By Phoebe Ollerearnshaw
Christmas dinner is widely considered to be the most quintessentially British meal—a beacon of long-standing convention. In fact, the feast served today is unrecognisable from the one consumed centuries ago. Nowadays, our ‘traditional’ Christmas banquet reveals influences of fashions and cookery styles from various regions across the globe. While some Yuletide dishes have been carried forward, others have been lost to the pages of history. One of the most notable elements to have been cast aside is the serving of game.
Today, we Brits gorge on approximately 10 million turkeys at Christmas each year. Interestingly, the first turkey didn’t come to Britain until the 1600s. It was an exotic treat from the New World that very few could afford or even obtain.
The Christmas period was traditionally celebrated over 12 days. Wealthy folk would flaunt their riches and try to top one another with the most outrageous spreads. The rich displayed their affluence through large open fireplaces, often laden with four or five varieties of spit-roasting meats.
In an upper-class household it wasn’t uncommon to see a wild boar’s head surrounded by an array of sweet puddings. Goose was among the most popular meat options on the Christmas table. In richer homes, goose would be accompanied by other roasted birds like partridge, peacock, woodcock and—with the king’s permission—swan. The birds were basted with butter and saffron or nutmeg and cloves.
As trends evolved, Queen Victoria championed the concept of cold side dishes and game pies to celebrate the festive season. The rich man’s interpretation was the Yorkshire Christmas pie; coated in lavish pastry and stuffed to the gunnels with boned birds. Those less fortunate would use offal or any animal parts they had access to. Recipes dating back to the 1700s suggest that venison leftovers were given to servants or poor people. The offal was combined with available pantry ingredients to make a ‘humble pie’.
Most historical sources merit Henry VIII as the first king to eat turkey on Christmas Day. Even so, it wasn’t until the mid-20th century that turkey overshadowed the more traditional goose. Turkeys were steadily sourced and shipped from America in bulk, providing a more affordable option for large modern families.