The Guildhall Library, in the City of London, holds the UK’s largest collection of food and wine related materials, including many early recipes. This massive collection formed the basis of a lecture by Peter Ross, the Librarian, on the history of Christmas food in the UK.
The traditional image of Christmas fare, including large turkeys and Christmas puddings, is associated with the Victorian era – particularly the Christmas feasts described by Dickens in Pickwick Papers and of course A Christmas Carol. Turkeys were first imported into the UK in 1526 – and they became popular very quickly. Before this time, medieval Christmas feasts (for the wealthy at least) featured peacock, swan and decorative pies baked with inedible pastry crusts. For the very wealthy, servants were employed to carve food into bite-size morsels and dress it in sauce. Forks had not yet been invented.
Medieval life was very much dictated by the church – and this included the concept of ‘fast days’ when no meat could be consumed. Not only was Christmas a ‘feast’ holiday, but it made sense to slaughter animals to save on the expense of feeding them through the lean winter months.
Diaries are a wonderful resource for those interested in the history of Christmas food. Samuel Pepys’ 17th century diaries describe several Christmas meals, featuring beef, mince pies and ‘plum pottage’ – perhaps an early form of plum – or Christmas – pudding. Parson James Woodforde kept diaries for many years in the 18th century, describing Christmas dinners as a student at Cambridge University and later the dinners he provided for parishioners (boiled rabbit, onion sauce, beef, plum pudding and mince pies).
The traditional twelfth night cake featured tokens which encouraged those who found them to ‘reverse roles’ – acting as for example the king or queen for the party. Role reversal is of course featured in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. As this tradition began to die out, the tokens or charms were transferred into Christmas puddings.
Visit Guildhall Library’s website for more information on its collection of food-related material.
Cat with figgy pudding – courtesy of PeonInChief via Flickr.
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