|Illustration: Pippa Fay
It's that time of year again � time to think about "spare aunt presents". The term spare aunt is not intended to make fun of aunts; it is the name I give to home-made presents kept in the cupboard for Christmas emergencies. You know, when someone in the family asks at the last minute, "Hey, do you mind if I bring Uncle Albert's sister?" And you say, "No, of course not". Gifts for last-minute guests are not a problem, you just pop a spare aunt present under the Christmas tree. A pot of home-made jam topped with a gingham mob cap or a clutch of caramel fudge caught in slinky cellophane with that shiny red ribbon that curls into ringlets when it's scraped across a scissor blade.
This Christmas I've made pomanders to boost the spare aunt present hoard. I love the precision of pomander-making. Take a thin-skinned orange and inject it with oil of cloves to help preserve the orange then stud it with cloves; the cloves must jostle each other. It helps to make holes for the cloves with a kebab skewer, as cloves are unkind to your fingertips. When you have finished, place the orange in a paper bag with assorted ground spices. Give the bag a shake to cover the studded orange with spice then put it in a warm place to dry.
Injecting the orange is not a problem for a farmer � we use syringes for injecting animal remedies � but in the city? This could be a problem. Maybe you could take your orange, along with a phial of oil of cloves, to your medical centre and ask the practice nurse to inoculate it for you.
Pomander-making is addictive. As with Tom Sawyer's fence, everyone wants to have a go. Leave your half-finished pomander lying about in the kitchen when you have friends over. While you make coffee, prepare lunch or whatever, the guests will pick up the orange and press a few more cloves in for you. It works every time.
What if I am someone's spare aunt and I get a pomander for Christmas? What would I do with it? I do not know. I do have to own up to having a drawer full of presents received that I don't need or want, such as home-made coasters, a pyjama bag, a ring to measure spaghetti servings and Rubik's Cube salt and pepper shakers.
Because I'm sure other people receive spare aunt presents that end up in drawers, I now always give adults useful food or drink. I make small, cube-shaped Christmas cakes, which I ice and decorate in some way that's personal. I give some people limoncello made with lemons from the tree. Or berries from the garden soaked in brandy.
This year I've stepped up; I'm making packages. With my lemons, I'm including a lemon zester and lemon squeezer. I'm putting little iced cookies inside a mixing bowl, with a same-colour set of spatula, pastry brush, mixing spoons � everything you need to make the cookies, plus the recipe. There's a pair of gardening gloves and a card offering a morning's gardening. And, for the young ones, I'll buy tickets to a show and add the offer of overnight babysitting to make it all possible. I'm going for memory builders, rather than drawer fillers.
But really I'm just disguising my total inability to make things. I tried, once, to make a pomander. I was determined to make the best pomander in the world. I knew nothing about the syringe method. I stuck cloves all over the orange. First it looked like a highly explosive mine, then a prickly kina. Fingertips bleeding, I kept forcing the cloves in. Finally the whole thing fell apart into a pulpy mess on my lap. If I did receive a pomander, I think I'd keep it on display as an art form, an example of something others can make, something way beyond my skill set.