The Stories Behind your Christmas Dinner
Whether it’s a turkey centrepiece, mince pies or figgy pudding, many of today’s Christmas staples are steeped in history and tradition. Kayleigh Rattle takes a look at the stories behind some of our favourite festive fodder…
Come December 25th, we can fully expect plates around the country to be piled high with a Christmas centrepiece, plus plenty of trimmings: pigs in blankets, Yorkshire puds, perfectly-cooked roasties, ample stuffing balls and lashings of gravy. But how long has the traditional Christmas dinner looked like this? We speak to some of the UK’s top food historians and chefs about the food we love to eat at this most wonderful time of the year, and how they all came together…
Feasting Through the Ages
For many reasons, December the 25th is an important date in people’s calendars. Aside from getting together with friends and family, exchanging presents and soaking up the festive goodwill and cheer that abounds at this time of year, there’s another massive reason why it’s so popular: the food.
“Our big Christmas feast is tied to the agricultural year, when farmyard animals and wild game are sleek and well-fed from the autumn. That’s why we have Christmas at the end of December, and why, traditionally, it’s all about the meat,” says Pen Vogler, food historian and author of Scoff: A History of Food and Class in Britain.
“In medieval times, aristocrats would have had many different kinds of meats over the Christmas season, but pride of place always went to venison. Beef has always been the great meat which the British middle classes are most proud of, and ‘a baron’ or a round of beef is the most long standing of all Christmas meaty treats, but the turkey slowly edged it off the middle class Christmas table in the 19th century,” she says.
“Most of the working poor would have whatever meat they could find, such as rabbit. In Victorian times, the urban poor would pay into goose clubs so they could have a Christmas goose.”
But the big Christmas Day foodie blowout as we have come to know it didn’t always take place on the 25th of December, says Pen.
“Twelfth Night – the end of Christmas – was when you traditionally had all of the fun and games. That was also when you had a huge fruit ‘Twelfth Cake’ as well as hot punch, red wine or port warmed with spices, or a spiced ale or cider called wassail. Queen Victoria disapproved of Twelfth Night as it could be quite riotous, and it was thus dropped from the official list of holidays. We didn’t want to give up the Twelfth cake though, so it migrated to Christmas Day and became Christmas cake as we know it.”
Festive Set Pieces
A turkey centrepiece is still one of the most popular ways to celebrate the big day today, but it’s a tradition that in fact dates back to the 16th century.
“The first time Europeans came across the turkey – a bird native to North America – was when the Spanish invaded the Aztec empire in 1519. Turkeys were first bred in Britain in about the mid-1530s, and their association with Christmas began to develop soon afterwards,” explains Mark Riddaway, food writer and author of Borough Market: Edible Histories: Epic tales of Everyday Ingredients.
“In the Victorian era, our familiar Christmas food staples really took shape and the turkey became part of the picture, as seen in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol where the reformed Scrooge buys a “prize turkey” to send to Bob Cratchit as a gift. But it was only in the 1950s that turkey really began to supplant beef, goose, chicken and other meats in our Christmas dinners.”
Bring us Some Figgy Pudding!
When it comes to Christmas desserts and puddings such as Christmas cake and mince pies, these have largely remained true to tradition, says food writer and author of The Official Downtown Abbey Christmas Cookbook, Regula Ysewijn.
“Christmas baking hasn’t actually changed much throughout the ages; British people really must have loved their mince pies and plum puddings! In general, we can say Britain has kept up with its sweet baking traditions, but savoury baking has waned. Even mince pies have lost their meat content – it was once typical for them to contain mutton and lamb!”
And as for the famous line, ‘We all want some figgy pudding,’ as mentioned in the 16th century Christmas carol ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas,’‘ you may be surprised to know this popular pudding didn’t actually contain figs.
“Figgy pudding just means ‘Christmas pudding’ as figs were another word for raisins in the past,” explains Regula. “Plums were also used to describe raisins, therefore figgy pudding, plum pudding and Christmas pudding all mean the same pudding! Some say it was King George I who requested plum pudding to be a part of the first Christmas feast of his reign, in 1714. The first written record of a recipe for plum pudding as we know it today can be found in John Nott’s The Cooks and Confectioners Dictionary from 1723.”
Not all traditional British Christmas dishes have stood the test of time, though. One such dish that’s largely been forgotten today is frumenty.
“This was once more deeply rooted in Christmas tradition than perhaps any other,” says Mark Riddaway. “Recipes for this vary, but most consist of cracked wheat boiled into a thick porridge using almond milk, cream, milk, eggs or stock. In wealthier households, this would be spiced with saffron, cinnamon or mace. The poor ate it on its own, the rich with venison. One medieval recipe even suggested pairing it with porpoise!”
Modern Day Classics
For chef Richard Bainbridge, chef-owner of Benedicts restaurant in Norwich (restaurantbenedicts.com), many of his present-day Christmas food traditions are in fact inspired by a more recent period, the 1980s.
“We used to go to my Nan’s house on Christmas Day afternoon and her table would be bursting with everything from boiled ham and piccalilli to turkey and crisp sandwiches, jam tarts, trifle and even a cheese and pineapple hedgehog! There would also be a prawn cocktail. My Nan used to make the Marie Rose sauce, and I would think it was a magical pink sauce!” he says.
“I’m traditional when it comes to Christmas foods, but I do like to create twists on classics and to keep them current; I’d be sad if some of my fond childhood memories were erased.”
For Michelin-starred chef Tom Kerridge (tomkerridge.com), Christmas is also largely about sticking to tradition, but with some added modern twists on classics, starting with the turkey itself.
“On Boxing Day, I love nothing more than cold turkey with bubble and squeak and pickled onions,” Tom says. “People love a traditional British Christmas, but I think it’s nice to include something a bit different, too. I love seeing all of the twists on mulled wines and mulled ciders that have become popular recently, as well as the rise of German Christmas markets, where you can get amazing currywurst sausages!”
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