Dove pie, roast swan, brains in wine, pig's trotters, Anglo-Norman finger food (for the toothless), 12th cake - Colin Spencer kicks off four pages of consuming passions, tracing the development of our Christmas culinary traditions from the cheerless winter nights of the 4th century to feasts featuring the New World turkey
The Christmas festival was a late starter in early Christianity. It was only when the expectation of Christ's immediate return began to fade in the 4th century that the actual birth needed to be emphasised by celebrations. Another factor was the need to compete with the pagan festival Dies Invicti Solis (Day of the Invincible Sun), the Mithraic festival on December 25, by reinterpreting it as a Christian day of hope and faith. In the East, epiphany (January 6) was celebrated as Christ's birthday, but the Roman Church deemed this the day the Magi visited the Christchild with their gifts. So by the early Medieval period, western Christians were celebrating the 12 days of Christmas with church devotions, feasting, gambling, music and song, culminating on January 6 with the giving of presents. Food was an important part of the ritual. The 12th day, January 6, became associated with customs involving food and drink, many of them stemming from the Roman Saturnalia. Some of those are still with us.
So how far back do our traditional Christmas foods and dishes go? In the case of roast turkey not far, as it was discovered in the New World and brought back to Europe only in the early 16th century. Before that, the rich feasted on swans and peacocks, which were boiled then roasted, while the less wealthy made do with bustards and herons. The very poor ate wild pigeon or other small game birds that they could snare. Turkey, however, soon became established as a favourite: by 1550, flocks of turkeys, fed on buckwheat, carrots, barley and oats, were kept in East Anglia and driven down to London throughout the autumn and fed off the harvest stubble. Samuel Pepys was often given a present of a turkey for Christmas. By the 17th century, they had become so popular that other large birds, except for geese, were hardly eaten.
Besides game, brawn - jellied meat made from wild boar - was traditional Christmas fare up to the 16th century, but wild boar finally became extinct in the 17th century, and a brawn made from tame boars was deemed inferior. Before 1300, brawn had also been used in rich spicy soups over the 12 days of Christmas, served sliced in a thick spiced wine syrup as "brawn in comfyte" or in a sweet almond sauce as "blanche brawn". By the 14th century, it was served with a pungent mustard sauce as part of the first course, served with malmsey, a strong sweet wine. Later, another savoury Christmas dish enjoyed by the poorer middle classes was souse. Jane Austen talks of eating it with great enjoyment. Souse was all the parts of the pig that were not always used in the brawn - the ears, cheeks, snout and trotters. These were placed into a pickle and simmered for a brief time over a low flame so that the fat would not melt. The brawn was left to cool and freshly pickled with ginger, pepper and other spices.
Sometimes, great pies were made for Christmas, several Elizabethan recipes are given for turkey pie cooked with butter and spices, then clarified butter was poured through a hole in the crust so that it would keep well. There were recipes for ambitious pies made with peacock, crane, swans, doves and bustards spiced with nutmeg, cloves, pepper and salt - all the birds are boned and stuffed inside the other. Sometimes, these were made with a stout hot water crust to withstand travelling, for they were often sent off to London for a special occasion.
Before forks and false teeth had become an essential part of dining, finger food was a necessary practical method of eating. So the Anglo-Norman cuisine excelled in making tiny pies and savoury pastries where the meat was shredded or minced and mixed with spices and dried fruits. These were made in attractive shapes such as little hats or dolphins and sometimes fried in lard instead of being baked in the oven. By Elizabethan times, minced pies with shredded beef, spices and dried fruit had become part of accepted Christmas fare. By the early 18th century, cooks were making the mixture well in advance of Christmas, adding chopped apples as well as dried fruit, mixing in brandy and storing it in stone jars; as long as they left out the meat and added it only at the last moment, the mixture kept beautifully and even improved. Hence, the minced beef was finally omitted altogether.
Another stored ritual food was what became our Christmas pudding. It began as a thick soup of meat and dried fruit. An Elizabethan recipe talks of chunks of beef simmered in a little red wine with minced onions, prunes, herbs, cloves, cinnamon and mace, thickened with breadcrumbs. By the 17th century, the herbs and onions had been omitted and it had become a Christmas broth to be served at the start of the meal. This then lost its meat content and evolved into a plum porridge, laced with claret or brandy, mixed some months before, then stored. By the middle of the 19th century, Mrs Beeton was giving several recipes for a plum pudding as a Christmas dessert, boiled in a cloth or pressed into a mould. The recipe has remained almost unchanged since then, though we now tend to favour a lighter version, made without beef suet.
But of all the Christmas foods we still eat, Christmas cake has perhaps had the most chequered past, reaching its present form only at the end of the 19th century. In 1843, when Scrooge met the Ghost of Christmas Present amid all the Christmas delicacies on offer were "immense Twelfth cakes". These had existed at the centre of both Christian and pagan festivities for more than 1,000 years. A bean and pea were baked within the cake as emblems of fertility and harvest, health and prosperity. Whoever found the bean became a king for the day, while the pea was for his queen. Both were given crowns and all social rules were thrown aside, inhibitions quickly lost in high jinks, games and quantities of drink.
Twelfth night became one of the most treasured days of the year and was played out in the royal courts of Europe. In the early 16th century, the Earl of Northumberland began his Christmas season on December 25 with a magnificent entertainment that included a huge feast. Over the following days of further ample meals the participants honoured a Boy Bishop, bowed to the commands of an Abbot of Misrule, then ended on January 6 with a banquet at noon, followed by wassailing (festive drinking). This involved the wearing of costumes, masks and disguises, gambling and card-playing far into the night.
By the 17th century, however, with the expansion of the middle classes, the ritual had become domestic. In 1669, Pepys gave a dinner party for friends on Twelfth Day that ended with him slicing a "noble cake" while placing a few titles into a hat for the company to draw lots. Pepys became a queen for the night and everyone was "mighty merry". By this period, the "noble cakes" full of rich ingredients had become expensive and if a cake was pulled apart in the frenzied search for the bean and pea then it was likely to be wasted. Hence, the custom of drawing lots and the creation of other characters for the company to play - a knave, a slut and a cuckold - specially chosen to extract the most fun.
By the end of the 18th century, character cards had been printed with all the characters illustrated. Prints of the period show Twelfth Night parties around a cake with party-goers choosing their cards from a hat. Within a few decades the list of characters had grown and included Britannia, Miss Playful, Farmer Stump, a chimney sweep, a prince and princess, and many more.
The cake had by this time become very similar to the one we are familiar with today. Mrs Raffald gave a recipe in 1769 that included flour, butter, sugar, eggs, currants, almonds, spices, crystallised orange, lemon peel and brandy. These were all very large cakes. Confectioners loved the festival, for they competed with each other in creating fantastic figures of kings and queens under decorative arches out of sugar icing with swags of flowers, cupids and turtle doves. But all these were far beyond the purse and skill of ordinary families. By 1880, the Twelfth cake had become Christmas cake, baked at home, to join yule-dough and yule buns "dotted thick with plums", which John Clare noticed on every cottage table.
Colin Spencer is a food historian and author of British Food - An Extraordinary Thousand Years Of History , published by Grub Street, £45.00.