Christmas — it is that time of the year when homes are decked with boughs of holly, a faux fir tree has tinsel drizzled on it, stockings are hung on walls and guests keep streaming into the home. There is cheeriness and bonhomie all around. And everyone looks forward to indulging in gut-busting lunches and dinners, with some munching in between.
But not many know about the history behind some of the dishes they pop into their mouths during the festive times. The traditions, which were once set in stone, have now evolved to become more contemporary.
Nonetheless, what is the fun of eating a convention-dictated meal, without knowing how and why it came into being? Let’s take a journey to glimpse some of the orthodox and some not so unorthodox, conventions that ruled what appeared on Christmas dinner tables in different parts of the world.
Cake mixing as a ceremony seems to be the high point of several establishments the world over, and increasingly in India. It is meant to signal the advent of Christmas, when families would get together and each member would toss in a handful of dry fruits and berries in a large bowl of rum or sherry with a prayer for the clan’s well-being.
From a culinary standpoint this tradition also made sense, given the cool December month needed a spicy and decadent Christmas cake as a hearty, warming dessert. Moreover, it could stay without refrigeration (which was not an option in the old world) for months. We were also told by a Native German that usually the grandma of the family would mix all the dry fruits and berries in brandy and rum for the Christmas cake, but not use all this for that year’s cake.
Some of the mix would be left over to mix in the next year’s cake and so on. So for all one knows, they were eating cake that had some bit that went back to over a decade. Sounds like a sourdough starter, doesn’t it? But then that’s what tradition is all about, a little piece of history and a little bite of a legacy.
This humble Italian bread has an interesting story that few know about. Many years ago, a poor Milanese baker fell in love with a rich merchant’s daughter. Back then, the rich would soak different types of spices, nuts and seeds in rich wine to be mixed into the Christmas cake, while the less privileged made do with bread.
The ardent youngster wanted to gift his beloved a decadent cake to profess his love, but he managed to collect only some dried raisins, and orange and lemon peels to add to the flour, eggs, butter and yeast. Undeterred he worked hard and long to bake the perfect bread, and that is how the Panettone came into being. The merchant’s daughter fell in love with baker’s earnestness to please her, as much as she did with the bread and they married and lived happily every after.
Narrating this story, Chef Alessio Mecozzi of CastaDiva Resort & Spa in Italy says that the Panettone is to Italians what the Hot Cross Buns is to Britons and the Fruitcake is to Americans. “Most bakeries start selling Panettones from the first week of Christmas till the New Year. These days, besides the traditionally big Panettones, which weigh over a kilo, they also make smaller muffins, since they are easier to eat, store and gift,” he adds.
Also called the Bûche De Noël in France, where French Patissiers pride themselves in creating visually stunning representations, this is an elaborate cake made by rolling delicate sponge cake filled with pastry cream and frosted with chocolate buttercream. It is
designed to look like a log as the name suggests, complete with the ‘age rings’ of the tree bark. It is further decorated with accents that add the final touches, meringue (now fondant as well) mushrooms and holly.
The history of this cake dates back to the Iron Age, back when people came together to welcome the winter solstice; a time when the main source of warmth was love, liquor and firewood! The same wood would also be used to bake, since it was a commodity worth
having multiple uses for.
Sponge cake was one of the oldest cake recipes around, so it made sense to use it. But how would they have added elements to suit the season? By adding the holly and the mushrooms that sprouted under the trees ever so often.
And like most gourmet foods, it was the French who made the Yule Log popular. As proud advocates of their cuisine and self-proclaimed (and in time world acclaimed) bakers, their word was gospel. They added decorations to this ode to ‘firewood’ and every bakery in France vied for sales by displaying elaborate versions in their show windows.
Not much is known of this sweet and sad character that originated in Catalonia, possibly centuries ago. While talking to a Spanish Chef, we were told that Spaniards start celebrating Christmas from the first week of December when the first decoration is put up on the tree. The first dish of the season is this strange character who is shown with his pants down and ‘doing the business’!
Despite how unappetizing that sounds, it is an old tradition. Since it is a custom that dates back to the 17th-18th century, one can assume it is a character that adds a ‘human element’ to the otherwise highly traditional nativity scene, for where there are commoners, there will be ‘real life’. Incidentally, ‘El Caganer’ literally means ‘the shitter’!
Milky, boozy, sweet and not supposed to be ‘eggy’, this Yuletide beverage has plenty of history attached to it. Some say it originated in Medieval Britain, a foggy, cold country where anything rich, milk and ale infused was always welcome. Since milk and eggs were not for the bourgeoisie, the rich used this beverage to toast health and wealth during the festive season.
But how did it become a drink for the festive season? It was probably when people immigrated to the new land, United States, where they owned farms with plenty of milk and eggs. Rum was added for warmth and so came about the recipe we know now.
The name however remains a mystery. It could have come from the word ‘noggin’ which meant cup for all we know. For now let’s be content with the fact that it happened and it warms our bones.
As the name suggests, mince pies were originally filled with meat. They were shaped like a cradle to represent the birth of baby Jesus and his bed in the manger. It was only when American colonies began to fill with European immigrants and families from the homeland would want to send these treats to their loved ones, that the meat probably got replaced with minced fruit leftover from the Christmas pudding. Once more it was about the shelf life of the dish and not so much the need for the wealthy to show off.
These are but a few, better known examples of the many dishes that surround the legend of Christmas. All our traditions have deep culinary roots and it must be our endeavor to preserve them for the generations to come.