The evolution of the country Christmas dinner

A dish of larks, roast cygnet and a kaleidoscope of spiced mincemeat pies: food historian Ivan Day traces our modern Christmas meal through the excesses of yesteryear

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A classic spread of roast turkey with all the trimmings, followed by plum pudding, is the most familiar of all our culinary traditions. But what did our ancestors like to eat at Christmas? Some of our yuletide dishes have been with us for centuries, but we have lost many others on the way.
All of us have more than a passing acquaintance with Christmas cake and mince pies, but whatever happened to such seasonal delights as hackin or plum potage?We tend to assume that traditions are firmly embedded in ancient practice. But as time passes, customs change. In modern Britain, we sit down to a celebration lunch on 25 December after we have opened our presents. But this was not always the case. Until the early 18th century, gifts were more commonly exchanged on New Year’s Day and the main occasion for truly excessive feasting was 6 January, the last day of the 12-day holiday.
 
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The earliest published Christmas menu dates from 1660, the year of Charles II’s restoration to the throne. This remarkable document, which looks more like a catalogue than a menu, is reproduced on page 32. It describes a gigantic meal served in two courses, each containing more than 20 different dishes. Its author, master cook Robert May, was nostalgically attempting to revive the lavish hospitality on offer before the austerity of the Commonwealth, when even enjoying a mince pie was frowned upon by the more extreme puritans.
 
On May’s overladen table are several dishes that are close to the Christmas foods we enjoy today. There is turkey for instance, though it is served in two ways – as a pie and as a roast bird, stuck with cloves. However, it does not enjoy the pride of place we would give it today. In this vast Christmas feast, the turkey is crowded out by an array of other birds and dishes such as a kid goat with a pudding in its belly – more than 40 dishes in all, and no vegetarian options.
 

A blowout like this would only have been enjoyed by the very wealthy. In the same year that May published his lavish bill of fare, a cash-stricken Samuel Pepys dined simply at home on a leg of mutton and a chicken. The poor enjoyed even more rudimentary pleasures – a Tudor labourer might treat himself to a white Christmas loaf as a brief respite from his usual coarse wheaten bread.

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Fat festive fowl
The reason why our ancestors ate birds at Christmas was because both domestic and wildfowl were at their very best at this turning point of the year. Feed, particularly in the wild, was much scarcer in the later winter months, so it made sense to eat fowl when they were fat and succulent.

At the time of Charles II, no one bird was preferred for the Christmas table. It was not until the Victorian period that we narrowed our choice down to goose and turkey, abandoning the peacocks, bustards and bitterns favoured in earlier times.

In fact, if any bird has a claim to being the original Christmas fowl, it was the swan – though not any old swan. Only six-month old cygnets, which had been fattened up in a separate pond from their parents on barley and grass, would fit the bill. Adult swan was too tough. Christmas dinners featuring cygnet were still being enjoyed in Norfolk even at the beginning of the 20th century.

If a juvenile swan was the pride of the Norfolk yule table, Yorkshire was the home of the Christmas pie, a huge barn of pastry filled with a turkey stuffed with a goose, a fowl, a duck and a pigeon – all with bones removed and any gaps filled with pieces of hare and woodcock. This was the precursor of that recent craze for multi-bird roasts. However, our ancestors baked these birds in pastry, so that the fat released from the goose fried the dry turkey in the sealed pie-case, producing succulent meat. When the pie had cooled, clarified butter was poured through a hole in the lid to seal the meat in, ensuring that it would keep for months.
 
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These huge pies were designed to be eaten cold and were frequently sent long distances as gifts. The crust was often embellished with pastry decorations. One, served to Queen Victoria on Christmas Day in 1847, was so large that it had to be carried to table on a stretcher by four footmen (left).
 
The history of the mince pie
Mince pies originated in the 16th century or earlier. Though sweet, they usually contained meat, which tended to be overpowered by the strong flavours of the spices and preserved fruit, so was barely detectable. It is often said they were made in the shape of a crib to commemorate the Christ child and that they contained three spices, symbolising the gifts of the three kings. These are nice stories, but the truth is much more interesting. Unlike our simple modern round pies, they were made in a myriad of eccentric shapes and usually contained four or more spices. Many of the cookery books of the 17th and 18th centuries featured illustrated designs showing the latest fashions in mince pie shapes. These delightful little knot gardens of spicy mincemeat were arranged on a salver in a charming kaleidoscope pattern.
 
It is often said, incorrectly, that Christmas pudding evolved from a spicy soup called plum or Christmas potage. This was made with strong meat stock in which prunes, raisins and spices were cooked, and it is probably the oldest of all our celebratory dishes. However, some early menus show that Christmas potage and plum pudding were both served at the same meal, so they were actually two separate, unrelated dishes. Christmas pudding is more likely to be a descendent of an ancient English sweet haggis called a hackin, which was made with oatmeal, dried fruit, suet and grated apple. It, like its savoury Scottish relative, was boiled in a sheep’s stomach.
 
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The prize for the most artistic Christmas dish, however, has to go to Twelfth cakes, served on the feast of the Epiphany in the late Georgian period. These were intricately iced with two gilded sugar crowns, symbolising the king and queen of the evening’s revels. Special packs of cards illustrated with humorous characters were shuffled and the partygoers compelled to play out the role shown on the card they had picked. The unlucky ones might have to act out the role of an old crone for the rest of the night, while those who picked the king and queen would be able to boss everybody else about. But everybody got a slice of Twelfth cake. That is until it was gradually replaced by the modern Christmas cake. It is often said that Queen Victoria disapproved of the gambling and excess that took place on Twelfth Night. Whether this is true or not, the custom of the Twelfth cake certainly faded away.
 
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Today’s Christmas traditions have firm roots in the past, but some would argue that the feasting of earlier centuries was far more extravagant than our trimmed down 21st-century Christmas dinner. So if you’re feeling full after the turkey this Christmas, just be thankful a cygnet pie, six larded eels and a brace of partridge aren’t next.
 
 

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Festive punch
Two authentic early 18th-century punch recipes, with their original text

Royal punch
Take three pints of the best brandy, as much spring-water, a pint or better of the best lime-juice, a pound of double refined sugar. This punch is better than weaker punch, for it does not so easily affect the head, by reason of the large quantity of lime-juice more than common, and it is more grateful and comfortable to the stomach.

Punch for chambermaids
Take a quart of water, a quarter of a pint of Lime-juice; squeeze in also the juice of a Seville orange and a lemon; put in six ounces of fine sugar; strain all through a strainer, three times till it is very clear then put in a pint of brandy, and half a pint of white-wine.

A bill of fare for Christmas Day
and how to set the meat in order

Oysters
A collar of brawn
Stewed broth of mutton with marrow bones
A grand sallet
A pottage of caponets
A breast of veal in stoffado
A boil’d partridge
A chine of beef, or sirloin roast
Minced pies
A jegote of mutton with anchove sauce
A made dish of sweetbread
A swan roast
A pasty of venison
A kid with a pudding in his belly
A steak pie
A hanch of vension, roasted
A turkey roast and stuck with cloves
A made dish of chickens in puff paste
Two bran geese roasted, one larded
Two large capons
A custard

The second course for the
same mess

Oranges and lemons
A young lamb or kid
Two couple of rabbits, two larded
A pig souc’t with tongues
Three ducks, one larded
Three pheasants, one larded
A swan pye
Three brace of partridge, three larded,
made dish in puff paste
Bolonia sausages, and anchovies, mushrooms, and cavieate, and pickled oysters in a dish
Six eels, three larded
A gammon of Westphalia bacon
Ten plovers, five larded
A quince pye, or warden pie
Six woodcocks, three larded
A standing tart in puff paste, preserved
fruits, pippins, etc
A dish of larks
Six dried neats tongues
Sturgeon
Powdered geese, jellies

From Robert May, The Accomplisht Cook,
London 1660.

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Ivan Day is a food historian, curator and chef who features in BBC TV series The Hairy Bikers Best of British. He also runs two-day historic cookery courses from his kitchen in Cumbria.

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Photos by Dave Willis