It’s business as usual over the festive season for shepherdess, author and mother-of-nine, Amanda Owen. While most of us have Christmas organised down to a tee, ordering turkeys and planning presents come November, Amanda and her family go with the flow on their hilltop farm, Ravenseat, in the Yorkshire Dales – and they have a great time doing so.
‘Christmas here changes every year’, Amanda tells us. ‘There are no hard and fast rules’. Her large family always has a Christmas dinner, but they’re sometimes joined by ramblers who haven’t got anywhere else to go. ‘Some people get quite funny about visiting Ravenseat at this time of year because most folk keep to themselves at Christmas’, says Amanda. ‘But we have an open house all year round, and let me tell you – there’s always a lot of turkey sandwiches going’.
Sitting down to a roast dinner is particularly rewarding for the Owens because there’s always a good three hours of work to get through on Christmas morning before anyone even thinks about peeling back the wrapping paper. That’s after the Christmas Eve tradition of going out to the stables at midnight with the kids to see if the horses are kneeling for the birth of baby Jesus. Amanda lets me in on a little secret – she changes the clocks so that this ritual takes place earlier, so they can get a good night’s sleep before the morning chores.
‘We all get stuck in together’, says Amanda. ‘We get up early, light the fire to make the house feel cosy, and then muck the cows out and give them fresh straw’. This sounds like the last thing that most of us want to do on Christmas morning, but Amanda’s got nothing but passion for what she does for a living. ‘I always feel like I’m part of the nativity in that moment, and I pay more attention to what I’m doing because of its link to the Christmas story’.
Once the morning’s tasks are done, the family heads back inside to open their presents around the real Christmas tree which Amanda digs up every year. You’d expect there to be a mountain of gifts in her lounge with nine kids to please, but Amanda assures me that her and her husband Clive don’t go mad, and they only get useful presents. ‘The children all write letters to Santa and put them up the chimney’, she says, ‘but they know they’ll only get a fraction of what’s on it’. There’s not an Xbox in sight at Ravenseat, but the gifts are by no means as boring as socks – one year Amanda presented each child with a calf, all wearing reindeer antlers. ‘It was pretty chaotic because they kept falling off’.
Later in the day, the local Muker Silver brass band, which some of Amanda’s boys are members of, perform carols in the living room among the wreaths and holly. ‘You can imagine how intense that is’, Amanda laughs. The boys then travel down the Dale with the band, playing alongside them, usually feeling sick having indulged on too many mince pies.
For Amanda, the best thing about Christmas in Yorkshire is eating produce straight off your own doorstep. ‘We buy our turkey from a local auction’, she says, ‘and all the trimmings are locally sourced too’. In close second place is the amazing view, as there’s often a white Christmas at Ravenseat but that’s not without drawbacks for the farm though.
It’s actually helpful when it’s cold, quiet and still, but Amanda’s life is made difficult when there’s rain and mud. ‘We’ve had Christmas with no electricity or water, but we just get on with it with true Yorkshire grit’, she says. ‘Troubles are made to be overcome – you can’t have nine children and a 2,000 acre farm without expecting things to go wrong now and then’.
Amanda apologises because she’s conscious that a typical working Christmas down on the farm sounds boring, but there’s conviction in her tone when she says she loves it, and the kids are used to it. ‘We don’t have anything commercial in the house telling us it’s Christmas’, she says, ‘but you just know, and that’s lovely. It’s more of a feeling’.
Yorkshire farmer’s daughter Stephanie Moon had her first flavour of cooking at Christmas when she completed work experience at The Majestic Hotel in Harrogate followed by The Dorchester in London all during her teens. She’s now spent over 20 Christmas Days in professional kitchens, preparing turkeys by the hundred.
‘It’s hard work, but it’s fun – that’s important to get across’, says Steph. She really sells working at Christmas, recounting exciting stories from exotic locations. ‘At the Kulm Hotel in Switzerland, we worked split shifts on Christmas Day’, she explains, ‘I started at eight in the morning, finished at three in the afternoon, and then started again at six’. Rather than sitting in her room feeling sorry for herself in the three-hour gap, Steph made sure she squeezed in some festivities. ‘One of the traditions in St Moritz is to walk over the lake when it freezes over, so all the chefs did that in the afternoon’.
Steph’s culinary Christmases haven’t all been set in traditional winter wonderlands though, she was strolling along the beach in December when she worked at the Park Hyatt Hotel in Sydney, and the Hayman Island Resort at the Great Barrier Reef. ‘In that heat, the last thing you want is a hot roast, so we’d be preparing a lot of fish, rice dishes and salads for customers on Christmas Day’. Of course, there’s a bit of turkey going around the place, but for the most part, it’s different to a British Christmas – festive barbecues are very popular down under.
The strangest of all Steph’s Christmases was in Munich, where the big celebration takes place the evening before. ‘I was living with a German family’, Steph tells me, ‘so we had a party on Christmas Eve with glühwein, but the house was really quiet the next day which made me quite homesick – I was actually glad to go into work at Hotel Four Seasons’.
Although she’s jetted off all over the world throughout her career, home is where the heart is for Steph. Her fondest memories of a working Christmas are at Rudding Park, where Steph was Executive Chef at The Clocktower Restaurant for eight years.
The Clocktower kitchen is hard to distinguish from a cosy home kitchen on Christmas Day: ‘We’d have a festive playlist on in the background, and all the chefs would be spurring each other on and exchanging Christmas cards – there’d even be a big rubber Santa on the path outside.’ Steph assures me that people shouldn’t feel sorry for chefs working on Christmas Day, because they’re doing what they love, and when the day’s work is done, they definitely let their hair down.
‘At Rudding Park, I’d always try to work breakfast and lunch so I could head home around six o’clock when the night was still young’, Steph explains, where the rest of her family would still be celebrating and the sherry would still be flowing.
Steph has given countless customers a merry Christmas with her cooking, and even if you prefer having Christmas lunch at home, she can serve you her top tips. ‘When it comes to turkey, let it rest for an hour after cooling if you can’, she says. ‘This relaxes the meat so it carves beautifully’. Other subtle, but really effective pointers include adding a splash of cointreau to cranberry sauce to bring it to life, or coating sprouts in redcurrant jelly and roasted chestnuts so that even the pickiest of eaters won’t be able to resist them.
If there’s one thing you should take away from reading our insight into Steph’s professional life, it should be this nugget of wisdom: ‘I’ve lived in Yorkshire for many years, but for me, I don’t think there’s any place for a Yorkshire pudding on a Christmas dinner’. That’s the age-old debate settled once and for all.
BBC Radio Sheffield Presenter
BBC Radio Sheffield celebrated its 50th anniversary this year, and Kat Cowan is tearing up the radio rulebook by presenting half of her show from her own kitchen. Kat invites a local chef or food producer into her home every weekend to cook live on the airwaves, sharing photos and recipes on Twitter to make it an interactive experience for listeners. The preparations for her Christmas special are already well underway.
‘I’m trying to cobble together – sorry, perfectly produce – a really different and exciting Christmas Eve show’, she tells us. ‘It’d be great to do the whole show from my kitchen, like a Christmas party with lots of cooking, eating and chatting’.
One of Kat’s favourite things about Christmas at the radio is that the topics covered are full of festive cheer. ‘We do a lot of great journalism throughout the year, but most of the time the news can be very sad. I love sharing uplifting stories at this time of year’. Kat reminisces fondly about a piece she worked on a couple of years ago about a local Christmas tree grower. ‘I met the most passionate woman – what she didn’t know about Christmas trees wasn’t worth knowing’.
Christmas may very well be the most wonderful time of the year, but it’s also the busiest time of year for people working in radio. ‘Generally, presenters and producers have to work around Christmas or around New Year’, Kat explains. ‘As well as doing your usual day-to-day shows in the run up to Christmas, you have to pre-record a lot of special ones which review the whole year’. This involves listening back to old shows from the last 12 months, picking out the best bits and cutting and pasting it all together seamlessly, while also seeking out studio time to record the voiceover, and eating a lot of Quality Street in the process.
This might sound like a tedious task on the surface, but Kat assures us that the atmosphere in the studio is magical. ‘Everyone working at a radio station over Christmas is usually in a jolly good mood, and the call-ins are always entertaining because most people are at home, so they’re happy and relaxed’. There are also decorations adorning every surface, with some presenters even putting personal fairy lights around their computers.
An extensive Christmas playlist keeps everyone in a merry mood, but according to Kat, there are strict rules on when this can be used. ‘You’re allowed to play wintery songs in November and Christmassy songs in December’, she tells us, ‘but there are definitely DJs here who would play them as early as August if they could’. Kat’s in favour of waiting as it means listeners appreciate the songs more, but if you tune into her shows after 1 December, you’ll be hearing one particular classic on loop. ‘All I Want for Christmas by Mariah Carey is my favourite’, she says. ‘I wake my husband up singing that really loudly and dancing in my pyjamas’.
With this heartwarming image in mind, you’d think Kat’s Christmases at home are traditional – but they’re not in the slightest. ‘My family and I are quite disorganised’, she confesses. ‘We actually disappear into separate rooms on the day to wrap presents’. On one occasion, when she wasn’t working, her family even skipped Christmas dinner. ‘It got to about midday and we were very content eating cheese and pickles in front of the TV, so we ended up doing that for the rest of the day, and had a big roast on Boxing Day’.
There are a couple of traditions that Kat can’t live without though, the first being a pre-Christmas drink with old friends from around the world who head back home at this time of year. ‘I wouldn’t miss a Christmas Eve catch-up down my local pub for the world’, she says. She also enjoys travelling to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire for their celebration. ‘They put on the most spectacular Christmas do’, she tells us. In between these festivities and presenting her breakfast shows every week, there isn’t a moment of Kat’s December which isn’t soundtracked by the jingly sound of Christmas on the radio.