Early Victorian etching by caricaturist R. Seymour of large assembly of merrymakers at Christmas Dinner (Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images)

    The flavours of Christmas past

    22 December 2016

    The Christmas culinary canon is so familiar, it feels inviolable. Poultry, pies, sprouts and spiced puddings: these are the essence of Christmas, whether we like them or not.

    But the history of Christmas food is a history of changing tastes. Over the years, countless dishes have appeared, evolved, and fallen out of fashion. Here are a few of my favourites.

    The main event

    Before 19th century, you’d be more likely to see beef, boar or peacock at the Christmas table than turkey. Right up to the Fifties, turkeys were a luxury. The rest of us made do with goose. In A Christmas Carol, Bob Crachit is ready to sit down to goose before Scrooge treats him to a turkey. Nowadays, not everyone would appreciate that intervention.

    In The Art of Cookery made Plain and Easy (1747), Hannah Glasse describes a Christmas pie: a pigeon, a fowl, a goose, and a turkey all packed up in a tough pastry case that would withstand travel. They remained popular as presents until Fortnum & Mason’s fancy hampers captured the middle class imagination.

    The sweet stuff

    Puritans would not have enjoyed our modern Christmas. In 1654, the Protectorate government felt that Christmas puddings and mince pies were so laced with sin and indulgence that they banned them outright.

    Fruitcake first appeared as ‘Twelfth Night cake’, eaten on its namesake. Originally a yeast-leavened fruit-heavy brioche, it grew into the rich fruit cakes we make at Christmas today. A pea was baked into each one, and whoever received it when the cake was cut was honoured as king or queen of the bean for the night.

    And then there’s beef. Nowadays, it doesn’t tend to come under the heading ‘sweet stuff’, suet puddings notwithstanding. But in the Middle Ages, spices and dried fruit proved an excellent way to eke out and mask the flavor of less savoury – excuse the pun – cuts of meat.

    Something to drink

    On cold winter nights, it’s not hard to see why we started mulling things. Today, it’s usually wine, occasionally cider. But the Victorians mulled pretty much anything that sat still. Ale was mulled in the formed of the ‘wassail bowl’ (‘wassail’ meaning both ‘to drink plentifully and noisily’ and also ‘to sing christmas carols’).

    There were also, in the 18th and 19th centuries, a whole raft of church-themed drinks, the ‘ecclesiastics’, all variations on mulled spirits, which were intended as anti-Catholic jokes. Again, Scrooge was a fan: he offers Crachit a cup of ‘Smoking Bishop’ – mulled port – in A Christmas Carol.

    Over the pond, they took their Christmas drinks much more seriously. In 1826, the cadets of Westpoint, the US military academy, smuggled a whiskey onto barracks to make eggnog for Christmas. The plot was undone, as many such plots are, by the obvious intoxication of the plotters, who proceeded to riot for two days when their captains tried to take the whiskey away.

    Which only goes to show, you mess with people’s Christmas traditions at your peril. So whether yours involves peacock or pope-bashing, suet or smuggling, I hope you have a delicious one.