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