A Taste of Christ­mas Past

Food his­to­rian Seren Char­ring­ton-hollins serves up the de­li­cious his­tory of Christ­mas ban­quets.

This England - - Contents - Seren Char­ring­ton-hollins

OUR mod­ern Christ­mas din­ner may be con­sid­ered a lav­ish ban­quet com­pared to the rest of the year, but as you brave the hus­tle and bus­tle of the su­per­mar­ket, spare a thought for the teams of cooks and ser­vants through­out his­tory who had to pre­pare truly spec­tac­u­lar Christ­mas feasts of an unimag­in­able scale in our cas­tles and stately homes.

It is not sur­pris­ing that food was a ma­jor part of a me­dieval Christ­mas; af­ter all, the hol­i­day sea­son came af­ter the crops had been har­vested.

The start of win­ter was a time when live­stock be­came ex­pen­sive to keep alive, so the an­i­mals would be butchered and their flesh dried or cured, to be con­sumed dur­ing the fes­tiv­i­ties.

A.A. Milne’s pop­u­lar chil­dren’s poem about King John por­trays the friend­less King on the eve of a lonely Christ­mas, con­tem­plat­ing a fes­tive day with­out so much as an or­ange or wal­nut, let alone an In­dia rub­ber ball.

Al­though this would have cer­tainly been a Christ­mas that was fit­ting for the vil­lain­ous monarch, it is his­tor­i­cally in­ac­cu­rate. King John held a Christ­mas feast in 1213 and records show it in­cluded 24 hogsheads of wine, 200 heads of pork, 1,000 hens, 50 lbs of pep­pers, 2 lbs of saf­fron, 100 lbs of al­monds, along with other ex­pen­sive spices.

If that weren’t enough, the King also sent an or­der to the Sher­iff of Can­ter­bury to sup­ply 10,000 salt eels!

Even at a slightly lower level of wealth, the Christ­mas sea­son was elab­o­rate.

Ac­cord­ing to the house­hold ex­penses roll of Richard de Swin­field, Bishop of Here­ford, over three days of Christ­mas feast­ing in 1289, he and his guests made their way through one boar, two and three-quar­ter oxen, two calves, four doves, four pigs, around 60 fowl, eight par­tridges and two geese.

No-one kept track of how much beer was put away, but the guests man­aged to con­sume 40 gal­lons of red wine and a fur­ther four gal­lons of white.

In the Mid­dle Ages, Christ­mas be­gan on De­cem­ber 25 and lasted for 12 days, with the rest of De­cem­ber be­ing Ad­vent, a pe­riod of fasting where the con­sump­tion of meat or dairy was not per­mit­ted.

Dur­ing Ad­vent the wealthy would or­der all sorts of fish, in­clud­ing stur­geon, lam­prey, eels and oys­ters, to en­sure that they did not feel the pinch to their waist­lines later on.

Christ­mas feasts in the great halls and cas­tles were cer­tainly grand af­fairs, but many lords also hosted a feast for their ten­ants and ser­vants to en­cour­age good­will and loy­alty; af­fairs that saw plen­ti­ful food and mer­ri­ment with­out ex­ces­sive re­fine­ment.

The Christ­mas spirit might at least en­tice a Lord to do­nate the en­trails from the fam­ily’s deer known as the “um­bles” to his ser­vants. To make the meat go fur­ther, it was of­ten mixed with other in­gre­di­ents to make “um­ble pie”.

Dur­ing the me­dieval pe­riod, the kitchens of the wealthy would have been a con­stant hive of ac­tiv­ity, and an ex­ten­sive menu with co­pi­ous amounts of food meant a lot of or­gan­i­sa­tion and hard work. The menu was a vege­tar­ian’s night­mare with ev­ery­thing from swans, pea­cocks and spit-roast meats adorn­ing the ta­ble.

Dur­ing this time, goose was one of the most com­mon and pop­u­lar birds to en­joy; in­deed, there was no turkey to carve, as, be­ing na­tive to Mex­ico, they had not yet ar­rived in Bri­tain.

Tur­keys are be­lieved to have first been brought to Bri­tain in 1526 by York­shire man, Wil­liam Strick­land. The story goes that he ac­quired six birds from Amer­i­can In­dian traders on his trav­els and sold them for tup­pence each in Bris­tol.

He re­put­edly be­came so rich on the back of turkey trad­ing that he built Boyn­ton Hall in York­shire.

The now com­mon­place turkey was once con­sid­ered ex­otic and cer­tainly a great lux­ury. Al­though Henry VIII was the first English king to en­joy turkey, it was Ed­ward VII that made eat­ing turkey fash­ion­able.

It was still a lux­ury meat in 1930 and it took a week’s wage to buy one, and it didn’t re­ally be­come a sta­ple of Christ­mas un­til the 1950s.

The ex­hor­ta­tion to “eat, drink and be merry” truly epit­o­mised Christ­mas in El­iz­a­bethan Eng­land, when the Christ­mas feast was not only about glut­tony, but was an op­por­tu­nity for the host to dis­play their wealth, sta­tus and author­ity. As many as 24 cour­ses were of­fered at each ban­quet.

It was ex­pected that the kitchens would cook more than was needed, not only to im­press the guests, but for the ex­press pur­pose of feed­ing the needy when the night’s mer­ri­ment had drawn to a close.

A course of sweet del­i­ca­cies made from su­gar of­ten al­lowed the lady of the house an op­por­tu­nity to show off her culi­nary and artis­tic skills. Su­gar was ex­tremely ex­pen­sive dur­ing this pe­riod and the cre­ation of such del­i­cate dishes was seen as a fit­ting pas­time for wealthy ladies.

Su­gar sub­tleties were of­ten de­signed to amuse guests with their whim­si­cal de­signs de­signed to de­ceive the eye. “Col­lops of ba­con”, made from ground al­monds and su­gar, were a great favourite, as un­der a skil­ful hand this could look just like meat. An­other sweet­meat was known as “leech”, a milk-based sweet made with su­gar and rose­wa­ter. It was cut into cubes and served plain or gilded, ar­ranged as a che­quer­board.

An El­iz­a­bethan ban­quet­ing ta­ble was in­deed as much of a feast for the eyes as it was for the stom­ach, with elab­o­rately dec­o­rated and gilded march­pane (a type of al­mond paste which was the pre­cur­sor to mod­ern marzi­pan) fig­ures and or­na­ments adorn­ing the ta­bles, along­side crys­talised fruits, gilded fruits and op­u­lently dec­o­rated ginger­bread. Spiced wines and syl­labubs were served and no ex­pense was spared.

Money wasn’t just spent on food; joust­ing and as­sorted en­ter­tain­ment spec­tac­u­lars would take place through­out >

the ban­quet. Me­dieval and Tu­dor mon­archs also made cer­tain their ban­quet­ing halls were packed, sum­mon­ing not only peers who would pro­vide peerless com­pany, but also in­clud­ing any­one with whom the King or Queen might want to have a “lit­tle word”.

To be given the op­por­tu­nity to at­tend a Christ­mas feast at the sov­er­eign’s re­quest was to be given the op­por­tu­nity to be part of the pos­tur­ing, networking, gos­sip and so­cial mo­bil­ity of the pe­riod.

Diplo­macy didn’t take a back seat dur­ing the sea­son. English mon­archs fre­quently used their Christ­mas courts as ve­hi­cles for estab­lish­ing good­will with dig­ni­taries from other na­tions.

Henry IV staged an elab­o­rate joust on the tour­ney grounds at Eltham Palace for Em­peror Manuel II of Con­stantino­ple in 1400, whilst his grand­fa­ther, Ed­ward III, had ex­tended his great hos­pi­tal­ity to two past en­e­mies: King David of Scot­land and King John of France.

De­spite the po­lit­i­cal networking that took place dur­ing grand Christ­mas feasts, most mon­archs found time to re­ju­ve­nate their spir­its, too. In­deed, even with mat­ters of state weigh­ing on her mind, El­iz­a­beth I typ­i­cally en­joyed the 12 days of Christ­mas to their ut­most, usu­ally at White­hall or Hamp­ton Court.

For many years, Lord Robert Dud­ley was in charge of El­iz­a­beth’s hol­i­day en­ter­tain­ment, a task he un­der­took with great rel­ish; re­sult­ing in leg­endary balls, mas­quer­ades, hunts, the­atri­cals and ban­quets be­ing staged around the clock.

De­cry­ing the Christ­mas sea­son for its ex­cess has be­come as much a part of to­day’s Christ­mas ver­nac­u­lar as the bid­ding of “Sea­son’s Greetings”, but one can’t help won­der­ing if Christ­mases past, with their ex­cesses and in­trigues, were any less com­mer­cial.

Seren demon­strat­ing a pop­u­lar Christ­mas dish of old.

Left: a Tu­dor-style ban­quet at Had­don Hall. Mid­dle: Christ­mas lunch in a Geor­gian hall. Above: a me­dieval ban­quet serv­ing up peacock.

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