Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or more likely living in a dark room of despair since the draft Brexit agreement, you don’t need me to tell you that the mercantile part of the Christmas season is in full swing. Stores are playing Christmas music on repeat to the point your ears bleed; a very sick elf has projectile vomited Christmas decorations over streets and stores; and useless gifts that really no one needs – seriously who needs a jar with matches in it for £10!? – are being offered up like they are the best thing since the Messiah.
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. 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. Urgh Christmas cake, it’s just fruitcake, the worst cake of all, covered in a sickening amount of icing and marzipan.
Much of it is supermarket bought but, after your five hundredth mini quiche or dry turkey Christmas lunch, you want to blow your brains out – December, the most culinary boring of the months, and it shouldn’t be; the variety of seasonably available produce is great.
Thankfully, as dull as the food can be, it’s moved on from the 1950s and rationing, and the suggestions The Daily Mirror then made via their cartoon housewife cooking strip (complete with mild sexism). A dutiful housewife should serve canapés including: cheese flavoured custard tarts, tomato halves filled with fish salad, celery stuffed with a cheese margarine mixture, meat paste on toast with capers, liver sausage on toast with pickle, flaked grilled bloater mixed with cold scrambled egg on toast, and shrimps mixed in curry sauce on biscuits or toast.
Today’s traditional Christmas lunch has its roots in the Victorian period, and while some of us like turkey – and you should too; if you’re having dry turkey it means it was cooked badly, moist turkey is perfectly easy to achieve – it gets a bit stale having it all month long at lunch after lunch. Variety is what’s lacking for most of us in December and it shouldn’t be. We’ve forgotten the wonders of December and Christmas tables past.
A menu of foods available at a Bristol tavern during Christmas 1788 lists some 104 different dishes, ranging from turtle soup, to oysters and scallops, to carp, perch, salmon, place, turbot, salt fish, eels and other fish, to hares, grouse, wild duck, moorhens, sea pheasant, woodcocks, snipe, and golden plovers. 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.
In short what was eaten was what was in season and fattened up by this time. On table plans from Charles Carter’s 1723 cookbook The Compleat City and Country Cook [sic] you’ll see dishes labled puffin and ox eyes even if the book doesn’t include recipes for these enticing delicacies. Another delicacy that was enjoyed, this time by those naughty Tudors, well the rich naughty Tudors, was crane. One of the Earls of Northumberland between 1350-1550 procured cranes for Christmas. This was no cheap roast either; in 1532 Henry VIII bought cranes for his table at a cost of 4.s 8.d (or approx. £121 in 2013) each, though that’s cheaper than swan at 6s each (or approx. £156). It’s hardly surprising that Henry would have eaten crane given that he is known to have dined on many exotic creatures, including dolphin.
Of course no matter what bird you plump for you need stuffing. In Charles Carter’s 1732 cookbook a turkey stuffing is made from pistachios, chestnut, forcemeat balls, sweetbreads, morelles [sic], lumps of marrow coated in egg yolk (bone marrow as opposed to the vegetable I would suggest), spices and salt. The honour for probably the richest stuffing recipe there is, but not the most expensive, may well belong to Elizabeth Raffald’s stuffing for goose. She stuffs the bird with sage, onion, 3 sharp apples finely chopped, breadcrumbs of a penny loaf (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 by today’s standards is cheap (certainly under £10) but, despite the inclusion of the cheapest bread available, the use of half a nutmeg would have been an extravagance. Until the mid 1800s, nutmeg only came from one island, Banda Island (known as Run to the English) in the East Indies, now part of Indonesia. The island was fought over by the Dutch and English, given the high price that the spice commanded; the same price as a London house at the time. When Elizabeth Raffald first published her book and this recipe, in 1769, the cost of one nutmeg in today’s money would have been around £544. So Raffald is calling for the use of approximately £272 worth of nutmeg, making the stuffing both today, and then, extremely expensive.
While Christmas now is ubiquitous with capitalism to drive consumption, it’s nothing new. During the reign of George V, that Victorian creation, the Christmas pudding, got a rebranding as Empire Pudding. Why? Because the ingredients for it were grown across the different corners of the Empire and there was a drive to encourage the home nation to support the industries in the colonies that produced them.
Thankfully the festive season isn’t just about gluttony but also copious amounts of – often much needed – alcohol. When it comes to mulled wine what we drink now is closer to the German gluhwein than the mulled wine of old. We have also forgotten about the mulled ale of old and the snack that came with the drink; Elizabeth Raffald tells her reader to serve the mulled wine with toast at the bottom of each cup.
Ok, so some of these foods aren’t quite so appetising – or legal – these days but that doesn’t mean you should rule out everything December and Christmas used to have to offer. After all, this is better than a Hard Brexit Christmas table, and variety is the spice of life (and isn’t as expensive as a nutmeg!).