In the previous instalment, I looked at how, before the Victorian invention of the modern Christmas dinner, and the rationing-hit canapés of the mid-twentieth century, the table would have been covered with meats, savouries, fish, sweet dishes and all manner of poultry, and really anything that was in season and had fattened up in advance of winter. This week I have more seasonal fare for you, from the Christmas drinks to the stuffing.
So first things first: the Christmas pudding! Long before it became associated with Christmas, it already existed as the popular plum pudding. Indeed, older cookbooks simply have plum pudding as the name of the dish. The first time any of my books list it as Christmas pudding is in Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery, from the Victorian period when the dish became most heavily associated with Christmas (though she still provides a separate recipe for a baked plum pudding). The only other book to list it as Christmas pudding is the comic strip cookbook Patsy’s Christmas Reflections from 1950 where a rationing version is presented.
The Christmas pudding went through a bit of a rebranding during the reign of George V, when it was also called Empire Pudding
Eliza Acton provides two plum pudding dishes under the Christmas name, one being her own; the only difference between them is the level of spicing, ratio of dried to fresh fruit, and alcohol.
The Christmas pudding went through a bit of a rebranding during the reign of George V, when it was also called Empire Pudding as the ingredients for it were grown across different corners of the globe; there was a drive to encourage the home nation to support the industries in the colonies that produced them. By the rationing of 1950, the ingredients were kept close to the original, but Patsy used marmalade as an alternative to candied fruit peel, her eggs were reconstituted and she used lemon essence to replace its juice. The recipe even uses beer, stout or milk, given the need to reduce the amount of brandy from a number of glassfuls to a couple of tablespoonsful.
Of course no look at the food of Christmas past would be complete without that other festive sweet treat, mince pies. Traditionally mince pies were filled with meat, often beef or veal, but this died out over time. The only recipe I can find in my collection of antique cookbooks is in the pirated 1830 edition of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. Her book was first published in 1747 so it is hard to know how original this recipe is; changes were made through various editions and it is entirely possible that the illegal publishers made additions themselves.
Pies in the early modern period weren’t as tame – tongue is one thing but lamb’s testicles is a step too far for me
But even if the recipe was written in 1830 it is still Georgian, and most importantly, it is clearly from the transition period from mince pies containing meat to not. The ingredients start off as you would expect for a non-meat pie but, at the end, the recipe provides instructions for meat if preferred, giving a choice between using tongue or the cheaper part of a sirloin of beef. This choice of meat does not seem particularly appealing but, going by some of the meat cuts Ivan Day says were used in pies in the early modern period, this is really quite tame; tongue is one thing but lamb’s stones (testicles) is a step too far for me.
The festive season isn’t just about gluttonous food consumption; for many it is also about copious amounts of alcohol. The mulled wine we drink now is closer to the German Gluhwein than the mulled wine of old.
Elizabeth Raffald’s 1773 recipe for mulled wine puts one in mind of the wassail bowl, served with toast in it
We have also forgotten about mulled ale, while Patsy instructs us in the cider cup and the wassail bowl. In fact Elizabeth Raffald’s 1773 recipe for mulled wine in her book The Experienced English House-Keeper puts one in mind of the wassail bowl, served with toast in it; Raffald tells her reader to serve the mulled wine with toast at the bottom of each cup. While the recipe is as you would expect – heating red wine with fruits and spices in it – it has one further ingredient, the addition of beaten egg. It then requires the wine to be passed ‘backwards and forwards several times’ until it is clear; by this one assumes it means straining the mixture through muslin or similar until all the impurities and egg have been removed, leaving just the clear and spiced wine.
Clearly this was the normal method of spicing such drinks as the recipe for mulled ale that she recounts follows the same procedure. Once again, unfortunately, the drinks of 1950 suffered just as the Christmas pudding did: the cider cup talks of using orange squash if real oranges can’t be obtained, and ginger beer is substituted for some of the cider if needed. On the other hand, the wassail was not so compromised, the only substitute suggested being lemon flavouring instead of the juice and peel of a fresh lemon.
An older and more attention-grabbing stuffing for turkey demonstrates that imagination was the only limit
There are two further Christmas accompaniments that I should look at, stuffing and bread sauce. When it comes to stuffing, in many ways its ingredients are limited only by your imagination; my family Christmas usually involves three different kinds. Looking back at the antique cookbooks is intriguing, both in the the uses and ingredients of stuffing. A recipe in the pirated The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy tells you how to stuff the bird. Where today we tend to stuff a turkey, or any bird for that matter, by filling the cavity with the stuffing, these instructions require you to separate the skin from the flesh and insert the stuffing in the gap. Today all we might put in the space between the skin and flesh of the breast is butter. The Georgian stuffing’s composition is quite tame, and similar to today’s: beef suet or butter with bread crumbs, lemon peel, anchovy, nutmeg, pepper, parsley and thyme, all mixed and bound together with egg yolk.
An older and more attention-grabbing stuffing for turkey, which demonstrates my point about imagination being the only limit, is to be found in a recipe for Turkeys a la Breese in Charles Carter’s 1732 book The Compleat City and Country Cook. In this the stuffing is made from pistachios, chestnut, forcemeat balls, sweetbreads, morels, lumps of marrow coated in egg yolk (bone marrow as opposed to the vegetable, I would think), and with the final addition of spices and salt, a combination that I don’t doubt would taste good even if exceedingly rich.
Just one nutmeg could fetch the same price as a London house; the Dutch kept the price high, even burning stock in Amsterdam
Having previously looked at such a wide range of meats and poultry, it is only right that I look at stuffing other than for turkey. Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery provides a recipe for a classic stuffing of onion and sage to be used with pork, geese or ducks. The recipe is as we would prepare it today – onion mixed with sage, breadcrumbs, butter, salt and pepper, all bound with egg yolk. Acton also suggests the addition of chopped goose or duck liver (depending on the creature to be cooked). The only real difference from today is that she instructs that the onion be boiled, whereas we would fry chopped onion to soften it.
An older recipe, also from the 1700s, can be found in Elizabeth Raffald’s book. In her recipe for a goose that is to be stewed rather than roasted, she stuffs the bird with sage, onion, three finely chopped sharp apples, breadcrumbs of a penny loaf (the cheapest bread), beef bone marrow, a glass of red wine, half a nutmeg, pepper, salt and lemon peel, all, as ever, bound by egg yolk. The cost of these ingredients today would be cheap (certainly under £10) but, despite its use of the cheapest bread available, the use of half a nutmeg would have been a contemporary extravagance. Until the mid-nineteenth century, nutmeg only came from Banda Island in the East Indies (known as Run to the English), now part of Indonesia. This island was fought over by the Dutch and English, given the high price that the spice commanded; just one nutmeg could fetch the same price as a London house.
Ultimately, the peace agreed following the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-7) saw Banda Island relinquished in return for New Amsterdam being handed over to the English; it was to be renamed after the Duke of York and to this day bears his name as New York. Following this, the Dutch kept the price of nutmeg artificially high, even burning stock in Amsterdam. In 1760, a single nutmeg would cost between eighty-five and ninety shillings in London. If when Elizabeth Raffald first published in 1769 the price was approximately the same, the cost of a nutmeg would have been equivalent to around £544 today. Raffald is calling for the use of £272 worth of nutmeg in today’s money, making this an extremely expensive stuffing at the time.
Bread sauce, on a cheaper note, was much the same as the recipes we use today
On a cheaper note, let us turn to bread sauce. The one ‘antique’ recipe I possess is in the Eliza Acton, further demonstrating that the Victorians created the modern Christmas as discussed in last week’s article. Acton provides two options, one with onion and the other without. Both recipes are the same as the recipes we use today and the recipe Hannah Glasse gives as part of her instructions for roasting a turkey, the same instructions that contain the stuffing recipe already discussed. They all use bread, milk, and butter with spices, cloves, mace and nutmeg, all stewed together for a few hours.
Our modern ovens aren’t entirely compatible with historical recipes calling for spits and open fires, but I shall end with this suggested menu, a menu fit for a feast, drawn from my research.