Fare for the Holiday

Alan Ross

Culinary aspects of a distinctly British Christmas?

Well, over here in the UK the most popular and traditional holiday edibles certainly have ingredients that are uniquely British, but there are also a great many that are imported from the far corners of the former Empire—not least the exotic spices that I can almost smell just thinking about writing these words.

My own memories of a Real British Christmas start in the mid 1950s, only a few years after Britain finally emerged from the rationing that lasted long after the end of the Second World War. The staple elements of Christmas in the British Isles, however, hark back to Victorian times, with the tree attributed to Victoria’s beloved Prince Albert, and the sentimentality, gluttony, and merrymaking almost singlehandedly a long-lasting product of the six weeks it took Charles Dickens to write A Christmas Carol in 1843.

At the time of this book’s creation, Dickens was deeply in debt, largely due to subsidizing his spendthrift father. Alas, this literary effort was turned down by his usual publisher, who had been disappointed in the sales of Martin Chuzzlewit. But refusing to be defeated, Dickens invested what little money he had in publishing 4,000 copies himself for good or for ill. It was clearly going to be a watershed moment.

The Man Who Invented Christmas by Les Standiford chronicles this story in detail and makes wonderful festive reading. It provides a marvelous account of how this near disaster for Charles Dickens turned into a triumph for him and how his tale of Ebenezer Scrooge, Tiny Tim, Bob Cratchit, Jacob Marley, et al breathed new life into the old pagan end-of-year festivities and has done ever since.

For the purposes of this edition of Orange and Magenta, rather than dwell on the non-edible trappings of a British Christmas, let’s concentrate on the food. (After all, does anyone still make long paper chains out of gummed colored strips of paper that we industriously licked in the 1950s? And can you still buy long narrow strips of tinsel to drape over the tree?)

Recently there has been an outcry over the decision of the Cadbury confectionery company to stop making its chocolate coins, wrapped in gold foil, and packed in a string bag. In truth, a Christmas stocking simply wasn’t complete without them, a tangerine, and a bag of nuts. (We must give thanks that other brands of chocolate coins ARE available. Please choose sensibly.)

In my childhood, boxes of dates, branded “Eat Me,” appeared in shops just in time for the holiday—sometime in mid-December. These boxes came complete with a little wooden fork and, every year, in our household anyway, box, fork, and even some dates went out with the garbage in early January. Did the packaging have an illustration of a camel? I think so. We always thought we would eat them, and invariably never did. Figs were trifled with one year, and fared even less successfully, though, illogically, fig rolls got the thumbs-up.

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Great favorites with all the families I knew were treats like Turkish delight with that delicious icing sugar . . . Terry’s Chocolate Ginger and Chocolate Orange . . . After Eight mints . . . and, of course, the various chocolate “Selection Boxes.” Still another treat was the Mackintosh’s “Quality Street” assortment of sweets which came in a large tin. Each chocolate or toffee was individually wrapped in crinkly colored paper that seemed to enhance the pleasure of unwrapping them. Alas, there were never ever enough purple ones in the tin. (Clearly it wasn’t just my family that considered those wrapped in purple the best of the bunch; nowadays you can buy a whole purple-wrapped chocolate bar based on that very same hazelnut with caramel concoction!)

On  to booze.

Britain is now firmly a nation of Champagne drinkers at Christmas, though it was not ever thus. In fact, wine of any kind didn’t really become widespread on British dinner tables until the 1970s, and for some reason Asti Spumante seemed to be the perfect embodiment of British middle-class reserve at Christmas (in our household anyway). It was a bit special, but nothing swanky. Other Christmas favorites, apart from ordering an extra bottle of Harveys Bristol Cream sherry (ugh!), involved Glenfiddich malt whisky, cherry brandy, and Cointreau. Clearly we had a sweet tooth as far as alcohol was concerned.

My Aunt Winifred used to make her own sloe gin, which kept us warm during many a card game on Christmas visits to the Cotswolds and made sure that we usually had no idea what game we were playing or who was winning as the evening wore on. This is as close to her recipe as I can remember:

1 lb sloes
8 oz caster sugar
1¾ pint gin
Prick the skin of the sloes all over with a needle or pin and put in a large sterilized jar.

Pour in the sugar and the gin, seal tightly, and shake well.
Store in a cool dark place and shake every other day for a week. Then shake once a week for at least two months.

Strain the sloe gin through muslin into a sterilized bottle.

Equally lethal, Winnie’s homemade Christmas pudding, made as tradition demanded on “Stir Up Sunday,” five weeks before the big day, was so saturated with brandy that, when lit, it doubled as a fire hazard.

So, what of the main meals and accompaniments of a British Christmas?

These days, all the major supermarkets publish magazines full of beautifully photographed table settings groaning under the weight of whatever festive fare they are pushing this year. In the past few years, a “three-bird roast” (of duck, turkey, and pheasant) has been superseded by a “four-bird roast” (of turkey breast, duck breast, goose, and chicken) and, in the current edition of Aldi’s Christmas literature, by a “five-bird roast” (of turkey, duck, goose, pheasant, and chicken layered with a pork, clementine, and cranberry stuffing, topped with bacon and a port and cranberry glaze). The illustration looks exactly like a meat version of a chocolate Yule log.

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Despite all these frankly grotesque versions of yuletide gluttony lovingly frozen for your delectation and indigestion, most meat-eating Brits will be sitting down to a traditional midday meal, followed (at 3 p.m.) by the Queen’s televised “Christmas Message to the Commonwealth.” Though time to time we have flirted with goose, duck, or even a side of salmon for a change, turkey is still the festive meal of choice. In past decades this meant quite ingenious recipes to use the leftovers, which could easily stretch into the New Year. Cold turkey would give way to turkey curry, which would give way to turkey sandwiches, and thence to turkey soup.

With today’s trend toward smaller families, many people solve the problem by just buying a large turkey breast—a particularly good choice if dark meat is not to the liking of most of the diners. And we also have stopped getting up at 3 a.m. in order to start cooking the turkey; smaller birds mean that cooks can have a reasonable lie in on Christmas Day. Your typical 14-pound oven-ready turkey cooked in foil will take 40 minutes at 425ºF (Gas mark 7), followed by 4 hours at 325ºF (Gas mark 3), and then with the foil (and bacon) removed from the top and sides for a final 40 minutes at 400ºF (Gas mark 6) to allow the skin to become a lovely brown color.

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Though the British affect to despise brussels sprouts, it is impossible to imagine Christmas dinner without them! Roast potatoes and parsnips, peas, carrots, and rich gravy poured over sage and onion stuffing all conspire to engender the collapse of most of the family who will snore their way through the James Bond or Walt Disney film offered as Christmas Day afternoon entertainment—and that’s not taking into account several helpings of Christmas pudding.

Christmas pudding itself started life hundreds of years ago as a kind of “peasant’s soup” made with meat and grain. Spices were added to it at Christmastime to make it celebratory. There are now as many varieties as there are cookbooks, but the basic ingredients involve suet, flour, breadcrumbs, mixed spice, nutmeg, cinnamon, sultanas, raisins, currants, mixed peel, almonds, apples, orange and lemon rind, eggs, rum, stout, barley wine, brandy, and soft brown sugar. Traditionally homemade puddings, such as the ones of blessed memory that the aforementioned Aunt Winifred made, would have to be steamed for 8 hours, then put aside in a cool dry larder until the big day itself when they would be steamed again for 2 hours.

Most British households will nowadays “make do” with shop-bought Christmas puddings and Christmas cakes—and thanks to the wonders of microwaves, the Christmas pud can be heated in minutes, rather than steamed in hours. The addition of brandy, poured over the pudding and flamed, is essential, as is brandy butter or brandy sauce.

After all of this, it is ridiculous to suggest that any more food be taken on Christmas Day at all, but amazingly enough, quite a few families indulge in a Christmas evening tea. Others relegate this to Boxing Day, December 26.

Christmas tea is where cold meats, including the first remains of the turkey, have pride of place. A glazed ham and cheeseboard are staples, along with many varieties of pork pie, pickles, mustards, crackers, pates, and some sweet collations such as a sherry trifle, made with sponge, fruit, custard, and enough alcohol to float a battleship. (It is no wonder that cirrhosis of the liver is rapidly becoming a common British disease.) A chocolate and sponge Yule log may make an appearance at this tea, along with Christmas cake, and mince pies. These are little pastry concoctions containing mincemeat, which confusingly isn’t meat at all but instead consists of most of the spice and dried fruit ingredients of Christmas pudding!

A mince pie is traditionally left out on Christmas Eve as a present for Santa Claus. Delivering presents is thirsty work, so a glass of sherry usually accompanies the mince pie, and of course a carrot is left for Rudolph—it wouldn’t do to forget the most famous reindeer of all!

In these politically correct times, some Brits are renouncing many of the elements of the traditional British Christmas feast, and even most meat-eaters are quite rightly insisting that poultry be raised in humane organic conditions. But whether you sit down to a nut cutlet or gorge yourself on turkey and all the trimmings, in the immortal words of Dickens’s own much beloved Tiny Tim: “God bless us, everyone!”

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Issue Twenty Two