I talked about turkey in my last blog post, so today I’ll have a quick wander through the rest of what I think of as “Christmas” food. This is of course biased by my upbringing and tastes.
Nicely roasted potatoes, crisp on the outside and light and fluffy within, are my personal favourite accompaniment to roast meat. They’re a relatively recent addition to the popular diet in Europe, brought to Spain by the Conquistadors in 1536 and first grown in the UK in 1597.
Wild potato species occur throughout the Americas, from the United States to southern Chile. They were probably domesticated 7,000–10,000 years ago in present-day Peru and Bolivia. There are now about 5,000 cultivated varieties, 200 wild species and subspecies.
Forerunners to modern Brussell sprouts were probably cultivated in ancient Rome. Brussell sprouts as we now know them were grown possibly as early as the 13th century in what is now Belgium. The first written reference is from 1587. During the 16th century, they enjoyed a popularity in the southern Netherlands that eventually spread throughout the cooler parts of Northern Europe. They represent the love it or hate it aspect of Christmas for many. Personally, I'd be happy never to see one again, but there you go!
Cranberries are the fruit of low, creeping shrubs or vines with slender, wiry stems and small evergreen leaves. The berries are initially white, ripening to a deep red. Their acidic taste can overwhelm the natural sweetness, which is why they’re almost always sweetened.
Cranberries are a major commercial crop in some American states and Canadian provinces, most are processed into juice, sauce, jam, and sweetened dried cranberries. Cranberry sauce is an indispensable part of traditional American and Canadian Thanksgiving dinners and some European winter festivals. And my Christmas dinner!
Recently, the global “functional food” industry has marketed raw cranberries as a "superfruit" due to their nutrient and antioxidant content.
When I was a child, we always had Christmas Pudding from a hand-written recipe tucked into an old cookery book. Sadly, this has long been lost. I don’t suppose I’m unique in not being keen on it as a youngster, but now rather enjoy it as my tastes have changed.
It’s still often talked about as “plum pudding” or “plum duff”, but it’s usually a boiled pudding with dried fruit. The recipe brings together what traditionally were expensive or luxurious ingredients, dried fruits, spices, candied fruits, sugar and treacle. Until the 19th century, the English Christmas pudding was boiled in a pudding cloth, which is why they’re often shown as round. The idea of ball-shaped puddings were introduced from Scotland by King George I (of England) VI (of Scotland).
The new Victorian era fashion involved putting the batter into a basin and then steaming it, followed by unwrapping the pudding, placing it on a platter, and decorating its top with a sprig of holly.
Eliza Acton, a cook from East Sussex, appears to have been the first to refer to it as "Christmas Pudding" in her 1845 cookbook, in a recipe familiar to us today. Her cookbook was also the first to list set quantities of ingredients, an idea copied ever since.
And “Mrs Beeton” obviously copied a lot of Eliza’s recipes into her own, better known book. Isabella Beeton (1836 – 1865) was the wife of the publisher of The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, which first published what became the Book of Household Management in instalments.
The ingredients for the modern mince pie can be traced to the crusades, when Middle Eastern methods of cooking, combining meats, fruits and spices, became popular.
In Tudor England, shrid pies were made from shredded meat, suet, dried fruit and spices like cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg
In 1615, Gervase Markham wrote a recipe telling us to take "a leg of mutton", and cut "the best of the flesh from the bone", before adding mutton suet, pepper, salt, cloves, mace, currants, raisins, prunes, dates and orange peel. Beef, beef tongue, veal or goose were also used.
Um, okay, I'll give it a go. After you...
By Victorian times, the fruit and spice filling might be prepared months before use and stored in jars, and meat was rarely used (although the use of suet remains).
Sugar and Spice and All Things Nice
Historically, sugar, spices and dried fruits were very expensive luxury items.
Cane sugar was first produced in New Guinea about 8000 years ago. It spread to India, Persia and then to the Mediterranean. It was grown in Spain and Portugal in the fifteenth century, then taken to the New World. The trade in slaves from Africa started largely to help sugar production in the Caribbean and South America.
Brown sugar (light, dark or demerara) is ordinary granulated sugar coated with molasses, a viscous by-product from processing sugar cane, grapes or sugar beets into sugar.
Treacle is any syrup made during the refining of sugar. The most common forms of treacle are a pale syrup known as golden syrup, and a darker syrup usually referred to as dark treacle or black treacle.
Pub general knowledge quiz trivia bonus! The first patent for sugar cubes was granted to Jakub Kryštof Rad in 1843.
Technically speaking, spices are aromatic or pungent flavourings made from the hard parts of some tropical and subtropical plants. Valued for culinary and medicinal uses, they’ve been widely traded for thousands of years. Bill Bryson talks about the spice trade in his entertaining book “At Home”.
The typical “Christmas” spices are nutmeg, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. Nutmeg comes from the seeds of the tropical evergreen tree. Cloves are the dried flower buds of a tropical evergreen tree in the myrtle family. These two were originally found on just a handful of islands in the Moluccas, an archipelago of 16,000 islands in the Far East. Ginger is a root originally grown in India and China. Cinnamon is the dried inner bark of shoots of a tropical bushy evergreen tree of the laurel family, native to India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar.
Raisins are dried grapes. Here in the UK, we use the word for large dark-coloured dried grapes, sultanas for the golden-coloured dried grape, and currant for the small Black Corinth dried grape. The word raisin, meaning grape, was adopted into Middle English from Old French.
Oranges (or sweet oranges if you’re fussy) probably originated in South-East Asia and were being cultivated in China around 2500 BC. They were brought to the Mediterranean in the late 15th and early 16th centuries.
Lemons may have first grown in southern India. They were grown in Italy during the first century AD, widely distributed around the Mediterranean and Arab regions by 1150 as ornamental plants.
The apple is one of the most widely cultivated tree fruits. They originated in western Asia and have been grown for thousands of years. There are more than 7,500 known cultivars of apple.
Finally, do you wish others “happy Christmas” or a “merry Christmas”?
"Merry," derived from the Old English myrige, originally meant "pleasant, and agreeable" rather than joyous or jolly. The first known use of a specific greeting is 1565, in The Hereford Municipal Manuscript: "And thus I comytt you to God, who send you a mery Christmas."
"Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year" is contained in the sixteenth century secular English carol "We Wish You a Merry Christmas".
The word "merry" began to take on its current meaning of "jovial, cheerful, jolly and outgoing" in the 19th century. "Merry Christmas" in this context was used in A Christmas Carol , written in 1843, and which was a very popular book.
"Happy Christmas" appeared in the late 19th century, a time where merry also meant "tipsy" or "drunk”. This might have jarred with the Methodist Victorian middle-classes and their ideas about wholesome celebrations.
Personally, I prefer Merry Christmas, as I might imbibe the odd small sherry at some point. And it means I can also wish you a Happy New Year without repeating myself.