A roast boar’s head along with roast goose and swan would have been the centrepieces of the Christmas dinner table in Norman castles. This rich meal would have been followed by bowls of dates, figs, apricots, raisins and pistachio nuts. These sweet treats would have been expensive, so they would have been eaten – as they were in the Middle East – as a dessert on their own.
The traditional renaissance feast for the wealthy on Christmas Day was also a boar’s head often festooned with bay leaves and rosemary. The general populace, whilst not being able to afford a whole head, would have a large joint of pork, with side dishes of pig’s ears and trotters or brawn. Some very wealthy households served the new meat – turkey – on Christmas Day, but it was not thought to be as splendid a spectacle as a whole boar’s head brought in by two servants on a huge platter.
In much the same way as we used to put coins into our Christmas puddings, the Elizabethans would put a dried bean into the Twelfth Night cake (probably a ginger cake). The lucky person who found the bean would become King or Queen Bean for the night. He or she was then in charge of the evening’s entertainment.
Wassailing was another tradition that the highest and lowest in the land enjoyed. It was originally said to be a winter fertility ritual to pay homage to the fruit trees and to drink their health in the hope that they would provide a good crop the following year. Depending on which part of the country you lived in, the basis of the drink could be cider, ale or beer. One thing common to all recipes was that it was sweet, spiced and hot.
Before the English Civil War, the twelve days of Christmas (from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night – 6th January) were usually celebrated in full but Cromwell and the Puritans reigned back the nation’s festivities to Christmas Day only while many dissenters chose not to celebrate even the 25th December.
Over more recent centuries, a large bird or joint of meat has replaced the boar’s head with Plum Potage giving way to Plum Pudding (Christmas Pudding) as a desert.
The recipes below give a small sample of what might have been prepared for Christmas gatherings over the centuries. Why not try some of them yourself? All recipes are from the Tasting the Past series.
Stuffed Chicken Festive Style (A Norman Recipe)
This recipe calls for the whole chicken – with head, feet and all – to be taken out of its skin, stuffed and made to look like a bird again. It is then painted with bright colours to make it look very unnatural.
1 chicken with head and feet still attached (it would be best to get your butcher to do this), 500 g cooked pork or chicken, finely minced, 6 eggs, 150 g chestnuts, 150 g breadcrumbs, 150 g cream cheese, ½ tsp ginger, 1 tsp savoury herb, 1 tsp cumin, 10 saffron threads, 1 tsp salt, 3 egg yolks, yellow and red food colouring
- Mix the pork or chicken mince with the breadcrumbs, eggs, chestnuts, cheese, spices and herbs.
- Stuff the bird with this mix, including part of the neck to keep the bird’s head up when baked, and save four balls of the mix to make decorative eggs.
- Roast the chicken for the required amount of time and when it is ready take it out of the oven, glaze its body with egg yolks and put back in the oven for a few seconds to set the glaze.
- Take the bird out and paint the red and yellow food colouring on the head and feet and wings of the chicken.
- While the chicken is in the oven roasting, cook the remaining stuffing in boiling water and then glaze with egg white and place in the oven for a few seconds to set.
- Put the bird on a platter of green herbs and place its eggs on the herbs next to it.
Parsnip, Carrot and Apple Fritters (Medieval)
500 g flour, 1 egg, 300 ml beer, 1 parsnip, 2 carrots, 6 cooking apples
- Peel and core the apples, parsnips and carrots and chop into small cubes.
- Put in a pan and cover with water. Boil until cooked and then drain.
- Mash well with a fork.
- In a bowl, mix the flour, egg and beer to make a stiff batter.
- Add the mashed vegetables and mix well.
- Heat the oil in a pan until it is very hot and drop spoonfuls of the batter into it. Cook on both sides until golden.
- Serve at once sprinkled with salt. If they go cold, reheat them in the oven before serving.
Grand Mince Pie (Renaissance)
450 g minced beef, 600 g suet, 350 g currants, 2 eating apples, grated, ½ tsp nutmeg, ½ tsp cloves, 1 tsp cinnamon, 225 g sugar, 225 g chopped dates, 2 oranges, 1 tsp caraway seeds + Hot water crust pastry (see recipe below)
- In a large bowl, mix all the above ingredients, apart from the pastry, dates, oranges and caraway seeds.
- When well mixed, put the moulded pastry into your hand and cover with very thinly sliced orange pieces.
- Top this with chopped dates and sprinkle on the caraway seeds. Put a pastry lid on, binding the edges, and bake in a moderate oven for at least 1 hour.
- Serve cold as a savoury centrepiece on a Christmas buffet.
Hot Water Crust Pastry
450 g plain flour, 1 tsp salt, 200 g lard, 225 ml water and milk, mixed in equal quantities
- Mix the flour and salt together in a bowl.
- Heat the milk and water in a pan with the lard until it boils.
- Pour into the flour and beat well until it is smooth.
- Let it go cold and then shape into the base and sides of your pastry with your hands. Once filled, top with a lid and seal it.
Roast and Stewed Duck (Civil War)
1 duck, 600 ml claret, 2 onions, A bunch of mixed herbs (thyme, marjoram, parsley, garlic, chives), 25 g whole peppercorns
- Roast the duck for half the required cooking time.
- Then put it in a casserole dish with the claret, onions, herbs and peppercorns.
- Seal the casserole lid with flour and water dough for a perfect seal.
- Cook for the remaining time in a slow oven.
- Put the duck on a dish and reduce the gravy, which can then be served with the meat.
Duke of Buckingham’s Pudding with Sherry Sauce (Georgian)
450 g suet, 125 g big raisins chopped, 2 eggs, 1 tsp nutmeg, 1 tsp ginger, 125 g flour, 50 g sugar
Sauce: 75 g melted butter, 3 tbsp sherry, 3 tbsp sugar
- Mix all the pudding ingredients together in a bowl.
- Dampen a large pudding cloth and flour it well all over.
- Pour the mixture into the middle of the cloth and tie tightly.
- Drop into a pan of boiling water and simmer for 3 hours.
- Combine the sauce ingredients and pour over the pudding in dishes.
Vegetable Plum Pudding (Victorian)
To show the discrepancy between social classes in Victorian Britain, here is a recipe from Eliza Acton’s book for poor people’s Christmas pudding. This recipe is said to have been enough to feed 16 people.
450 g boiled and mashed potatoes, 225 g boiled and mashed carrots, 450 g flour, 225 g suet, 350 g sugar, 450 g currants, 450 g raisins, 2 tsp nutmeg, 2 tsp mixed spice, ½ tsp salt, 2 eggs, 1 glass of either brandy, sherry or stout
- Mix together the mashed, cooked potatoes and the carrots.
- Mix in the flour and the rest of the ingredients (if adding brandy or spirits, then add 50 g
- breadcrumbs to the mix).
- Flour a dampened pudding cloth well and put the mixture into in the middle. Tie tightly.
- Put into boiling water and boil for 4 hours.
- This pudding would probably have been served with a sweet white sauce instead of the usual brandy sauce.
By Jacqui Wood
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