Health

Christmas menus: Cuisine and calories through the ages

Ross Murray, The Modern Householder, 1870s - courtesy of Ivan Day Image copyright Courtesy of Ivan Day
Image caption Roasted boar's head tops of the Christmas table in this Victorian illustration

The 21st century Christmas meal may feel like a belly-bursting, calorie-laden, artery-furring feast but in the eyes of Jacobean and Victorian high society it would have been viewed as a mere side course.

One of the earliest Christmas recipes in curator and food historian Ivan Day's collection dates back to the 1660s.

Robert May's 'The Accomplisht Cook' describes a multi-course menu of more than 40 dishes.

Diners could begin with oysters or perhaps brawn - a pickled pork prepared with domestic boar meat and poached in wine, vinegar and spices until tender enough to fall-off the bone.

Cooks were encouraged to harvest the savoury jelly by-product produced while making this.

Splashes of red and yellow colouring were added with the help of cochineal and saffron.

And the gelatinous fat was carved into a decorative garnish and served as a calorie-rich treat.

Image copyright Courtesy of Ivan Day
Image caption Robert May's, The Accomplist Cook, published in the 1660s, lists more than 40 Christmas items

Robert May's bill of fare also lists a variety of birds, from the more familiar goose to plovers - now on the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds' conservation list.

Plovers were generously smothered in lard, as were rabbits, woodcock, curlew, pheasants and partridge.

According to Ivan Day, for many people this Yuletide meal would have been a feast after relative famine.

"To us this would be an artery-clogging meal with a ridiculous amount of food but people were more active back then.

"The working classes would endure hard manual jobs and even the most wealthy would have been riding all the time, hunting, or going to war.

"And looking back to before the Reformation people would have fasted for many days during Advent, breaking their fast with the Christmas breakfast."

Plum pudding

On special occasions landed gentry would organise meals for their workers, and Christmas dinner would be seen as an opportunity to stock up on calories at the expense of the rich.

The diary of a Norfolk vicar, written in the 18th century, describes vast quantities of roast beef and plum pudding, made to fill the poorer mouths of the parish.

Recipes for plum pudding could include many pounds of suet and sugar, as well lots of candied peel and dried fruit.

Mr Day says: "This may not be ideal for the sedentary office worker but for many people living back then this would have been burnt-off pretty quickly."

Image copyright Courtesy of Ivan Day
Image caption This Bristol tavern listed more than 50 items available during Christmas 1788

Turtle tasting

Though turkey takes pride of place in Christmas cuisine today, many other meats crowned the Christmas table in years gone by.

According to Mr Day, the choice of meat was dictated by household practicalities.

People have been unable to feed all their animals through winter months so many would be culled and eaten before the coldest days arrived.

And game - including pheasants, grouse and partridge - would have been nearing their fattest at this point in the year.

Another unusual meat to top the Christmas menu was British turtle, as seen in a Bristol tavern menu from 1788 (above).

Mr Day questions whether this was a rare reptile washing up on the shores of the Bristol channel or whether it was mock turtle, made of a calf head substitute.

The impressive menu scroll has more than 50 options, including cow's heel and crabs.

Image copyright courtesy of Ivan Day
Image caption An menu fit for the Queen, from Theodore Garrett's, The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery

According to Theodore Garrett's 'The Encyclopaedia of Practical Cookery', published in the 1890s, guests of Queen Victoria would have feasted on beef, boars' heads, game pie and brawn.

These dishes would have graced just the side table. Pheasants, veal, pork and fish would have all been served at Christmas too.

But for the more everyday Christmas meal, Victorian housewives could turn to Ross Murray's 'The Modern Householder'.

His book suggests swan was a popular local dish at Christmas time, roasted on a spit in front of a fire.

Image copyright Courtesy of Ivan Day
Image caption Swans could be garnished with miniature replicas carved out of turnips

Serving suggestions included garnishing with little swans carved out of turnips and paper frills.

And accompanying illustrations suggest this could be placed on an elaborate table, complete with boar's head, punch jelly and truffles.

Mr Day says: "It is not easy to generalise the Christmas meals of the past.

"Most will have depended on the social class and wealth of the people sitting down to eat.

"But the majority would have had very different and less luxurious everyday diets to the general pattern of over consumption familiar today."

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