Festive food has varied somewhat over the centuries, but turkey, although not the main dish until about a hundred years ago, has been one of our favourites for well over four centuries. Goose, pheasant, capon, swan and even bustard have been frequent fare and the oldest of all was the boar’s head (and then its attached flesh) paraded into great halls with much ceremony. An essential ingredient to go with this was mustard, so essential that when celebration meals were proscribed in puritan times, mustard makers were almost threatened with extinction. Even more exotic was peacock, which was skinned, roasted and then fully redressed in its plumage before being displayed as a table centrepiece.
The predecessor of our modern mince pie was the Christmas Pie, which was meat based, rather than being filled with sweetened fruit. One ancient recipe used two bushels of flour, twenty pounds of butter, four geese, two turkeys, two rabbits and a mixture of curlews, blackbirds, pigeons, partridges, snipe, woodcock and tongue. These had to be baked in an oval dish which represented the Christ-child’s manger.
The nursery rhyme involving Little Jack Horner arose from such a pie. Jack Horner was the steward to Abbot Whiting, the last Abbot of Glastonbury, who sent a huge Christmas pie to King Henry the Eighth, as he was busy dissolving or destroying monasteries, in the hope of keeping in the king’s favour. Horner was charged with the task of transporting the pie to London but succumbed to eating some of it on the way and discovered, hidden within, the deeds of twelve Somerset manors. He appropriated those for the Manor of Mells for himself and the Horner family still owns the property to this day.
Until recently, it was considered unlucky to refuse a mince pie if offered. Nowadays, if you eat one on every one of the twelve days of Christmas your good future will be assured.
Plum-porridge, or plum-pottage, was served right at the beginning of the Christmas meal and was made by boiling mutton and beef with broth thickened with breadcrumbs, raisins, currants and prunes and then seasoned with wine and spices. It was later modified and became plum pudding or plum duff and was served at the end of the meal instead.
On the liquid front, the wassail bowl (from the Anglo-Saxon ‘waes hael’ meaning ‘Be well’) was raised in toasts. In 1599, the Commander in Chief of the English Navy created a traditional punch with – a cask of Malaga, 80 casks of brandy, 9 casks of water, 80 pints of lemon juice, 1,300 lbs of sugar 5 lbs of nutmeg and 25,000 limes.
Popular drinks were lambswool (ale, roasted apples, sugar, spices, eggs, thick cream and pieces of bread), whipcoll (brandy, beaten egg yolks, sugar and cream), egg-hot (hot cider mixed with spices and eggs) and ale posset (hot milk, ale, sugar and spices).
With thanks to CovSoc member Brian Stote for this interesting article!