We all know what we think of as the great English Christmas lunch/dinner — turkey (originally from America) or goose (a worldwide bird, first domesticated in Ancient Egypt), Brussels sprouts (from Rome via Belgium), potatoes (also from the Americas). So, in fact, there is no such thing as a great English feast. Or is there?
While the poor had little choice of food, the English traditionally knew how to feast. Christmas, which took over from the Roman pagan festival of Saturnalia, has for centuries been the year’s best excuse for eating, drinking, dancing, and showing off – showing off not just in silly tinsel hats, but in what you spread before your guests on the table.
The stuffed bird is a key centrepiece of any English feast. Peacocks, swans and geese were all eaten — the bigger the better. The Romans stuffed flamingos, but they were not so easy to come by in these isles and I suspect they have a faintly fishy taste. My uncle, a fine domestic cook, once stuffed five birds into each other for Christmas — an amazing act of ingenuity which involved, as I remember, a bicycle pump. The boned birds are cut like a joint so you have a slice of each like a rainbow on your plate.
For centuries, foreigners noted only two things about English cookery: our roast meat and our boiled puddings. One 18th-century French author wrote: ‘I always heard that [the English] were great flesh eaters and found it to be true…[the tables of those] who do not keep French cooks are covered only with large dishes of meat.’ To the English, a ‘made’ dish — ingredients put together, sauces perhaps made — was something which for centuries was dangerous, extravagant, nasty and just plain foreign. Our meat was good; we roasted it. Our puddings were filling; we boiled them.
Our ‘Christmas feast’ still includes two great English traditions: roast meat and Christmas pudding. Most of our boiled puddings have disappeared over time (steak and kidney pudding is the great survivor), but there is no reason not to bring them back. They are as delicious as anything that comes with a swanky French sauce. My grandmother used to make something called Apple Hat: suet pudding filled with apples and golden syrup. It may not be as pretty as tarte aux pommes, but my word it is heaven.
So what could we eat this Christmas that is true to our national cooking, but a little different from the usual fare? Hannah Glasse, whose Art of Cookery of 1747 was one of England’s first cookbook bestsellers, has a recipe for ‘Yorkshire Christmas Pye’ to be made early and sent as a present to family in London. Inside a firm crust (it had to be thick to withstand the journey and Glasse suggests using a bushel — 32lbs — of flour) would be boned stuffed birds; pigeon, partridge, fowl, goose, turkey, one inside the other. The gaps between the birds and the pastry walls were filled with jointed hare, woodcock and any other game or wild fowl to hand. ‘At least’ four pounds of butter was put into the pie (Glasse loved her butter) along with the spices so loved by the English — mace, nutmeg and cloves — and then it was baked very hot for four hours.
If your family is not big enough for this gargantuan pie, or even for a whole turkey, there are alternatives. A particularly delicious dish, again from Glasse, suggests stuffing chickens with a mixture of chicken meat, bacon, pigeon meat, lemon peel, mace, nutmeg, breadcrumbs, herbs, egg yolks, then using some of the mixture to stuff cucumbers, which are then fried. This is really good. We don’t eat cooked cucumber enough; it has a sweetness and cleanness of taste which goes well with the rich stuffing.
If you feel that if you don’t have turkey you must have game, the early English cookery writers were full of ideas. Hannah Woolley (her Cooks Guide of 1664 guided many women through the art of running a kitchen after their fortunes changed in the Civil War) suggests rabbits in a sort of sweet and sour sauce (butter, cream, eggs, nutmeg and vinegar). Venison could be stewed with red wine, sugar, cloves, nutmeg and vinegar. Vinegar, or its predecessor, verjuice, has long been used in English cooking to add a little bitterness. By the 16th century the rich poured sugar over everything (because they could) and at least the vinegar would have balanced the sweetness. One of my favourites from the early period (Glasse again) is pheasant stewed with artichoke hearts, little sausages and chestnuts. Pretty festive, don’t you think?
But don’t mess with the pudding. While mince pies really did have meat in them once, along with ‘raisins of the sun’ and other dried fruit, the only nod left in that direction is the suet. A homemade Christmas pudding, especially if made with real suet (the fat around the kidneys — most butchers will offer it for free), is part of our national identity. Eliza Acton’s ‘Author’s Christmas Pudding’ can’t be bettered (and as for her rice pudding…). Her Modern Cookery (1845) is one of the best English cookery books, certainly the best of the 19th century. Mrs Beeton plagiarised her, Elizabeth David admired her, her recipes still work, her writing is clear and true. And her puddings show us the best in English cooking.