Today, guest writer Jon Malings gives us the lowdown on what's cooking for Christmas on the British Isles--both past and present. Bon appetit!
In our house a pre-prandial drink of “cream” Sherry was almost obligatory, especially for the cook. Like Port—traditionally drunk after a meal, especially in Gentlemen’s clubs, which really are clubs for Gentlemen—Sherry is a fortified wine, the alcoholic content increased to around 18% by adding grape spirit as part of the fermentation process.
Both Port and Sherry used to be sickly sweet, but the British palate has changed, so now we drink lighter, drier versions, sometimes chilled or even with ice! The long-gone, cheaper, British Empire “fortified wine” was sweeter still; we could buy it on draught by the British pint from the off-licence (i.e., a shop selling alcohol that customers had to consume off the premises). And we had to take our own “pop” bottle for a refill.
A mince pie goes nicely with a Christmas morning glass of Sherry, keeping hunger pangs at bay till the Christmas Dinner proper. British pies, by definition, have a pastry top; American pies, like pecan and pumpkin, are imposters, tarts in disguise. Despite the name, mince pies are okay for vegetarians, though not necessarily for those who abjure strong drink. The mincemeat filling originally contained a mixture of meat, alcohol, spices and dried fruit—an early attempt at preserving food—but the meat has long since disappeared.
Along with the turkey, almost every Christmas Dinner includes roast(ed) potatoes and parsnips, cooked in the oven, in a tray containing a small amount of fat or oil, goose grease being the preferred option of good chefs.
When I was young, we ate with the seasons, winter vegetables boiled to within an inch of their lives: carrots, swede, cauliflower, broccoli and (a Christmas must) Brussels sprouts. To remind us of summer, we’d sometimes open a tin of peas too.
I confess: I’ve always been confused about swedes and turnips. Apparently, turnips have a green and white skin, and swedes are larger with a purple and orange skin. Just to confuse you, some of us, particularly in Ireland, will say we are eating a turnip when it’s really a swede. Some Americans eat rutabaga, which is another name for swede…or do I mean turnip?
Following a disgraceful performance by the English football team, who lost to Sweden, the Sun newspaper famously ran the headline:
“Pigs in blankets” is a favourite in our house—chipolata sausages wrapped in bacon. Some people enjoy bread sauce, a white sauce containing bread. Beef-eaters use horseradish sauce. Mint sauce goes with lamb, and applesauce, with roast pork. The best bit of the roast pig is the “crackling”, the outer layer of fat, rubbed with salt and done to a crispy, crunchy turn. And, if it’s turkey on the menu, don’t let’s forget the cranberry sauce and the stuffing—sage and onion, chestnut or whatever. Christmas just wouldn't be Christmas without that risqué joke, “Do you want stuffing ?”
The subject of “bad jokes” brings me, nicely, to the Christmas Cracker, another important Christmas Dinner item—a brightly coloured paper tube at every place-setting. I’ve seen bemused Americans wondering if they have to eat them as a “starter”. Crackers are over 150 years old and, unless you get them from Harrods, they contain a paper hat, a small novelty item like a key ring or dice, and a really bad joke. (E.g., What lives at the bottom of the sea and shakes? Answer: A Jelly fish.)
Does that joke need explaining? British jelly is something you have at a children’s party, or put in the Christmas Trifle along with a good dollop of Sherry and another of Port. It comes in three flavours—red, yellow and green. Americans call it Jell-O. The main difference between British jelly and US Jell-O comes after the products are made. Having successfully managed to turn jelly out of the bowl in one piece so that it stands proud on a plate, the British are likely to then sing, “wibble-wobble, wibble-wobble, jelly on a plate.” Some people use a decorative “jelly mould” instead of a boring bowl, hoping to impress the children.
INSTRUCTIONS FOR OPENING
A CHRISTMAS CRACKER
An Irish Christmas dinner is fairly similar to an English one except it has three or four sorts of potatoes (boiled, roast, mash and chips) and, usually, a ham as well as a turkey. There’s also something called “spiced beef”. We tried it once. A boil-in-the-bag piece of US-style corned beef floating in a liquid mix of cinnamon and spices. (Which reminds me, NEVER eat English corned beef, it’s an acquired taste. The same goes for the Irish stuff, which should definitely be left to the natives.)
After the turkey and all the trimmings, if there’s room, we eat Christmas Pudding, a rare creature never seen at any other time of year. Like the mince pie, it’s another concoction of alcohol laced with fruit and spices, but this one also contains a bit of flour and suet--which is rendered beef fat. (I’m not sure if most people know what suet is. I asked some Irish friends, and they had never heard of it.) There is also a vegetarian version of suet, which is just as good.
The Christmas pudding should be served with a sprig of holly on top and, if anyone is feeling brave, “flambéd” with brandy. It’s served with more custard or, just in case we need more Christmas spirit, a brandy sauce. If you make your own pudding, it’s tradition to put a coin, like an old silver sixpence, into it. The finder gets a prize as well as a visit to the dentist.
I think “figgy pudding” must be a relative of our Christmas pud. Never seen, only rumoured, and remembered in the song…“and we all like figgy pudding.” Maybe it was so nice that, like the Dodo, it was eaten to extinction.
After all that food, it’s 3 o’clock and time for another British tradition: the Queen’s Christmas Message to the Commonwealth. These radio broadcasts started in 1932; in 1957, a TV telecast was added; and now the message appears on the Internet too. Other public speakers would do well to take a leaf out of Her Majesty’s book as the message never takes more than 15 minutes to deliver. For all Her Majesty’s subjects, the message is primarily an excuse to sit down in front of the TV, drink liqueurs like Tia Maria or Drambuie, and eat walnuts, brazil nuts, satsumas, clementines, dates, tangerines and Christmas Cake, just in case we get hungry before it’s time for Tea.
A British Christmas Cake is a fruit-cake, not a sponge. Homemade cakes are cooked at least two months in advance and “fed” every week with brandy, rum, sherry or any other alcohol that comes to hand. Two weeks before the big day, a layer of marzipan is fixed to the top of the cake using raspberry jam, then the whole thing is covered with a thin layer of very hard and brittle “Royal icing” or regular soft icing if preferred. When the last crumb of the cake is eaten, we all heave sigh of relief: It’s over for another year.
It only remains for me to say, Merry Christmas. God bless us, every one!
Jon holds a university degree in Psychology and previously traveled the world for his job with IBM Software Development Laboratory. He now lives in Ireland, where he is semi-retired--that is, working on a wide range of projects, from gardening and genealogy to remodeling houses, the current one being a 150-year-old granite farmhouse.