The Christmas table
Described by John Ayto as ‘steaming fragrant black cannonballs’ in his newly published The Diner’s Dictionary, it is not hard to see why Christmas pudding is a luxury afforded only once a year. The rich combination of suet, raisins, currants, spices, eggs, and brandy often leaves diners in a food-induced stupor at the end of their Christmas meal. Christmas pudding remains an important part of the British Christmas table, and yet it was not always eaten just at Christmas.
Anthony Trollope used the term in Doctor Thorne in 1858, when the character Mr Oriel is ‘doomed to eat his Christmas pudding alone’, Christmas pudding is actually a relatively new term for the traditional plum pudding, which began its life as a traditional year-round British pudding made of prunes. Slowly, the ingesting of this rich dish became an annual event, and the term ‘Christmas pudding’ took precedence in the English language.
Nowadays, most recipes use raisins instead of prunes, and so ‘Christmas pudding’ perhaps makes more sense in such a plum-less context. However, the term plum pudding lingered on for longer than a lexicographer might think. This is perhaps due to the prefix plum- being so well-loved in the British culinary lexicon. Ayto lists plum broth, plum porridge, and plum pie as popular traditional British dishes.
In the same vein as plum-less plum pudding, plum pies (also known as Christmas pies), which are known throughout Britain today as mince pies, no longer contain dried prunes or indeed mince. The mincemeat filling found inside these pies is made up of – you guessed it – dried fruit, spices, suet, and often some alcohol.
However, the traditional mince pie did at one time contain more meat, just as its name suggests. Mincemeat originally meant simply ‘minced meat’, so to begin with the Christmas mince pie was a savoury rather than sweet affair. The earliest iteration of the mince pie was a small medieval pastry called a chewette, containing chopped meat, liver or fish, hard-boiled egg, and ginger. Ayto explains that in the Middle Ages, and as recently as the Renaissance, it was commonplace to eke out minced meat or chopped meat pies with the addition of dried fruit. Eventually dried fruit assumed prominence and mincemeat became an entirely separate dish to minced meat.
It is not clear why the term ‘mince pie’ was favoured over chewette, plum-pie, or indeed Christmas pie, but there is evidence to show that the last of these was still in use as late as 1798. The Anti-Jacobin cites ‘Youthful Horner. . . Cull’d the dark plum from out his Christmas pye’, at once demonstrating the existence of plum in the original recipe, and the alternative name for these festive-favourites.
‘Oh, bring us a figgy pudding’
Another anomaly in the Christmas cookbook is the figgy pudding so often sung about outside shopping centres or in front of congregations. Whilst figgy pudding, again originating in the Middle Ages, does actually consist of figs – specifically dried figs stewed in wine – it was traditionally served during Lent, the Christian fasting, rather than festive, period.
So to alcohol?
A slightly more uncomplicated recipe for Christmas is that of the Christmas snowball cocktail – although there is more than one version of this winter drink – named presumably due to its snow-like appearance. Some recipes cite advocaat and lemonade as the main ingredients, whilst others prefer the mix of gin, cream, and anise-flavoured liqueur, revealing festive alcohol to be just as confusing as Christmas food.
A German Christmas table is far more predictable. The German counterpart to our Christmas cake (though again a dish featuring dried fruit and candied peel) is the layered stollen. Made from a rich yeast dough containing nuts, fruit, and often a layer of marzipan, its log-like shape resembles the heavy upright timbers, or support posts, that in earlier forms of German shared its name. The Italian Christmas cake – the panettone – also contains candied peel and sultanas, but its light, sweet, dry texture makes it more akin to bread than to cake. After all, this traditional Italian recipe, from the Lombardy region, gets its name from the Italian pane for ‘bread’.
‘Trifles make perfection, and perfection is no trifle’ – Michelangelo
All this confusion seems an inherent part of the Christmas table, and my final dish is no exception, though it is not exceptionally Christmassy. This year many of us will be greeted by the sight of a trifle at our festive tables, thought by many to be a celebration must-have. In comparison with the much grander trifles of the 18th century, Ayto describes today’s version of the trifle as a concoction of stale sponge, custard made from powder, and synthetic cream, which sounds less than appealing. Yet the trifle remains classic British fare. This somewhat acquired taste of a dessert is a distant cousin of the whim-wham, a heady, alcoholic mix of custard, biscuits, and comfits, or something similar.
The term trifle dates back to the medieval England, as ‘an inconsequential tale, told either to amuse or deceive’. That definition later developed into ‘a thing or matter of little importance’, from which, bizarrely, the dessert took its name. It is thought that the immediate source of the word is the French truffle, a diminutive of truffe, meaning ‘deceit or trickery’. Arguably, this is even more applicable today, when a bowl of trifle can be deceptively tasty, or worse still, deceptively alcoholic.