For most of us, Christmas dinner is pretty much a set menu – but what are the origins of some of our much-loved festive fare? Christmas is all about traditions – and that’s especially true of the main meal. At what other time of the year would so many of us reach for a bag of Brussels in the supermarket? Turkey with all the trimmings, mountains of roast veg and plenty of liquid cheer – it all adds up to our yuletide feast. Here’s a look at the origins of some of our culinary. Christmas classics…
Christmas Dinner. Mulled Wine
This comforting drink has been a winter warmer since the Romans first spiced and heated wine to keep out the chill. In the Middle Ages, its popularity spread, but it was good old Scrooge who would forever link it to the festive period. In Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, he asks his clerk Bob Cratchit to join him in a ‘bowl of Smoking Bishop’ – a popular mulled wine of the day.
Christmas Dinner. Turkey
Come Christmas, the prospect of cooking the big bird can be daunting. Even the best of us have ‘chickened’ out! Turkeys were introduced to Europe from North America in the 16th century, and Henry VIII feasted on them. In Victorian times, cookery writer Mrs Beeton recorded seeing several hundred being herded from Suffolk to London, to grace the tables of the rich. Poor Mrs Cratchit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol ekes out a goose, before Scrooge treats the family to a prize turkey. Today, around 10 million turkeys are eaten each Christmas in the UK.
Christmas Dinner. Christmas Pudding
What author Dickens described as a ‘speckled cannon ball’ arrives at the table just when you can’t eat another bite. Also known as plum or figgy pudding, this rich dessert has its roots in medieval times, when a ‘poding’ was a meat-filled animal stomach. Served with beef by the Georgians, it evolved into a sweet dish and became associated with Christmas in Victorian times. But, these days, its popularity is in decline. A study found fewer than half of British homes eat Christmas pud, with many turning to alternatives such as torte and panettone.
Christmas Dinner. Devils on Horseback, Pigs in Blankets…
Wrap a prune in bacon and grill. Whoever came up with this combo was a culinary genius! Devils on horseback are an adaptation of the Victorian delight called angels on horseback – oysters in bacon. However oysters, once the food of the poor, became expensive in the 20th century, so the devilish alternative was cheaper. Small sausages wrapped in bacon – known as pigs in blankets – are a more recent addition to the Christmas meal, with the first written record being in Betty Crocker’s Cook Book for Boys and Girls in 1957.
Christmas Dinner. Cranberry Sauce
Turkeys and cranberries are both native to North America, so it’s no surprise that it was our US cousins who discovered they made a winning combination at Thanksgiving. The first recipe for the sauce appeared in a US cookbook in 1796, but it wasn’t until the 20th century, and the arrival of canned cranberry sauce, that its popularity really took off here.
Christmas Dinner. Brussels Sprouts
‘None for me, thanks!’ is often heard when these little green balls are being dished up. And it seems there’s a reason. Scientists have discovered around half of us are genetically wired to find their taste bitter. First grown by the Romans, they were widely cultivated in Belgium from the 13th century – hence the association with Brussels. Now, these much-maligned veg are enjoying a culinary renaissance. Varieties with lower levels of the compounds that make them taste bitter – called glucosinolates – have come onto the market, and you’ll find them on the trendiest menus.
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