Christmas is once again upon us, not that you need me to tell you that, what with the abundance of Christmas advertising and street decorations. Of course the traditional thing now for the food world is to suggest possible edible gifts for our nearest and dearest, and new ideas for the Christmas dinner.
So I thought I’d do my part by looking at some different ways of preparing Christmas lunch. However, instead of providing you with some new recipes, I have dipped into my antique cookbook collection to see how things used to be done over the last few centuries, and what ideas may or may not be worth reviving, from the Middle Ages to the rationing of the early 1950s.
At Christmas we entertain and are entertained by family and friends, which means mountains of little sandwiches, cocktail sausages, mini pizzas, vol-au-vents and Christmas cake. Much of this will have been supermarket-bought and, while tasty the first few times, after a while becomes a bit samey and dull. That said, I think we have to consider ourselves lucky.
In 1950, the Daily Mirror published a series of cartoon strips by Ambrose Heath, one of the great cookery writers of the pre and post-war period. These cartoons were a series of stories about Patsy, a newly married housewife, and related characters cooking food and sharing recipes based on what was available due to rationing. Published in one volume under the name Patsy’s Christmas Reflections, it even has two recipes on cooking whale steaks. We are told that this is Patsy’s third Christmas so she is now getting into the swing of being a young cook, something that (like much of the book) would today be regarded as smacking of sexism. As part of her third Christmas cooking for family and friends, we are told that Patsy is hosting a bit of a drinks do and plans on enlivening the table with colourful snacks as a way to whet the appetite with the eye. Frankly I think these snacks would have to do a whole lot of whetting before I tucked into some of them.
- Cheese flavoured custard tart
- Tomato halves filled with fish salad
- Celery stuffed with cheese margarine mixture
- Poached herrings roes on anchovy spread toast
- Stuffed olives on toast
- Meat paste on toast with capers
- Camembert bits rolled in browned breadcrumbs
- Cold smoked haddock on toast
- Salami on toast topped with pickle
- Liver sausage on toast with pickle
- Flaked grilled bloater mixed with cold scrambled egg on toast
- Shrimps mixed in curry sauce on biscuits or toast
- Cold tiny fried sausage cakes topped with mustard
Thankfully Patsy doesn’t provide us with what she’s planning to serve on Christmas Day.
Many of the dishes on offer at a Bristol tavern at Christmas in 1788 would not be possible today as their key ingredients are endangered
What was eaten at Christmas would have been determined (as it is today, though to a lesser extent) by what was seasonal in December. This meant beef, mutton, veal, lamb, venison, geese, chickens, wild ducks, pigeons and other game and poultry. A menu of foods available at a Bristol tavern during Christmas 1788 lists some 104 different dishes, ranging from turtle to soups, to oysters and scallops, to carp, perch, salmon, place, turbot, salt fish, eels and other fish, to hares, grouse, wild duck; moor hens, sea pheasant, woodcocks, snipe, and golden plovers were just some of the poultry on offer. On the meat front there were different sorts of cutlets and chops, steaks, tripe, cow heels and hogs pudding and roast joints such as mutton neck, sirloin of beef, veal loin and pork spare ribs, all of which would have been roasted in front of a large open fire. Then there were the cold dishes including potted pigeon, rounds of beef (a Christmas favourite), crayfish, tongues, sturgeon, tarts, minced pies and jellies. Many of the dishes on offer would not be possible today as their key ingredients are endangered. For a full list see the food historian Ivan Day’s Food History Jottings.
In short, what would be eaten, as shown by a list of seasonal foods from Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English House-keeper (first published in 1769, this third edition from 1773), was anything that was fat and plump enough, either from being born in the spring or summer and having had time to grow, or from fattening up in the leading months ahead of the harsh winter in which food would be scarce and survival hard.
It was with the Victorians that the growth of turkey as the traditional Christmas centrepiece began
Today’s traditional Christmas lunch has its roots in the Victorian period, with its advances in technology and changing food fashions. Prior to the Victorians, the Christmas meal would have been a huge feast served à la française. This means that the table would have been covered with all the food that was to be served, with sweet and savoury dishes butting up against each other. Thus there were multiple meats, savouries, vegetables and desserts. While service à la russe, individual dishes served in individual courses, was introduced in Europe in the early 1800s, it wasn’t really until the Victorians that it became the standard way of serving a meal.
Turkey was eaten at Christmas not long after introduction from the New World, a collection of ordinances and regulations for various royal households from Edward III to William and Mary published by The Society of Antiquaries in 1790 showing it first purchased by the royal household in the reign of James I. It was with the Victorians, though, that its growth as the traditional Christmas centrepiece began. This was due to advances in farming techniques; turkeys, unlike geese, are easy to farm on a large scale and can be fattened up easily and to a greater size than other poultry. Indeed, many medieval and later lists of produce mention both wild and farmed geese, ducks, turkey, and other foods, demonstrating that the difference between the flavours of farmed and unfarmed animals has long been appreciated.
Table plans from Charles Carter’s 1723 cookbook The Compleat City and Country Cook show the à la française dining style and some of the common dishes for December (and thus likely during Christmas) from the Georgian period. Unfortunately I can’t find the recipes for the puffin or the ox eyes but we can see from the two-course feast for December how meals were composed. They would be composed of multiple main meat dishes, savoury dishes such as soups and potages, fish, sweet dishes, and a mixture of hot and cold served dishes. Interestingly, the minced pies are the centrepiece of the first course rather than just featuring as a side dish or as part of the second course, as you might expect. You can also see how there are rules for the way a table is laid out; it is symmetrical and balanced no matter the size of the table.
As is evident, other than roast joints, game, poultry and fish were popular. One such dish was Rounds of Beef, a spiced dish that Ivan Day says was a brisket of beef salted, spiced and boiled in ale. However, a later Victorian recipe for Spiced Round of Beef in my copy of Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery calls for the beef to be prepared over three to four weeks with sugar, saltpetre, salt, pepper, allspice and juniper berries before baking it for five or six hours. Pottage was also a favourite and, with the possibility of a number of versions appearing on a table at the same time, they could be vegetable or meat-based, making it a dish both for the rich and the poor. Cold and oft pickled sturgeon was also popular and, according to Elizabeth Raffald in 1773, prepared in a way differing little from that used today; the only difference is that, rather than cooking the fish in the vinegar and water as we would, it is cooked in just water and stored in a jug of ale vinegar covered in strong paper as a lid.
Clearly cranes were not inexpensive, though they were cheaper than swan at a cost of 6s
There is one other bird that was eaten historically, a dish enjoyed throughout the year, but with records of it gracing a table at Christmas – the crane. This does seem odd perhaps, but one of the more curious items in my collection is a lecture printed in the second ever Archaelogia, the academic journal of The Society of Antiquaries, published in 1773. It was given before the society on 9th February 1769 by the Reverend Samuel Pegge, a fellow of St John’s College and Prebendary at Litchfield and Lincoln who is better known for his republishing in 1791 of the Forme of Cury, the cookbook, or rather vellum scroll, of 205 recipes of the master chef to Richard II, written around 1390. Under the title A Dissertation on the Crane, as a Dish served up at great Tables in England, he mentions that the Earl of Northumberland procured cranes for their use at Christmas. He does not relate the exact year, but the period that the talk focuses on is about 1350-1550. Unfortunately I couldn’t find a recipe for crane even among those from the medieval period that I have.
In his talk Reverend Pegge relates how crane was a dish served up to the great tables of England in the Middle Ages and probably earlier, and shows that, contrary to the contemporary belief that references to crane and heron were used on ledgers and menus of old interchangeably, this was not that case; both birds were eaten as both can be found on the same ledgers separately. Indeed, looking through my collection of royal ordinances from 1790, in the additions to the ordinances of Henry VIII made at Eltham Palace in his twenty-third year as monarch (1532) I have found an entry for crane to be served to the King by William Gurley at a cost of 4.s 8.d (or approximately £121 in 2013) each, and this is separate from heron. Clearly cranes were not inexpensive, though they were cheaper than swan at a cost of 6s (£156). It’s hardly surprising that Henry would have eaten crane given that he is known to have eaten many exotic creatures, including dolphin.
While crane has clearly had its day as a Christmas dish, plum pudding, mulled wine and other dishes are still firm favourites. Next time I’ll continue looking at Christmas dishes of old, along with a Georgian inspired Christmas menu.