A Taste Of Christmas
The festive feast is an integral part of what makes Christmas… well, Christmas!
Roast turkey, Brussels sprouts, Yule log, festive fruitcake… it’s not a proper Christmas celebration without a spread of traditional dishes. Many of our enduring memories revolve around food and Christmas is no exception, which is why everyone goes on a wild turkey chase and searches for ‘best Christmas pudding recipes’ start trending on Google from late November onwards.
But who crowned these dishes the kings of the Christmas dinner table anyway? Why is turkey the bird of the moment when Yuletide rolls around? Why do we eat mince pies and fruitcake? Let’s look at some of the most popular seasonal staples and find out why they’re entrenched in Christmas tradition.
Let’s Talk Turkey
The star of most Christmas menus, turkey is said to have been introduced to the UK in 1526. King Henry VIII was the first to eat turkey on Christmas day, but turkey only became popular for Christmas in the 1950s. This is when refrigerators became widely available and farmers realised that turkeys were more economical than cows or chicken, which produce milk and eggs.
Every star needs its supporting actors and turkey is usually accompanied by stuffing, giblet gravy and cranberry sauce. Stuffing refers to the combination of bread cubes, vegetables, fruit and nuts put inside a turkey for flavour. It can be made on the side as well, but it’s more flavourful if stuffed in the turkey as it soaks up the fat and other liquids as the turkey roasts. Stuffing and all the different sauces bring out the best in the meat, which can veer to being quite dry and bland otherwise.
Some families serve roast beef or prime rib as well, either as the main dish or as a second meat dish. Roast beef became a popular Christmas alternative to turkey around the 1570s. From the 20th century, it became a symbol of prosperity at Christmastime; the rich ate beef while the poor ate goose.
Another staple is glazed ham, thought to originate from a Norse tradition of beseeching Freyr’s favour for the New Year. Every family has their own secret recipe for cooking and glazing the ham; traditionally maple honey and mustard is used, but in recent years Coca Cola has gained popularity.
Popular sides include season-appropriate vegetables such as parsnips, potatoes, pumpkin, carrots and Brussels sprouts, all of which keep well in the cold. Love them or hate them, Brussels sprouts became a Christmas essential because they ripen during winter and are near impervious to frost. Tip: fry with bacon for best results.
Once meant to satiate hunger during a time when meat was scarce, Yorkshire puddings probably started appearing around Christmastime when it became trendy to serve roast beef instead of turkey for Christmas. The savoury pudding’s place on the Christmas table is contentious; purists believe it should only be served with roast beef (and usually also think roast beef shouldn’t be on the Christmas menu) while others happily serve it alongside turkey to soak up giblet gravy.
Bounty Of The Sea
In other parts of the world, people celebrate Christmas with seafood instead of meat. The reasons for this are myriad but simple: seafood is easier to get for seafaring nations, it’s in-season in places like Australia, and its reputation as a luxury delicacy makes it a coveted end-of-year treat in France.
The Feast of the Seven Fishes is also a major reason why seafood is popular at Christmastime. It’s said to originate from the Catholic tradition of not eating meat on certain holy days; since Christmas Eve was one of those days, Catholics would eat fish instead. Italians in southern Italy and Sicily, as well as those living in America, observed this tradition by eating seven different seafood dishes.
Why seven? Answers include seven being considered ‘God’s number’, the seven Sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church and even the seven days that Mary and Joseph took to travel to Bethlehem. Many households are known to serve up to 13 dishes. Of the dishes, baccalà (salt cod) is most famous in Southern Italy; followed by fried smelt, calamari, marinated eel, cod fish balls and more.
Many types of seafood are best enjoyed fresh, which is why cold seafood platters with raw oysters, steamed prawns, mussels and lobsters are a common sight on dinner tables; as are prawn and crab cocktails. Cooked favourites include smoked salmon, whole fish baked in a salt crust and scallops in butter sauce as well as various types of seafood stew and soups.
Sweet Treats Are Made Of These
What’s Christmas without the sweet treats? Gingerbread is virtually synonymous with Christmas; in the 17th century, gingerbread bakers belonged to a guild and the common folk could only make gingerbread during Christmas and Easter. Decorated gingerbread houses were popularised by bakers after Hansel and Gretel was published, in which two lost children find an edible house made of sweets and gingerbread.
Mince pies are said to have been created after European crusaders returned from the Middle East with spices. While meat mince used to be the focal ingredient, now fruits, fruit peel and spices take centrestage. The star on the top symbolises the star that led the three Wise Men to Jesus. A saying goes that if you eat a mince pie for every day of the 12 days of Christmas, you’ll have good fortune!
Multiple legends surround the iconic red-and-white Christmas candy canes. One has it that a German choir leader bought hard candy to pacify children during mass – it was shaped like a shepherd’s crook to justify its existence in church. Whatever the reason, the peppermint treat is a delicious pacifier or can be used to infuse a bo ttle of vodka with a minty flavour for festive cocktails.
Did you know that the Christmas plum pudding began life as porridge? In the 14th century, this ‘frumenty’ was consumed as a fasting meal before Christmas and contained beef, mutton, raisin, currants, prunes, wines and spices. It was later thickened into a pudding and had spirits added to represent Jesus’ love. Sometimes coins are baked into it for people to find for luck, and it’s said that stirring the pudding with a wooden spoon from east to west honours the Wise Men.
One candy cane legend has it that a German choir leader bought hard candy shaped like a shepherd's crook to pacify children during holiday mass”
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