Our modern idea of feasting is less extravagant than the epic days of gorging recorded in medieval times. In 1213, for example, the Christmas order for the court of King John included 200 heads of pork, 50lbs of pepper, 2lbs of saffron, 15,000 herrings and 24 hogsheads of wine, along with towering tables of other foods. It’s a perfect example of the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of feasting: dining “sumptuously or voraciously”.
Growing up, Christmas was certainly a proper feast for us children, though not quite on the scale of King John’s. Then as now our festive tradition would be more accurately described by the OED’s secondary definition of feasting: “deriving pleasure and delight”.
I remember childhood Christmases as a wonderful experience: the heating was on (a very rare treat), the house decorated and everyone in high spirits. Our cousins came to stay and it felt like a three-day banquet, even though the dishes were really a glorious, heightened version of what we ate every day. My mother made us good, nourishing, home-cooked dishes all year round – she did what it said on the tin because she was a busy woman with four children and a large house to run. But while birthdays and other holidays were celebrated in a low-key manner, Christmas took her cooking to a new level.
The Christmas roast is like an old sofa, comforting and dependable
Looking back, we loved our festive meals all the more for the fact the menu never changed, and for many of us as adults the beauty of this celebration is still that we know exactly what we’re about to receive. Whether you love or hate turkey, stuffing and sprouts, at least you know what to expect. In a world where governments change overnight and wars seem to flare up at the drop of a hat, the Christmas roast is like an old sofa, comforting and dependable.
Of course, there have been some culinary changes over the centuries. Sprouts, for one, didn’t arrive on our shores until the late eighteenth century. Bread sauce has had a major overhaul since the post-war instant packet stuff (which I still have a real soft spot for). Today’s homemade version can take hours, since the milk heated with cloves and bay has to be left to infuse nearly all day long to give the sauce its flavour and depth. In fact, it has an ancient pedigree, harking back to the Roman era, when breadcrumbs were used to thicken sauces.
Cranberry sauce came out of a jar when I first cooked roast turkey, until Delia Smith’s 1990 Christmas book reintroduced us to the heady delights of fresh cranberries spiked with orange juice and spices. Cranberry plants were first shipped to us by our American cousins in the 1820s, but the way we use them in recipes has old European roots. The combination of sharp fruits sweetened with sugar or honey and then served with rich meats harks back to our longstanding love of redcurrant jelly, Cumberland sauce and Swedish lingonberry sauce.
It’s always been a tradition in my family to serve devils on horseback (prunes wrapped in bacon) for Christmas lunch, not to be confused with with angels on horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon) or pigs in blankets (sausages wrapped in bacon). One story has it that the “devils” got their name from Norman raiders who rode into town wearing bacon rashers over their armour, to scare the locals. This unlikely legend is given a twist by their French name: les diables à cheval avec des fusils, literally “devils on horseback with guns”. And note that if you order “pigs in blankets” in the States, you’ll get a hot dog wrapped in croissant dough, which might not get the Delia seal of approval.
As children we loved having our plates piled high with roast potatoes and all the trimmings, though I blame carrots for revealing the terrible truth about Father Christmas. One year, we children raided the vegetable basket on the night of 24 December and put out every last carrot for Santa’s reindeer. By some strange miracle, the same quantity materialised – hot and dripping with butter – on our lunch table next day… and so, the penny finally dropped.
Christmas pudding, along with huge spoonfuls of brandy butter, was something we tolerated for the sake of finding a hidden silver sixpence. “Don’t eat them,” my mother would warn, hovering over us until we’d each found our tiny coin and made a wish, then whisking them safely away. Afterwards, bloated but happy, we’d somehow find room for the tempting array of nuts, chocolates, stem ginger and cheese.
I remember how very cold and bare the world seemed when these glorious days were over and the last decoration had been packed away. Happily, our menu this Christmas will be very similar to that of my childhood, aside from a vegetarian option and the absence of pudding, a tradition finally been sent packing by my own children, though there are still mince pies to drown in brandy butter. It’s always a joyous occasion, with the family packed shoulder to shoulder around the table like crackers in a box, coming together again once more to feast and celebrate.
Cranberry and Orange Relish
For eight people
450g fresh cranberries
The rind and juice of one orange
4cm piece cinnamon stick
1 tsp freshly grated ginger
75g caster sugar
2-3 tbsp port
Place the cranberries in a pan with the rind and juice of the orange, the ginger and sugar. Bring to the boil, then simmer covered for about ten minutes or until the cranberries are soft and have broken down. Remove from the heat and stir in the port. Leave to cool then cover and chill.
Lydia Brownlow is a former cookery editor at Good Housekeeping magazine. She currently inspires children to cook. More info at lydiabrownlow.com