Last year’s Christmas blog, while definitely tongue in cheek, was a little bleak, and this year has been bleak enough without adding more, however light-hearted. So, I thought I’d explore a slightly different aspect of energy: traditional Christmas fuel for people!

Turkeys in boots walked hundreds of miles to the Christmas table

Mention Christmas dinner and images of whole roasted turkeys surrounded by The Trimmings come to mind. However, turkeys are a relatively recent addition to the Christmas table. For a start they are not native to the British Isles, and were first brought to the country in the 16th century – before that, the food at Christmas was broadly the same as the food eaten at other feasts and celebrations: people ate geese, and for the wealthy, stuffed boar’s head, swans and even peacocks and often all of them together, were not uncommon (I have never even seen peacock on a modern day menu, let alone tasted it). Medieval monks would add rare and expensive spices to their pies, fish and offal.

A thick stew known as pottage (see below) would be served in a trencher (a hollowed out loaf of stale bread) in wealthy households at special occasions, including Christmas. Beef and chicken were off the menu as cows were needed for milk and chickens for eggs.

tudor feast

Turkeys were first brought to Britain from Mexico in the 1520s (by Levantine traders who originated in Turkey and were known as “Turkey merchants” giving their name to the bird), and were first listed as goods for sale in 1521. The earliest written record of turkeys is attributed to Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1541, who apparently wanted to curb gluttony in the higher clergy by only allowing one bird to be served per dish.

King Henry VIII was the one of the first to eat turkey on Christmas Day, and by 1573, they were gaining popularity across the country although goose and capon (a castrated rooster) were more typical. However, it is unlikely that these turkeys would have appeared whole and roasted as they do now – more likely they were baked into pies (the British have always been big on pies, or pyes as they once were, but more on that later).

By the early 1600s turkey was being eaten more widely, and not just at Christmas, making an appearance in Gervase Markham’s 1615 book, The English Housewife, and by the end of the century, they were given to clerks of the London Poulters’ Guild as a Christmas present. By the Georgian era turkey was almost as popular as goose, and was frequently eaten at Christmas, when turkeys were also used as part of Christmas Pie, an intricate dish which involved stuffing a pigeon inside a chicken, which was then stuffed inside a turkey, which was then stuffed inside a goose. This “turducken” style pie remained popular well into the Victorian era. However, turkeys were quite expensive so people often opted for cheaper options with beef being popular in the north of England, and goose in the south. Poorer families would eat rabbit.

It was in the Victorian era that turkey became the most eaten meat at Christmas: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol famously features Scrooge asking a poor homeless child to help him buy Bob Cratchit “the prize turkey” hanging in the window of the butcher’s shop. Cassell’s Dictionary of Cookery from 1883 notes that “the turkey is highly esteemed and usually commands a high price, especially at Christmas, when most extravagant prices are often demanded and obtained for large, well-fed birds”. Turkeys were still expensive for most people, but as they were able to serve more people than a goose they became popular for larger families or for Christmas parties.

turkey drive

Mrs Beeton wrote about turkeys being “driven” to London from Norfolk for Christmas markets. By the early 18th century over 250,000 turkeys were walked to London each year in small flocks of fewer than 1,000 each. The journey would take around 3 months, with the first flocks setting off in August, and being well fed to fatten them up for Christmas once they arrived. As this was quite a distance, they had little leather boots to protect their feet, but these became redundant with the advent of the railways. With increased popularity came increased production, and lower costs, and refrigeration made turkeys more accessible, although in the 1930s, a turkey still cost roughly a week’s wages for most people.

Christmas Puddings could tell a person’s future

No British Christmas meal is complete without a Christmas Pudding, ideally brought to the table in flames, but the dish has an interesting history. In fact there are various different dishes from which our Christmas Puddings have descended.

One was a porridge known as “frumenty” which was originally made with hulled wheat, boiled in milk, seasoned with cinnamon and coloured with saffron. It was associated with meatless days in lent and advent and was often served as a plain dish, but there were variations which included beef, mutton, raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices. In some areas the dish was the staple food for Christmas eve although in Yorkshire it was eaten first thing on Christmas morning. In the 17th century the dish was thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and beer or spirits were added – in this way it began to resemble something more like a sweet pudding.

Like the pyes described below, Christmas pudding also had 13 ingredients representing Jesus and His 12 disciples. Traditionally, these ingredients included raisins, currants, suet, brown sugar, breadcrumbs, citron, lemon peel, orange peel, flour, mixed spices, eggs, milk and brandy. Brandy is also traditionally poured over the pudding and set alight which is said to represent the Passion of Christ.

fygey pudding

Another precursor of today’s Christmas pudding was pottage, a kind of broth, including raisins and other dried fruit, spices and wine. It was thickened with breadcrumbs or ground almonds as well as meat or meat stock. The original “figgy pudding” was almost unrecognisable from modern Christmas pudding. A medieval figgy pudding recipe was published in Fygey from the fourteenth century Forme of Cury (The Method of Cooking, “cury” coming from the Middle French verb “cuire” meaning “to cook”):

“Take almaundes blanched, grynde hem and draw hem up with water and wyne: quarter fygur, hole raisouns. cast perto powdour gyngur and hony clarified, seeth it well & salt it, and serue forth,”
Fygey from the Forme of Cury (1392)

This plum pottage was typically served at the start of the meal.

Thick sweet-sour meat or vegetable pottages had been a staple of the English diet since Roman times. Widespread forests across Britain supplied plenty of wood for cooking fuel, so until the 17th century, the “boiled dinner” prepared in a single cauldron was the main aspect of British cooking. Pottages were particularly suitable for this, as they were simmered slowly for many hours over the flames. They had a thick consistency, like porridge, and in wealthy households they included elaborately spiced meat and fish, dried fruits and sugar. On special occasions, some pottages were served with a wine and brandy sauce which was set alight so the dish was “flambeed”.

Some pottages were “standing” (stiff) pottages, thickened with breadcrumbs and egg yolks, coloured red or bright yellow, and flavoured with sugar and dried fruits. “Mawmeny royal”, for example, contained teased (minced) game or poultry, spices, ground almonds, breadcrumbs and sugar. Both running (runny) and standing (more solid) sweetened pottages continued to be eaten widely until the 17th century at which time they went rapidly out of fashion since much closer ties with the Continent brought a range of new dishes, particularly after the Restoration. Two pottages however survived: the Scots Cock-a-Leekie, a running plum pottage made with chicken and plums (prunes), and the other which was simply called Stewed Broth.

Stewed Broth was probably the closest direct forerunner of Christmas Pudding. It is first mentioned in around 1420 as a standing pottage made with veal, mutton or chicken and plenty of currants, thickened with bread, and reddened with sanders (sandelwood). By the time of Elizabeth I, prunes had been added. These dried plums had become so popular that their name became associated with all dried fruits, for example currant cakes, were now called “plum” cakes. Stewed Broth thus became “Plum Pottage”.

At end of the 17th century the pottage began to take on a more solid appearance. It was served like a porridge or cooked inside a skin, like a sausage, but even then, it was more likely to be sliced and cooked under a roasting joint and served alongside the main meal or as a starter rather than as a dessert.

With the advent of cheap sugar, pottages separated into savoury and sweet versions and the use of spices declined. One of the last recipes for Christmas plum porridge was contained in a cook-book by Mrs Hannah Glass in 1747. But in 1806 a Mrs Maria Rundell dropped the porridge, in favour of “common plum-pudding” made with fruit and wine but no meat, however, she did not call it a “Christmas” pudding. Plum pudding was a popular general party dish for some time – William IV gave a feast to 3000 poor people on his birthday in 1830 at which they were offered boiled and roast beef and plum pudding. During the 18th century, plum porridge started to be associated with Christmas.

Mrs Beeton Christmas Pudding

The familiar round plum pudding topped with holly appears in prints depicting Christmas dinners in 1836, and that same year, Charles Dickens described it as the centrepiece of the Christmas feast. Eliza Acton wrote a recipe for plum-pudding in 1845, naming it Christmas Pudding, and in 1861, Isabella Beeton published a recipe for Christmas Plum Pudding which was distinguished from her other plum-pudding recipes by being boiled in an elaborate mould.

It was the Victorians who made Christmas Pudding a prominent feature of the Christmas dinner table and established the tradition of making it on Stir Up Sunday, which was the last Sunday before Advent, taking inspiration from the Collect in the Book Of Common Prayer: “Stir up, we beseech thee, oh Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works, may by thee be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

Further religious symbolism was found in the mixing of the ingredients which would be assembled in a bowl representing the manger and stirred up with a wooden spoon from east to west – symbolising the journey taken by the three Wise Men. Traditionally, every family member stirred the pudding three times and made a secret wish.

Trinkets were always included in the traditional pudding mixture, and whoever found them would have good fortune over the coming year. These charms often included a silver coin (often a sixpence) which signified wealth, a ring to represent a future marriage and a thimble which meant certain spinsterhood for the recipient. This particular tradition is thought to have originated in the court of King Edward II where a bean or dried pea would be placed inside the pudding and whoever received it would be crowned King or Queen for the day.

Christmas puddings were traditionally boiled in a “pudding cloth”, although today are usually steamed in a bowl (or microwaved!). The traditional accompaniment to the Christmas pudding was a sweet custard or a hard sauce (nowadays known as brandy butter).

Mince pies were once known as cof fyns

After filling up on turkey and Christmas pudding, a well-known Christmas miracle is that people often still find room for a mince pie.

In medieval times, “pyes” or “cof fyns” of tough flour paste, containing meat or fish, fat and dried fruit from Spain or the Eastern Mediterranean were popular among the wealthy at Christmas since the meat, poultry and fish used in the fillings could be preserved for some time in the pastry cases containing sugary dried fruit and butter. The dried fruit was a cheaper alternative to honey and sugar. Less wealthy households would fill the pies with whatever they had to hand. The pastry – essentially flour mixed with water to form a mouldable dough – was designed to be discarded once the fillings had been eaten – the filling would be baked inside, and then hot fat would be poured in a hole in the top of the crust to seal it and preserve it.

Christmas pyes

Meat, poultry and fish were slaughtered and preserved in large quantities in Autumn since most animals could not be fed through the winter as they ate food that otherwise people would eat. Also, rich and poor alike would feast for the twelve days of Christmas, and much of the food would need to be prepared weeks in advance, so dishes that would keep were ideal. In medieval times, many dishes combined sweet and savoury ingredients – desserts did not really exist as sugar was not widely available. Dried fruits such as figs and dates were imported, as were spices such as saffron and ginger, meaning they were only available to the wealthy. Indeed heavy use of spices was a marker of wealth.

The pies were generally large enough to serve several people, however, smaller pies known as “chewets” (possibly because their pinched tops resembled small cabbages or chouettes) were also made. The earliest reference to a small mince pie as a “minst pye” rather than a chewet is in a recipe from 1624, lyrically called For six Minst Pyes of an Indifferent Bigness.

tart of the flesh

The Forme of Cury also contains a recipe for “Tart of Flesh” which includes figs, raisins, wine, pine kernels, lard, cheese, minced pork, honey and spices. A similar recipe using mutton instead of pork can be found in The English Huswife by Gervase Markham originally published in 1615. In the Tudor period they were made from 13 ingredients to represent Jesus and His disciples including lamb or mutton to represent the shepherds and spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg) to signify the Wise Men.

The pies were often baked in a rectangular shape, and as they were made at feasts such as Christmas and Easter, they became associated with the manger in which Jesus was laid. Dough effigies of the baby Jesus were often placed on top of the pies.

There is a myth that Christmas and mince pies were banned by Oliver Cromwell and reinstated at the Restoration, but this is untrue, however, some 17thcentury Puritans did frown on the “idolatrous” depictions of baby Jesus. A 1661 book about the Interregnum includes the following rhyme:

All Plums the Prophet’s sons defy
And Spice-broths are too hot
Treason’s in a December-pye
And death within the pot.

In any case, by the end of the century, mince pies were made round, and the baby was no longer featured.

By the 18th century, improved stock-feeding and cheaper sugar made meat preserving and spicing less necessary meaning that savoury meat pies became more fashionable as were separate sweet pies which contained very little meat. At this time both types of pies stopped being filled with butter, with butter being spread over them instead or on the side as a sauce. It’s unclear when meat stopped being included altogether. Eliza Acton’s mincemeat recipe in Modern Cookery for Private Families of 1845 includes ox tongue and Mrs Beeton’s Household Management published in 1861 originally gave two recipes for mincemeat, one with and one without meat.

By the start of Queen Victoria’s reign, mince pies were similar to the ones we eat today although they contained a good amount of beef suet in the filling to add richness and preserve them for longer. Filled with dried fruits, spices, a little alcohol with an edible pastry crust they had evolved into a desirable dessert. By the 20th century the only trace of meat left was the suet, which is becoming less common over time.

There are various traditions associated with mince pies including making the mincemeat on Stir-up Sunday (along with Christmas Pudding). This was quite an event, and English tradition dictated the mixture should only be stirred clockwise – stirring anti-clockwise would lead a year’s worth of bad luck. Every member of the family gave the mixture a stir, while making a wish, and for extra luck, good health and happiness in the coming year, a mince pie was eaten on each of the Twelve Days of Christmas, from Christmas Eve until the 5th of January. Yet another wish should be made when eating the first mince pie of the season, and they should never, ever be cut with a knife.

I would like to wish all of my readers a Merry Christmas and a
Happy and Prosperous New Year
(and remind you not to tempt fate by cutting mince pies with a knife!)

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