by Lisa De Silva
Christmas Dinner has always been a meal synonymous with luxury and indulgence. While this is no surprise, what might surprise you is that what we consider a traditional Christmas dinner is not so traditional after all.
Today, the classic celebratory dinner might start with smoked salmon, followed by turkey and Christmas pudding, yet this is a world away from what was eaten during Medieval times. In fact, turkeys only arrived in Europe from the Americas during the late 15th century and certainly wouldn’t have been on anyone’s Christmas menu. So, just what was served up during the season of goodwill?
The first thing to appreciate is that during Medieval times the Christmas period was preceded by a month of fasting throughout the season of Advent. The four weeks before Christmas Day was a time to prepare for God’s coming into the world through Jesus and this involved both repentance and fasting. Once the big day itself arrived, people were free to indulge with a hearty meal.
Yet the Medieval version of fasting was somewhat different to our own. In strict terms it meant giving up meat and dairy products, but the rich, reluctant to abandon their mid-winter feasting, found ways around this. While they could still eat fish and seafood, such as oysters and eels, they also allowed beaver tail, justified because beavers lived in water like fish. Similarly, the mythical Barnacle Goose was a product of the ocean and so goose was not restricted either (the myth claimed the geese dropped into the ocean from tree barnacles).
An anonymous 14th century poem describes a Knight’s Advent meal as including, “several soups or stews, two helpings of each… various sorts of fish: baked in bread; grilled; boiled; stewed and spiced; and all with sauce.” And that was considered fasting!
In terms of the agricultural cycle, Christmas was the perfect time to hold a feast as the crops had been harvested and if animals were not to be kept during the winter months, it was a good time for slaughter. This meant there was usually a rich bounty of food available for the big day itself. However, what was eaten largely depended on your level of wealth.
For royalty and the very wealthy, the boar’s head would take pride of place during the feast and was usually brought into the great hall with huge ceremony, to the sound of trumpets playing, or the singing of a special carol. Other popular meats included venison, beef, mutton, partridge, goose and with the king’s permission, swan.
In 1213, King John held a Christmas feast that included 200 head of pork, 1,000 hens, 100lbs of almonds and 10,000 salt eels. With similar extravagance, Richard II served up 28 oxen and 300 sheep in 1377. Gallons of wine, often mulled with honey and spices, was consumed and there were many sweet offerings, including fruit pies, tarts, custards, sugarplums, figs, dried fruits and sweet egg puddings. Although our foodstuffs are largely different, both Medieval and contemporary tables would still have groaned under the weight of the rich and extravagant fare on offer.
One tradition that has endured is the eating of mince pies. In Medieval times, these were baked in small rectangular cases to represent the baby Jesus’ crib. The addition of cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg symbolised the gifts given by the Three Wise men. However, unlike today, these pies were originally made with shredded meat, spices and fruit. It wasn’t until the Victorian era that the meat was removed. Gingerbread, also still enjoyed today, was another popular delicacy and was made using expensive and exotic spices.
Christmas puddings consisted of a spicy porridge known as ‘frumenty,’ filled with currents and dried fruit. The addition of egg yolks, cinnamon and nutmeg made this a real treat. Our custom of hiding a coin in the Christmas pudding may come from the Medieval game of the Bean King. This involved a loaf of bread or cake, which had been baked with a small bean inside it. Whoever got the portion with the bean, was proclaimed the Bean King and got to rule over the festivities.
Thankfully, Christmas was also a time for sharing and often the local lord would supply his tenants and servants with special food for the celebrations. In 1547, a wealthy gentleman from the Midlands gave his tenants beef, mutton, 10 geese, 9 pigs, 6 capon, a swan, 16 rabbits, 3 hens, 2 woodcocks and 16 venison pies, not to mention all the beer they could drink.
In the spirit of Christmas, the local lord might also donate the unwanted offal from his festive deer. This was known as the ‘umbles.’ To make it go further it was often mixed with other ingredients to make a pie, meaning the poor would eat ‘umble pie’. This is the source of the saying we still use today, to refer to someone who has fallen from grace.
For the poor with less generous benefactors, sausages, bacon, bread, cheese and salted fish would have been served up, accompanied by stored apples, peas, beans, onions, leeks, garlic and maybe some honey. For those that could afford it, the Church sold ready cooked geese for 7 pence, which was just over a day’s wages.
So, whether you’ll be serving up a boar’s head to a fanfare or trumpets, or a more modest turkey, we wish you all a very merry Christmas and hope you enjoy the culinary delights gracing your table.