I was Santa Claus once. Not in a dream, but in central Milton Keynes Shopping Centre, winter of 1986. My sister Sam worked the grotto as an elf, which was by far the better deal because you didn’t get paid any extra as a Santa and it was bloody sweaty work. It was also oddly traumatic – I was quite intimidated at the idea of wearing an old fella’s beard, and on top of that I’m only 98% sure that Santa doesn’t exist, so I felt very much the impostor. I countered the discomfort by throwing myself into the role with vulgar enthusiasm, so if you were a child living in Milton Keynes around then and had a scarred childhood due to my inept roaring of ‘Ho-ho-ho’ plus my cross-my-heart promise that you’d get everything you asked for on Christmas Day, I can only apologize. I was only 19 – how was I supposed to manage infant expectations?
Anyhow, last year, I managed to achieve a kind of closure with Santa. I was very privileged to go to Lapland to meet Sami herdsmen and discover what Father Christmas really ate for Christmas lunch. It was, of course, Rudolph – or at least one of his friends – and it was absolutely delicious.
This dish is called malis in Sami, and should you find yourself in possession of any reasonable amount of reindeer, this is the only way to do it justice. At first glance it may sound a little boring – the only ingredients are water, salt and lots of bits of reindeer. But have faith: something magical happens in the pot, as befits a creature that comes pre-loaded with the hopes and dreams of a billion children. I can only describe the taste as deeply luxurious – rich and really fatty. The nearest comparison is with mutton, but that description alone could never do it justice. You eat the delicious, gelatinous broth alongside the meat, in a pot-au-feu style.
Reindeer stew is best eaten at -30°C sitting on a bed of reindeer skins in a tepee. Whatever you do, don’t eat the tip of the tongue as this, apparently, makes you lie. Incidentally, reindeer are sensitively farmed and utterly free-range due to their migratory needs. Smoked reindeer heart is a great delicacy in Swedish Lapland, and the skins (collected with sound ethics as a meat by-product) are glorious. I’ve managed to convince the nice people at Renprodukter in northern Sweden to sell them to me mail order over the phone.
2L Spring water
20g (about a level tablespoon) Salt
4 x Reindeer ribs
1 reindeer tongue
4 x Reindeer saddle chops
4 x Reindeer shinbones
Flat bread – you can get some good stuff from Ikea
Grated reindeer liver (optional)
Put your water, salt and reindeer ribs in a saucepan and heat slowly. Bring to the boil and simmer for 30 minutes, making sure that the meat is always just covered by water (top up if necessary), then add the tongue and saddle. Simmer for another 30 minutes, then add the shinbones, Simmer for another 15 minutes and turn the heat off. Do not discard the broth – this is an essential part of the meal.
Carefully crack the cooked shinbones with a tough knife to extract the bone marrow. Eat this on some flatbread and alternate each mouthful with a sip of the broth. Then get stuck into the rest of the meat, bread and broth.
Sigur Ros – unfathomably strange yet breathtakingly beautiful music from Reykjavik (it’s not in Lapland, I know, but it’s the best music to listen to when you’re there). Try Agaetis Byrjun or the album entitled () [sic].
Ó Stefan Gates 2005