The Christmas Table

  • Posted on 20th December 2016 by Guest - Emma
  • Sometimes, I wish I could travel back in time to witness the great feasts and celebrations of the Medieval and Tudor eras. Christmases were long drawn out affairs, lasting 12 full days. Of course, it was only the nobility who would have had these long festivities; it would have been a very different story for the cook and the servants who had to prepare and serve food constantly for 11 days and only being able to relax a bit on the Twelfth.
     
    Imagine Christmas Day every day for 11 days straight and then maybe a day of cold meats for the twelfth! To some, this sounds amazing but to the majority, we would certainly struggle. However, the run-up to Christmas Day or Advent was not filled with office parties and ‘urban family’ get-togethers; it was a time of fasting and abstemiousness. Advent was 24 days of preparation for the body and soul – a pre-binge detox to cope with the excesses of the 12 days of Yuletide.  And you would have needed it, as Yule foods were rich and meaty – beef, venison, and goose were enjoyed in great quantities. We now think of turkey as the Christmas main course and in fact, we have been eating this since Dickens was a lad but traditionally, it was the humble goose that would have had its moment on the festive table of most families. Old Mother Goose, she of Pantomime fame, used to make little booties for her geese in order to protect their little feet on the very long walk into London! So you can imagine that this was not the delicious, juicy goose we know today but a tougher, bonier and greasier older relation. No wonder the American import, the turkey, began to replace it.
    The medieval rich would have enjoyed roast venison however they wouldn’t eat the offal, which was known as umbles, so they would give this away to their servants. These umbles were then fashioned into some sort of pie and so they were forced to eat umble pie!
     
    Mince pies should be a medley of dark, spicy, fruit and brandy tucked into a small and delicate crumbly pastry case. It should be easy to eat as an accompaniment to a small glass of sherry or slathered in cream or brandy butter and eaten at every available moment. Well, that is my personal opinion and, yes, it used to contain minced beef.  There were layers of spiced fruit and also beef. It was a luxurious and somewhat decadent pie as beef was costly and you could hardly taste it above the spicy fruitiness! The Victorians saw it as wasteful so mince pies became meatless from this time as suet replaced the beef.
     
    Traditionally, plums, grapes, apricots and other fruits were dried and used throughout the long hard winters as a sweet treat. They also found their way into many of the UK’s traditional Christmas foods, for example, Christmas pudding. This started out as a pottage, a type of soup, to which dried fruit and old breadcrumbs were added.
    The Christmas pudding (also known as Plum pudding or Figgy pudding) evolved out of this soupy concoction (goodness only knows how!) and became the dense, rich, booze-laden ‘pudding’ that we know today. The survival of the Christmas pudding abroad owes much to Charles Dickens' image of the Cratchits' pudding ‘singing’ in the copper pot. The idea of setting the pudding alight was probably a throwback to a popular game called Snap Dragon. This game was a pyromaniac’s dream where you competed to pull burning raisins from a flaming bowl of brandy!
    Christmas cake was traditionally served on Twelfth night. It was a heavy cake filled with dried fruits, nuts, and later alcohol. In the 1650’s, it was banned by Oliver Cromwell, the Lord Protector of England, along with all associated feasting. I have a feeling that he was not a fan of dried fruit! In the 18th Century, the cake was covered in marzipan and incredibly ornate icing which was to show off the skill of the baker and also the wealth of a family as sugar was expensive. The baker would have stirred in a dried bean (later becoming a sixpence) into the Christmas cake mix. Whoever found this tooth-breaking trinket within their slice became King or Queen for the day. Traditionally, this was so that a member of the staff of a large household could take the day off and be treated like royalty for the day!
     

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