverse if we tried, yet with remarkable tolerance and good sense not one of our many diverse communities makes a fuss. Everyone understands that Father Christmas is not about religion, he’s about tradition. In fact, Christmas puddings mince pies (not meat, but sweet fruit in gooey sauce) holly, ivy, robins, mistletoe and all the rest of it is Britain at its most traditional. Isn’t that why millions of visitors pour into these islands every year?  Because no one does tradition quite like us?

The picture at the top of this column says it all. Holkham Hall is a stately home, an 18th century mansion in Norfolk, just a couple of hours up the motorway from our house. It’s still lived in and enjoyed by the Coke family, heirs of the Earl of Leicester and each year the whole house celebrates a proper traditional Christmas with every trimming you could imagine. Over 3000 tree decorations, a real fairy, reading stories, in a room full of fairies, crystal chandeliers dripping with glass baubles, a unicorn, a mad tea-party with tea cups suspended from the ceiling, hundreds of gingerbread men, Christmas trees in every room and ‘genuine’ Victorians in full costume, many from the nearby town of Wells-Next-The-Sea, drifting about adding atmosphere.

Just wandering around Holkham Hall, experiencing exactly how much the British cherish Christmas convinced me, with travel in my DNA, that it was time to keep the home fires burning this year.  It’s all just too seductive to go anywhere else.

What’s more, other London home exchangers agree with me.

Take Mark and Louise who are practically neighbours, just up the hill and around the corner in Highgate. They’ve got a gorgeous, Victorian house that home exchangers love to discover.  But this year, Mark and Louise, along with their three sons, Daniel, Gabriel and Rufus have turned down villas in Spain and beach houses in Florida. Highgate High Street, lined with Georgian houses and Dickensian shop fronts is the place for them. The village is not much more than that. A High street, plus a traditional square and a whole lot of lanes and alleyways winding their way behind. But just scatter a little snow around, add a few coloured lights, place a clutch of carol singers on a corner and it’s everyone’s dream of the perfect Christmas.  Mark, who’s a songwriter, has even written a song about it, starring friends and family. He’s called it ‘Christmas cake’ and it’s set in a cake shop window with everyone looking as if they’re made of marzipan. I enquire if he always gets caught up like this is the spirit of Christmas. “Of course,” says Mark. “It’s tradition.”

Tradition brings the pantomime, a form of theatre that exists nowhere else in the world, with the leading figure, the Dame played by a man in drag, preferably a known straight man, while the principal boy, in fishnet tights and high heels is a woman. And they wonder why the English are a trifle confused about their sex lives!

Tradition has us making our Christmas puddings weeks in advance and only revealing our recipes, in urgent whispers to true and trusted friends.

Tradition has also always dictated that the Christmas cake has to be dark brown and stuffed with dried fruits and brandy. Hmmmm. I’ve never actually liked it, and nor has my family.  Why not, we all thought, try something else? My favourite chef, Australian Chris Honor, who has opened ‘Chriskitch’, the best local café/restaurant in the area came up with an idea for me. “Christmas colours”, he said, “are red, white and green, so why not a red, white and green Christmas cake?”

We cooked a Red Velvet cake, which was mesmerisingly delicious. As you might guess I can be pretty guarded about special recipes, but in the spirit of Christmas and good will towards all men (and women) I shall include Chris’s Red Velvet Christmas Cake recipe for all my readers to try. I have never made a more exotic cake in my life. Deep red with creamy white cheese frosting with a scattering of icing sugar and a great red and green poinsettia flower in the middle.

As I sit here now, in front of my fire, sipping a mulled wine I am overcome with Christmas spirit and will include the pudding recipe as well.  It’s been in the family for 50 years.  How’s that for tradition?

Happy, happy Christmas and festive season.  May your God go with you all.

Sandra’s Tips


If not for this Christmas, for another great holiday:

ID 41978, Sandra’s 5 bedroom, 2 bathroom Edwardian style home in Muswell Hill, London.

ID 218095, Mark and Louise’s Victorian 4 bedroom, 2-bathroom home in Highgate, London.

Holkham Hall



Sandra’s Sister’s Christmas Pudding

  • 500 g (2 cups) mixed dried fruit (sultanas, raisins, candied peel, cherries, etc)
  • 250 – 300 g (1 – 1⅓ cup) dates
  • 125 g (½ cup) butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar (firmly packed)
  • 3 eggs
  • 1½ cups of stale white breadcrumbs
  • 1 juicy green apple, not too sweet (the secret!)
  • 1 cup self-raising flour
  • ⅓ cup of brandy
  1. Chop all the fruit together and put in a large mixing bowl
  2. Melt butter, add to fruit with sugar and eggs and mix well
  3. Stir in breadcrumbs and peeled and grated apple.
  4. Add sifted flour (with pinch of salt) and brandy.
  5. Put in a large, well greased pudding basin (about 4 pints or 10 cups capacity)
  6. Cover the basin with foil or baking parchment and keep it tight with either string or a rubber band.
  7. Boil or steam for four hours. Boil or steam for another 2 hours on the day of serving.
  8. Present your pudding to the table with a sprig of holly. Wait for it to be admired.
  9. Remove the holly; pour over a couple of tablespoons full of warmed brandy. Set it alight and wait for it to be admired yet again.
  10. Serve with custard or cream or both and brandy butter on the side. Come back for more about an hour later.

Red Velvet Christmas Cake

  • 2 cups of flour
  • 70 g (⅓ cup) cocoa
  • 2 tsp bi-carb (baking soda)
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 1½ cup of sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup full fat (whole) milk
  • 50 g (¼ cup) cooked beetroot
  • 100 ml good balsamic
  • 125 ml olive oil
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  1. Heat oven 180C (350F), line a 20cm spring form pan with baking paper
  2. Add flour, cocoa, baking, bicarb soda, sugar  and mix
  3. In a food prover mix beetroot and balsamic
  4. Add eggs and oil to the dry flour mix, fold until combined. Fold in beetroot and balsamic mix.
  5. Put in tin and cook for about 30 -40 mins

Note: some ingredients are listed in “g” for “grams.” We have provided approximate conversions, in parentheses. 

About the author

Sandra has been a freelance broadcaster, journalist and writer all her working life. She has reported on TV for Thames Television, London, presented on radio for the British Broadcasting Corporation and has written for The Sunday Times, You Magazine, Punch, Times 2, She Magazine and High Life where she became commissioning editor. Later she became editor of Business Life and created the highly successful sister magazine to High Life for British Airways Club World and Frequent Flyers. She became an enthusiastic home exchanger after writing an article about it for the British national daily newspaper, The Guardian when she interviewed Ed Kushins, the founder of Since then she has traveled to Rome, Sicily, California, Melbourne, Perth, Morocco and Venice, writing about her adventures not only for various glossy magazines, but for Sandra has been married to Jafar Ramini for 40 years and has three adult children and four grandchildren.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *