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Christmas dinner: What would you eat?

Turkey dinner Traditional turkey?

Christmas dinner is less traditional than you might think. It has changed with the times and continues to be influenced by international cuisine.

When you sit to eat at Christmas, you might be tempted to start with some cured salmon.

For the main meal, tradition supposedly dictates you'll eat turkey, with cranberry sauce.

And for pudding, a choice between fruit bread, Christmas cake, pudding or a slice of chocolate Yule log.

A classic Christmas feast, as traditional and British as they come. Right?

Foreign favourites

Homemade gravad lax with cucumber salad and mustard sauce

Indulge with a decadent chocolate Yule log

Whip up a panettone souffle using leftovers

Cure your own Nordic gravad lax

Not quite, because Christmas dinners are less traditional than you might think. What we eat today is almost unrecognisable from what we used to, and our celebratory dishes are heavily influenced by fashions and cooking styles from around the world.

In medieval times Christmas included a 12-day period of feasting.

For their main Christmas meal, poorer people had ale, a white loaf and a cooked dish.

Those with more money preferred Christmas pie, a three-bird roast in pastry which later became known as a Yorkshire pie.

"If you could bone it, it would go in the pie," says independent food historian Dr Annie Gray, who studied at the University of Leeds and the University of Liverpool, UK.

Mince pies, beloved today, are very traditional, becoming popular in the 14th Century. But back then, people also enjoyed boar's head, and gingerbread made of breadcrumbs, rather than flour.

BBC Graphic of Christmas food

By Tudor times, which began near the start of the 16th Century, boar's head remained popular, as did Christmas pie. The eating of sugar, marzipan and ornate moulded foods at Christmas became more common.

But by the 1570s, our Christmas tastes had changed again. Plum porridge or pottage - the forerunner to modern Christmas pudding - became fashionable. Roast beef, a top class dish, also began to be favoured.

International influences:

Stollen
  • Stollen is a rich fruit bread or cake from Germany, and Dresden in particular. It is shaped to represent baby Jesus in swaddling clothes.
  • Gravad lax is a Scandinavian cured salmon, involving raw fish sprinkled with dill and salt and weighted. Originally the fish was buried in barrels or holes in the ground.
  • Panettone is a rich, light Italian bread made with fruit, a speciality of Milan and cylindrical.
  • Buche de Noel, or Yule logs, are traditionally served in France at Christmas. A Genoise sponge is filled with buttercream and rolled. The recipe originated in the 19th Century.

During the Georgian period, through much of the 18th Century, a British national cuisine developed. Mince pies, leg of pork, beef, game and plum pudding were all eaten.

By the Edwardian period, at the start of the 20th Century, those that had some wealth served roast beef, mince pies, plum pudding, and turkey. But the poor ate goose.

Even today, our Christmas meals are constantly evolving, particularly as we adopt foods from around the world.

Smoked salmon, a common starter, is a Nordic speciality, known more properly as Gravad lax.

Puddings include a host of foreign imports; Yule log has roots in the Buche de Noel of France. Panforte is an Italian dessert, stollen a German fruitcake, panettone from Italy.

"We have the ability to assimilate dishes from other cultures into our own and still keep our Englishness," says Dr Gray.

And their popularity is increasing: in the week prior to Christmas, Morrisons supermarket expects to sell 420,000 Yule logs, 84,000 stollen and 62,000 panettone. Projected sales of 25,000 gravad lax packs compares to 4,500 packs it usual sells each week.

Marks and Spencer expects to sell more than one million packs of smoked salmon over the Christmas period.

Foreign influences

Expert chefs also embrace international influences in their cooking.

What the chefs are having:

Buche de Noel - Yule log

Allegra McEvedy:

  • Raised 18th Century game pie
  • Roast goose
  • Marzipan fruits
  • Blinis
  • Medjool dates
  • Stollen

Annie Gray:

  • Eggs Benedict
  • Native oysters with parmesan and bacon
  • Buttered spinach and vegetables
  • Roast veal
  • Cointreau Yule log with chilli chocolate sauce

Massimo Bottura:

"We make buckwheat blinis on Christmas Eve (which are Russian), and have stollen, which is German, too," says Allegra McEvedy.

"I love medjool dates, and we also make marzipan fruits, which I think are Italian but I also associate with Belgium, Holland."

Massimo Bottura says panettone is a perfect recipe for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and if any is leftover, it can be made into his delicious panettone soufflé.

But perhaps the most untraditional dish of all is that which we most associate with Christmas; the huge, bronzed and humble turkey.

It first appeared at Christmas in 1527, says Dr Gray, but it was just "one feast bird among many" people might buy, including peacock or swan.

It has been served since, but it only went mainstream in the UK in the 1960s, due to the influence of the US.

"The turkey was from Thanksgiving and we've kind of bolted it on to our Christmas."

"Turkey really is the 'new kid on the block', and cranberry sauce definitely came over from America," agrees Allegra McEvedy.

Christmas dinner it seems has always been less about tradition and more about having a little of what you fancy.

"Alternatives are fine. People are becoming less homogenised, many will have a Thai feast, or salmon or go out. Not everyone thinks of an archetypal dinner now," says Dr Gray.

"We should relish our Christmas dinner, whether you are having boar's head or a hare, or whether you are having turkey, beef or a nut roast.

"Whatever you are eating, you are a part of Christmas."Follow BBC Food on Pinterest and on twitter: @BBCFood

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