Traditional Christmas Food

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Traditional Christmas Food

In modern times, there are certain foods we associate with Christmas:

  • Roast Turkey or Goose
  • Christmas Cake with marzipan and icing
  • Satsumas
  • Nuts
  • Chestnuts
  • Mulled Wine
  • Sweets

But where did all these ideas come from? During the rest of the year, many of these foods aren’t eaten at all.

In the very olden times, pre-Christian, the first important date of the Festival was the Shortest Day of the year, which is usually around the 21st or 22nd of December. It was celebrated by encouraging light back to the Earth – an idea which presumably started when the movement of the planets, and the seasons, were not fully understood. To watch the days growing shorter, without the knowledge that the year would turn again, must have been quite frightening. So the Shortest Day gained importance, and fires were lit, and light was used to encourage the year to turn. Then the village Elders would watch, to check that the magic had worked and the year had indeed turned. This would be visible by the 25th, and a huge feast would be eaten to celebrate the success of the magic. So well before Christianity, this time of year was celebrated by feasting. And the early Christian Church adopted the existing Festival (in AD300s) to assist in converting people to Christianity. It was easier for the people to accept a Festival that clashed with one they had been celebrating anyway.

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A huge feast in the middle of Winter took some thought, but it was helped by the recent slaughter of animals, which took place in early November, for the purely practical reason that feeding animals through the Winter was costly. Many farm animals were slaughtered in November, to save the cost of feeding them through the Winter, and these tended to be the older animals – past their best, and unlikely to be profitable in the future. This meant that there was a lot of fresh meat around and the cold weather made it easier to store.

Quite when the Turkey became the accepted Christmas centrepiece is not certain. They were certainly available from the 1700s and were eaten widely, being “shod’ before being walked to market. They were walked through tar, and then through fine grit, so they had “shoes’ for the long walk to London. The same technique was used for geese – another traditional Christmas bird.

But prior to that, a favourite Christmas dish was brawn. We tend to think of brawn as unpleasant, and containing only the brains or a pig or sheep, but brawn was considered to be a tasty delicacy and made with more than just the brains. The two historical recipes I have seen differ in one important aspect – whether to include the eyes or not. For some, the eyes were “the best bit’! We aren’t used to eating offal nowadays, but it was commonplace in the past, partly because it was cheap, but also because it tasted good. So brawn is essentially the head of the animal (pig or sheep) boiled until the meat falls from the bone, and much of that meat is very good, especially the cheek meat. The brains need to be removed first as they won’t take such cooking, but need to be delicately poached and added back to the rest later. This mixture, which included onions and other vegetables, was preserved in jelly or aspic, or even broth. Brawn was a usual part of the Christmas feast right up until Victorian times.

Because Christmas became such an important feast, every luxury item was saved up for it, and seasonal food used as well, to create an impressive spread. Luxuries such as sugar cones, and imported dried fruits, were carefully save by the housewife, and seasonal items such as the variety of nuts available during the Autumn were also harvested and stored for the big feast. The finest drinks, such as wine and brandy, were also kept aside for Christmas.

Many of these items were used for the Pudding and the Cake. The pudding was stuffed with dried fruit and the peel or citrus fruits – the latter of which was made when citrus fruits became available and no part of such a precious item was wasted, even the peel. Making candied peel is time consuming and involves sugar, which was also expensive. And both the Pudding and the Cake needed spices too, which again were luxury items. To make candied peel in the old-fashioned way, you need ground ginger which was also expensive. Our modern version of this luxury is the Satsuma, which is now available all year round but is traditionally associated with Christmas as a luxury item.

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The Pudding, which originally was steamed in a cloth rather than cooked in the oven, seems to be an item peculiar to Britain and there has long been a tradition of including coins in the mixture which would be found by whoever was eating it. Of course this also made the Pudding more expensive. Which coins to include seems to vary: some say it must be silver, but no modern coins are silver, as the last were minted in 1948, and which denomination also varies. Some say it must be a threepenny bit, some a sixpence, and of course nowadays neither of these are available. There was also a tradition that the coins were not stirred into the Pudding mixture by the cook, possibly to avoid them being stolen, but most likely to make sure that no one knew exactly where they were in the Pudding.

Both Pudding and Cake also included expensive spices such as mace, which added to the luxury of the dishes. And both traditionally include the addition of brandy, a very expensive item. To make the Pudding more spectacular as it arrived at the table, brandy would be poured over it and set alight. The brandy would evaporate off fairly quickly, but it was also a way of demonstrating that no expense had been spared.

It is also traditional that there is a sprig of holly in the top of the Pudding as it is served. This idea pre-dates the Pudding itself. Evergreen plants were brought into the house to remind everyone of the Spring to come and showed that there was still life, even in the depths of Winter. Holly and Ivy were written about, in connection with the Christmas feast, from very early on and the famous carol was recorded in the 1400s, although there were almost certainly earlier versions of it. The Christmas tree was a German tradition that arrived in Britain with Prince Albert and caught on quickly after a drawing was published showing the Royal Family round a decorated tree.

Many of these traditions hark back to the days when the whole festival was about encouraging the light to return. The flaming brandy on the cake, the tinsel, the lights in the tree. One delightful story I heard about the origin of tinsel regards the Holy Family, who, fleeing from Herod, hid in a cave. A spider worked through the night, spinning a web across the entrance of the cave, so that Herod’s soldiers assumed that no one could be in there, and left the cave alone. That holy spider web was turned into silver, and our modern tinsel represents it.

Any cake decorator will know that working with icing directly onto a cake’s surface is very difficult indeed. A layer of marzipan between the cake and the icing makes the job much easier as it provides a smooth surface. Marzipan is another luxury item, made from ground almonds and sugar, and again shows that all the best ingredients were kept for Christmas. Many nuts are associated with Christmas, as they were a recent harvest from Autumn, and chestnuts are a favourite for making stuff for the Christmas bird, along with strongly flavoured herbs such as Thyme and Sage to add flavour. And of course sweets, often made with marzipan and always with sugar, also added luxury to the Christmas feast.

Nowadays a free range corn-fed bird is quite expensive, but not so long ago all poultry would be fed on corn and free range. Spit roast meat tastes better than oven cooked meat and this may be why the ingenious Victorians came up with a device called a Bottle Jack which was a clockwork device from which you would suspend the oven ready bird. It would slowly spin the bird one way, then the other, in front of the heat from the range, much like a modern Kebab cooker. A Hastener could be added to this contraption. Essentially this was a piece of metal which stood behind the cooking bird and reflected heat back towards to fire, so the bird was cooked from both sides, but was constantly turning, as though on a spit. Anyone who’s ever moaned that turkey is a dry meat should try some of these old cooking methods! On the continent it was noted that the British really knew how to roast meat well.

Mulled wine requires expensive spices to make, but is practical as it is a hot drink designed to be served in cold weather. It must have been gratefully received by guests arriving on a bitterly cold day.

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