When thinking of Christmas dishes, it is hard not to conjure images of turkey, pigs in blankets, and those tasty pies filled with sweet mincemeat and brandy that only appear this time of year. Whilst the foods we associate with today’s modern Christmas may seem as old and authentic as they come, they are actually a patchwork of numerous centuries and varied international customs woven together.
Some rituals have survived for millennia, whilst others, such as serving a peacock for Christmas, dating from 1430, have fallen from fashion, as has roast ox tongue as the centerpiece of the holiday meal. A modern perennial favorite,Turkey, is a relative newcomer, but modern food trends are leaning toward skipping a roast dinner altogether in favour of pizza or curry. At least according to a November survey commissioned by Instaprint. Half of the respondents declared their resolve to eat a ‘traditional’ Christmas dinner, while one in six said they preferred to eat an Indian meal. Four percent fancied pizza. The rise in plant-based diets has also undoubtedly changed the landscape of the turkey and tinsel plate, with more and more people opting for meat-free roast options.
Christmas dinner, it seems, lies in the hands of changing tastes leading me to wonder whether the heyday of roast turkey and all the trimmings will one day draw to a close. Will it fall from grace at our tables just like the festive specialties of the past and be replaced by a new tradition?
When writing, ‘Revolting Recipes from History,’ I came across several curious recipes and references to dishes that we wouldn’t dare consider for our holiday tables today. On that note let’s look back at dishes that were once considered celebratory culinary delights rather than strange and unpalatable oddities.
Leach Milk Jelly
A medieval Christmas feast would have been a splendid affair to behold, but a little daunting for the digestive system and peculiar to modern tastebuds. A Christmas feast for Henry V included dates, carp and eels roasted with lamprey, an ancient lineage of jawless fish.
This 15th-century meal would also have included a popular dish of the time—leach milk jelly. Leach, a popular medieval confection, consisting of a thick, jelly-like preserve that set hard enough to be sliced for serving, was often cut into shapes or even dyed different colours to make chequerboard designs. Consisting of a thick, jelly-like preserve, it had a chewy consistency and was often made using almonds, rosewater and a variety of spices, such as cinnamon and ginger.
High Game Birds
Putrefy (decay or rot) is not a term that stimulates the appetite, yet there was a time when game birds were shot and hung by their heads, complete with their intestines, until their bodies fell off, indicating they were ready for cooking.
The resultant meat would probably be a little too strong in taste and aroma for today’s palate, though historically, the flavour of a matured game bird was preferred. Whilst this might have occurred by necessity due to lack of refrigeration, there was a penchant for enjoying game birds whose breast meat was aged until green. This trend has changed, and people tend not to like their food ‘high’ anymore, though the partridge has gained a place in the festive hall of fame thanks to the carol, ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’.
Roast Christmas Swan
One bird that will not be found on the Christmas dinner menu this year is the swan. Swan once graced affluent dining tables and was the ultimate status symbol. The King had to grant special permission for aristocrats and the gentry to keep the bird in swanneries and it was a dish that the upper echelons of medieval society often ate during the festive season, usually accompanied by other birds of decadent cost including the peacock.
Henry III seemed to have a taste for swans. In 1251 Henry demanded that the sheriffs of Yorkshire, Lincolnshire, Northumberland, Cumberland and Lancashire provide an extravagant hundred and twenty-five swans for his Christmas feasting celebrations.
Whether braised in a sauce or served freshly boiled, tongue was a delicacy and festive favourite that would have been a welcome sight on a Christmas table. Indeed, tongue featured on many prestigious menus including that for Queen Victoria’s New Year’s Day dinner served at Osborne House, which also included a boar’s head and brawn. There was a time when a simple dish of boiled tongue, glazed and garnished as shown in Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management would have been considered a gourmet delight.
Pudding filled with Meat
Today Christmas pudding includes many flavours from chocolate to Irish cream, but it didn’t start off as sweet treat at all.
In the 1300s, fruits, spices and wine were added to help preserve the beef and mutton that made up the festive dish. The pudding originated as a 14th-century mixture of beef, mutton, raisins, currants, prunes, wine and mixed spices.
By the 17th century, the meat was gone, and it was solidified with eggs and breadcrumbs. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that the pudding became bomb shaped and the practice of setting fire to the pudding came in, a tradition that would be greeted with a round of applause when it was brought to the table.
Mince Pies with Real Meat
A British tradition and also served throughout Europe and America, mince pies are still a classic dish to be eaten at Christmas time.
Made with pastry and a selection of minced fruits and spices (currants, cherries, raisins, apricots, cinnamon, nutmeg and sometimes nuts), the pies date back as far as the 12th century with many reports claiming they come from the traditional Roman festival, Saturnalia, in which sweet meat dishes were presented to Roman fathers of the Vatican.
Today’s pies no longer contain meat but the original recipes from which they derive are linked with the crusaders of the 12th century who returned from the Middle East with new ingredients and tales of dishes containing sweetmeats with fruits and spices.
Through time meat has been phased out of most modern mince pie production, but there are still many people who prefer to create the original pies using suet and real meat.
Made in several different ways and including ingredients such as almonds, currants, milk, eggs, fruits, almonds, and often fish and meat, Frumenty is a dish that dates back to medieval times.
The main ingredient is cracked wheat, which has been part of traditional Christmas meals around the world. The resultant gruel-like dish would have been enjoyed with the addition of whatever the kitchen could afford.
Frumenty is said to be the precursor of plum pudding which, with the development of new cooking methods and techniques, became the Christmas pudding Brits know and love today.
Wild Boar’s Head
The hunting of wild boar dates as far back as Roman times and has been presented as a Christmas dish as far back as 1553.
The dish would have taken centre stage on the Christmas table and was often served with a black sauce containing wine, cherry syrup, sugar, ginger, pepper, cloves, raisins, almonds and cinnamon. It was a symbol of wealth and extravagance.
Indeed the tradition of eating animal heads may seem unappealing to the modern cook and diner, but during the Georgian period, pig’s and calves’ heads, eyes included, were regularly enjoyed.
Found in Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery, first published in 1747, the Yorkshire pie is one serious Christmas dish, and it is certainly not for the fainthearted cook. First, the cook must skin and bone a goose, a turkey, a fowl a partridge, and a pigeon and then season each bird with mace, nutmeg, cloves, black peppe,r and salt.
The birds are then opened down the back and placed inside a thick pie crust (not intended to be eaten). First the pigeon, then the partridge, then fowl, followed by the goose and finally the turkey.
But that’s not it for the meat! Hannah’s recipe then called for some hare, woodcocks, game and any extra wildfowl the cook could lay a hand on. At least four pounds of butter was added before laying over a very thick pie lid and baking it for at least four hours.
It’s no surprise that this laborious dish is rarely if ever served today. Its complexity and sheer ingredient list would prohibit it from featuring on most modern Christmas tables, but smaller variations containing less meat still make their rounds.
Oysters have not always been considered the delicacy they are today and, in many towns, especially those close to the sea, they were consumed as a cheap and plentiful food. There were once few things more festive than an oyster stew – cheap, hot and filling. The tradition of oyster stew on Christmas Eve is difficult to date, but most historians concur that it was started by Irish immigrants who fled to the States during the great potato famine in the 1800s.
Eating a fish stew made with salted ling was already commonl. But when unable to find their coveted ling in their new home, Irish settlers looked for alternatives and began to cook oysters in their place. This dish is still popular today with many people around the world, with many people consuming it on Christmas Eve.
So, this year, when decking your halls and planning your Christmas menu, remember that today’s traditional turkey and tinsel dinner wasn’t always the feast of choice. Whatever you choose, be it turkey, pizza, or curry, the most important ingredients are the good friends and family you gather round the table.
Author bio: Seren Charrington-Hollins