We meet three expat foodies keen to reinterpret the traditional Christmas dinner this December
At Christmas, there’s no place like home.
Food stylist Jette Verdi is a newly arrived Singapore resident. “My fiancé, baby and I moved to the city in April this year because we needed a change. Tom had been in Dublin for 12 years, I had been there for almost five and, what with the crazy house prices and childcare costs, it just didn’t make any financial sense for us to stay anymore – which to be honest, we’re really sad about. However, being in Singapore means we’re now closer to Tom’s family in New Zealand – which is a lovely upside to the move.”
Verdi earned a reputation as one of the most talented and sought-after food stylists in Dublin, and worked successfully as a creative director and photographer. Those with an interest in Instagram should be warned that visiting Verdi’s account will almost certainly lead to hunger pangs. She’s in the middle of launching her latest venture ilo (@ilo.women) in March next year, too. Her day-to-day diet has changed massively over the last few months, because of her relocation.
“I’ve gone back to being vegan-ish. Good-quality meat and fish is expensive here and veggies are so cheap in the market that it just doesn’t make sense for us not to embrace vegetable and plant-based dishes. Our apartment doesn’t have an oven, which is very common here, so we can only prepare food that is fresh or made on the hob, so that’s brought its own challenges and triumphs.”
When it comes to cuisine inspiration, Singapore’s veritable melting pot offers tons of interesting flavours and tastes to experiment with. “We have the best Indian food here, which is vegetarian and costs around $5 per person. It’s incredible! We also have this incredible bakery called Firebake two blocks from our apartment and they do a morning set which is very typical in Singapore – two boiled eggs, soft, and two milk buns. You scoop out the eggs, add salt and chilli, then dip the milk buns in, all downed with a kopi (a coffee with condensed milk). Delicious and dangerous!”
Though she reckons they’ll spend this Christmas in situ, Verdi plans to embrace the festive feast in her own way. “I can’t wait to experiment with tropical fruit. I’m a sucker for a good mango alongside soursop, and I love watermelon and chocolate ice lollies, infusing some cocktails with pomegranate (I have a great recipe for a gin and tonic with pomegranate), and then maybe some homemade ice cream.”
As for her top festive styling tips, Verdi says to keep it simple. “Stick to two colours when decorating a table setting. I love using natural greens and herbs instead of flowers. It also gives a beautiful smell.” Though Verdi and family are excited to experience the festive season somewhere entirely new, it seems you can’t shake those Christmas traditions, no matter where life takes you. “I just found a Marks & Spencer around the corner, so it may not be so exotic here after all. I’m planning a mince pie fest!”
On the borders of Co Cork and Limerick, author, founder of Lens and Larder and farmette.ie, Imen McDonnell is remembering her favourite festive memories growing up as a kid in Wisconsin.
“Stringing popcorn together for a tree garland, decorating cut-out sugar Christmas cookies with icing and decorations, homemade eggnog, my grandmother’s turkey herb stuffing made with giblets and a sort of white pudding combination . . .” Though last year McDonnell and her family hosted a houseful of Americans which, she says, was absolutely joyous, they haven’t yet solidified plans for this Christmas.
“I’d love to be in a warmer climate and feast on seafood on a beach. I’ve never travelled away for Christmas, but it’s on my list. If we are here, I’ll be cooking a traditional Irish Christmas dinner for our extended family and will enjoy every second of it. I just wrapped a food photo shoot for Garrett’s Craft Butchers in Limerick and one of the items was an amazing turkey fillet wrapped in bacon rashers and it was so delicious that I might consider forgoing the big stuffed turkey and roasting a fillet this year! Would that be sacrilegious?”
Having upped-sticks and moved to the mid-west after she met her now-husband, McDonnell’s American and Irish foodie inclinations have been blended over time into a cooking style all her own. Her Irish take on cranberry sauce is a perfect combination of both sides of the Atlantic – “My secret is I use fresh Irish cranberries from Offaly.” Eggnog is one of her essential festive libations, (made with smoky Connemara whiskey instead of rum), though she’s yet to be convinced of the delights of spiced beef – “It reminds me more of a New York pastrami deli sandwich than a Christmassy delight.”
As for Thanksgiving, she’s always sure to import some Libby’s Tinned Pumpkin to Ireland from her summer visits to the USA so that she can make pie for the November holiday. When it comes to executing Christmas dinner expertly, especially when preparing food for a troupe of guests, McDonnell says the only way to succeed is to divide and conquer.
“My lovely sister- in-law [Rosanne McDonnell of Art Summit Ireland] and I split up the Christmas duties – I cook the meal and she hosts. It works out perfectly. It’s all about proportions.”
Nathalie Márquez Courtney
Nathalie Márquez Courtney has had a whirlwind 12 months. Having lost her rented home with husband Ben about this time last year, the couple decided to take the opportunity to immerse themselves in an entirely new life, in another city. They chose Lisbon.
“We had always hoped to get to experience living somewhere else so took it as a sign from the universe. The pace is so much more laid-back here. When we first moved over, Ben nipped out to get us coffees and came back laughing, carrying mine in a smoothie cup because the cafe didn’t do takeaway cups! There isn’t a huge culture of takeaway coffee here, which I think speaks volumes about how much Lisboans like to stop and chill. Cute kiosks overlooking gorgeous views are dotted all around the city, constantly inviting you to slow down and drink in the pretty views, or just people-watch. Being here as a creative has both stretched and inspired me.”
As a successful photographer (nathalie.ie), Márquez Courtney has happily managed to spilt her time between two cities, flying home to Dublin for jobs that spark her interest, while her new home in Lisbon has inspired a beautiful new Instagram account, @natlisbonloves, dedicated to documenting her and Ben’s (and new baby’s) discoveries there. This Christmas will be spent initially with Márquez Courtney’s mum and sister in Cork and then with Ben’s parents in Dublin.
“We’ll definitely be mucking in here and there with the cooking – with a glass of tasty Portuguese Dão wine firmly in hand,” and she plans to incorporate a few other Portuguese traditions too. “We’re really excited to stuff our suitcases with Portuguese treats. We’ll be bringing back some ginja, a sour cherry liqueur that’s served in a yum dark chocolate shot glass and will be a bit of craic over the festive season. We’ve also fallen in love with the Portuguese almond tart – a chewy, shortbread-like crust and delicious caramelised almond top – so we’ll be bringing some of that back too.”
As this is the family’s first Christmas with their newest addition, baby boy Ari, the pair are expecting a busy festive season, “Christmas is normally an incredibly joyful but insanely action-packed time of year, as I’m a divil for trying to cram just a bit too much in. Ari is already forcing us to take things at a slower pace, which I hope will lead to a more mellow festive season.”
As for her top tips for festive food, Márquez Courtney’s mum-in-law, she says, talks great sense.
“She’s an incredible cook and always says it’s all in the prep. Do as much as you can beforehand so the day itself is as stress-free as possible.”