We have the Victorians, in large measure, to thank for Christmas. Or at least the version of it that we celebrate today. After all, they were the ones who, encouraged by the Christmas-crazy royal family, religious fervour and economic growth, normalised present-giving, Christmas trees, crackers, Father Christmas, chocolate boxes and Christmas cards. And, crucially, “traditional” Christmas dinner.
Seasonal feasting and celebration existed long before the Victorians, however, and I’ve come to think there are food traditions worth resuscitating from earlier centuries. Some of the dishes recommended for revival here might challenge those of us without servants, but if you are historically curious and have time on your hands, I invite you to embrace a forgotten Christmas recipe from across the centuries.
A medieval Christmas. Surely, after a year of imposed restraint and repetition, we should go the whole hog on excess and drama and embrace the medieval tradition of serving a roasted boar’s head?
Medieval festivities were celebrated over 12 days, with feasts and games. In wealthy households, a boar’s head would be gilded with gold leaf and served surrounded by coloured jellies. Those of lesser means prepared the head by pickling it in ale and spices, then chopping the flesh to create either a thick liquid or a solid, pâté-like brawn.
Traditionally served with salt and mustard, brawn is almost unheard of now, but it was a mainstay of English cookery until the early Victorian period. Domestic goddess Eliza Acton includes two recipes for it in her 1845 Modern Cookery for Private Families.
Getting hold of a wild boar’s head is not as easy today as it was in medieval times, but a pig’s head will work just as well and should only set you back about £5. This is clearly not one for the squeamish but, if you have the stomach to shave a pig’s face and the patience to bone out its plentiful flesh, then it could well become a festive staple.
The Elizabethan and Jacobean eras. There are two recipes I propose we recover from Elizabethan and Jacobean Christmas. As befits the period, both are laden with sugar. This was, remember, the time of European expansion to the New World, creating misery and genocide for indigenous and enslaved populations — and bringing untold wealth and a sweet tooth to the English.
Sugar was both fantastically expensive and considered to have medicinal properties. Creating sweet foods therefore served the double function of promising good health while also displaying wealth and status.
First up for revival is Elizabethan “quidany”, a jelly made from boiled quince and sugar, rather like Spanish membrillo. In season from October to December, quince features regularly in 17th-century recipe books. Deep, ruby-red quidany was set in elaborate wooden moulds or shaped into small rounds like edible jewels. It could happily replace today’s Quality Street or Chocolate Orange.
The other recipe is a Jacobean version of the mince pie. Like their close cousin the Christmas pudding, mince pies date back to the early 1400s, when “pyes” or “coffyns” of tough flour paste containing meat or fish, fat and dried fruit doubled up as cooking and storage vessels. The suet found in modern mince pies is what remains of the meat in older versions.
Gervase Markham’s 1615 “minc’d pie” recipe in his cookery book The English Housewife calls for a “legge of mutton” with “some Orenge-pils [orange peel] sliced” and “great Raisins and Prunes”. What passes for a mince pie today seems positively parsimonious by comparison.
The Georgian period. Rather than the standard Christmas cake, consider instead a Twelfth Night Cake, which is a cake and a game rolled into one. Twelfth Night Cake is a Georgian leavened fruitcake, so less dense and stodgy than a Christmas cake but not as fluffy and insubstantial as a panettone. Symbolising good fortune, Twelfth Night Cakes were a feature of celebrations from the 1500s, intended to serve a large crowd and integral to festive games.
Before the 1800s these cakes were baked with a bean inside. The person who ended up with it in their slice of cake became “King of the Bean”, allowed to rule over everyone for a night and make their “subjects” perform pranks and tasks.
By the late 1700s, bakers and confectioners were selling cakes along with colourful sheets of paper with satirical characters such as “Gouty Roger”, “Mrs Flash-Along”, “Lady Tulip” and “Miss Gillyflower”. Partygoers would act the character on their card, in what was rather like a Georgian version of charades.
Twelfth Night Cakes were traditionally enormous, elaborate and expensive — Queen Victoria’s cake in 1849 was 80cm in diameter, and even the recipe in John Mollard’s 1802 The Art of Cookery Made Easy and Refined calls for seven pounds of flour. Over time, the Twelfth Night Cake was superseded by Christmas cake, which could be made in a domestic oven. Nevertheless, a light, giant fruity cake including a game sounds like a tradition worth resuscitating and begs the question: who is the modern-day equivalent of Gouty Roger?
Victorian Christmas. Despite our devotion to Victoriana, there are at least two 19th-century traditions we have neglected — the cold sideboard and the Christmas pie. In large homes, throughout the festive period, the dining-room sideboard would be kept stocked with pickles, hams, pressed tongue, brawn, spiced beef and cheese. It was a seasonal sign of welcome and hospitality. Without central heating, rooms were cold enough for food to sit out without spoiling, so these delectable treats were on hand for grazing and could be used to feed any unexpected visitors.
The centrepiece of the sideboard would be a Christmas pie, sometimes known as Yorkshire pie. This beast of a pasty was intended to be eaten gradually over the duration of festivities and was invariably sumptuous and ornate.
Charles Elme Francatelli, one-time chef to Queen Victoria, has a recipe from 1846 for one that requires a turkey, a goose, a brace of young pheasants, four partridges, four woodcocks, a dozen snipes, four grouse and four widgeons, a small York ham and two tongues baked with forcemeat in a hot-crust pastry. Your butcher might need advance warning.
The early 20th century. Today, chestnuts feature alongside sprouts and stuffing, but cookery books from the early 1920s and 1930s suggest how this winter nut should contribute more to the festive menu.
Though the Victorian fashion for lavish, formal entertaining among wealthy circles lasted well into the 20th century, by the 1920s cooking had become noticeably less fancy. Complex French dishes requiring days of labour fell out of favour. A new generation of cookery writers looked to regional British food for inspiration, with recipes that prioritised flavour, simplicity and seasonality.
The Gentle Art of Cookery (1925) by hostess, herbalist and cookery writer Hilda Leyel, is a case in point. She includes no fewer than 26 recipes for chestnuts. “Chicken liver and chestnut sandwich” and “chestnut salad” sound perfect for a Boxing Day buffet.
And how about “hot chestnuts and prunes” after Christmas dinner? Cooked chestnuts soaked with prunes, cinnamon, sugar, lemon juice and a “wineglassful of sherry” and served hot “in a silver dish”? It sounds like a more digestible way to end a gut-busting retro feast than stodgy Christmas pudding.
The kitsch 1960s. There was a brief window in the second half of the 20th century when the housewife ruled supreme in the domestic kitchen. Before then, she’d had to cede control of her larder to the government, thanks to rationing and war-induced austerity.
But when the Ministry of Food finally departed and 1960s prosperity kicked in, the nation was gripped by a cult of domesticity.
In homage to this moment, why not embrace 1960s kitsch and crack out the piping bag and gelatin? Why not, for instance, fashion penguins out of boiled eggs and black olives? Or how about Ham Cornets, as recommended for a Boxing Day buffet by the 1967 Cordon Bleu Cookery Course, an essential monthly publication for aspirational housewives? These are slices of ham rolled into cones piped with pâté de foie, béchamel sauce, sherry and cream.
Or why not try the Cordon Bleu Boxing Day Egg Mousse, made with béchamel, 12 hard-boiled eggs, cream and gelatin and decorated with ribbons of cucumber? According to the Cordon Bleu, this forms part of a “light” and “quick” menu, which suggests the words have changed meaning in the intervening years. What has not changed is the fact that a pâté-stuffed cornet of ham or cake-sized cold mousse would look good in any Boxing Day buffet.
Polly Russell is a curator at the British Library; Instagram: the_history_cook
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