Join Dr Judith Bryans and expert food historian Dr Annie Gray as they take a look at our Christmas traditions and feasts of the past, and some of the dairy products and dishes which have graced our tables for centuries.
Judith: Hello and welcome to our dairy in discussion podcast, my name is Judith Bryans, I’m the CEO of Dairy UK and today I’m joined by a very special guest who’s going to help us explore all about Christmas food traditions over the centuries.
Professor Annie Gray is going to explain why our Christmas dinner looks the way it does and what people would’ve eaten in times gone by.
Annie is a well-known food historian, author and broadcaster – with degrees from Oxford and York university, as well as a PhD from Liverpool university. She specialises in the history of food and dining from around 1600 to the present day.
Before we get into questions with Annie I want to offer my heartfelt thanks to all who took part in our very own Christmas tradition earlier this month- and that was the annual ceremony of the Christmas cheeses held at the Royal hospital in Chelsea.
The tradition of cheesemakers donating cheese to the Royal Hospital dates back to 1692, when Christopher Wren asked local cheesemakers to donate cheese to the veterans who entered the hospital when it opened that year.
After that, the local cheese merchants continue to donate cheese to the hospital but very much on an ad hoc basis. Until 62 years ago when the dairy sector stared to organise the donations into an annual event, with cheesemakers from across thew country donating their finest cheeses to the Royal Hospital.
This is very much in recognition of the service of the Chelsea Pensioners to their country, and Dairy UK is proud to continue the tradition of being the conduit for the donation of these cheeses and hosting the event with the royal hospital every year.
Welcome to the podcast Annie.
Annie: Hello! Thanks for having me.
Judith: Nowadays when someone thinks about a Christmas dinner, we have a view in our head- even if we don’t eat that meal – we would think of a Christmas dinner as a roast turkey, some roasty potatoes, some veg and maybe a ham. Could you tell us how far back that meal dates, in our minds, in this country? And when did it emerge?
Annie: In our minds, it goes back to time immemorial. We’ve always been eating it, Romans in togas feasted on turkey and all the rest of it, but of course that’s completely untrue. We’ve completely heavily mythologised our Christmas meal. And actually the meal as well have it today, with one, maybe two courses, centred around turkey with roast potatoes sprouts, parsnips, is really very recent – post war, 50’d really. However a lot of the elements going into it do date back a lot farther.
For example, turkey was introduced in the Tudor period and became associated with Christmas early on, but not just Christmas but with the entire Christmas meal. Christmas pudding started off as plum pudding, also goes back to the Tudor period, sprouts 1830’s, parsnips really became popular in the Victorian period, brandy butter is a 20th century invention. There’s loads of different elements which came together. The key thing to remember, is the elements in our modern Christmas meal were a tiny fraction of kind the things we used to eat in the past.
So when I say our modern Christmas meal dates back to the post war period, most of the foods we eat go back further but they were just the top of the iceberg, especially if you were wealthy. Especially if you were wealthy. You’d have your turkey, you’d have your potatoes and your gravy, and you’d also have two different types of soup, and fish and 50 different types of sauce, loads of game, and blancmanges, and jellies and meringues and ice creams. I mean, if you were wealthy Christmas was whatever you wanted and an awful lot of it.
Judith: Wow, I don’t think I could take the calories of all of that but it sounds absolutely wonderful – or indeed the cost of it. So take us back a little bit in history, maybe to 1600. What would’ve been the cost for a very wealthy family and maybe an ordinary or poor family, of their Christmas meal.
Annie: It’s very hard to put and exact number of in because our retail price index has changed so much. Today we might say – gosh that’s really expensive – yet in the past it wasn’t it was just completely unaffordable. The cost of everything has changed. Putting a number on it is difficult but putting something more relevant on it is more achievable.
So if you look at the meals of the very wealthy in 1600, you’ve probably got 2-3 courses with 10-20 dishes in each course. And they’re served simultaneously, with a lot of servants, and fanfare. Sometimes the meals are still brought in by procession. You’ve got a banqueting course after dinner, where you go off to a separate room and have sugar craft confectionary and beautiful things in brandy.
So if you factor in the cost of the room, the cost of things like forks which are really rare outside of banqueting, factor in the cost of the cooking and everything else- you’re looking at the equivalent of houses worth. Tens of thousands of pounds today for the big banquets, and of course that’s something completely beyond even thinking about for the poor.
So compare those huge banquets to something like a respectable working class meal at Christmas which might well be some beef if you could afford it, or some salt port – something like that. You’ve got to try and have a bit of a feast but it won’t be amazing, you’ll have lots of bread, sauce, lots of beer, and if you’re employed some of tat feast will have been given to you by your employers. So if you are a tenant or a worker on a farm, probably some of that cost will have been borne by the fact your beef and firewood would’ve been given to you.
So cost is relative, but those meals of the wealthy were phenomenal, and the meals of the somewhat poorer, were affordable. But the main thing was everyone had fun, it was a real occasion to look forward to, Christmas in the past.
Judith: And if you were one of the people serving that meal, involved in the procession, and lived below stairs and spent most of your time below stairs in a very wealthy household, what would your meal have been like? Would that have been the leftovers or would you not have been allowed to have touched that food – and have something completely different?
Annie: You would’ve had a lot of leftovers, the way that big houses worked throughout the 17-18th century and into the 19th and 20th was that you presented a lot of food on the table, and that food would be beautiful – guilded in a lot of cases. And then that food would slowly go through the household, so the idea was that you’d have largesse on the table but nothing would be wasted.
If you’re looking at 1600 you’re just at the ned of the Tudor mess system, and you’ve hear the phrase officers mess, that’s a way of eating where food is very hierarchical. If you’re a duke or a king you’re the only person eating from the platter in front of you. If you’re a duchess or lower down that scale – largely because you’re a woman – there might be two of you sharing the same platter. When you get down to a knight there are possibly four of you sharing a platter, and so on and so forth. Until you get right down to the bottom of the hall when you might have 8 or even 10 people sharing the same set, a mess of dishes. And those dishes get nicer as you go up the scale. So your dukes and kinds have got poultry, swan, bittern, and further down the scale you might have a fairly plain cottage or some cream cheese. But the dishes from the top end up being recycled.
So the crust of the pie from the top would end up being presented either to the servants of household or even the poor, there’s a real duty to the poor people in the past. And that goes right up to the 50’s and the birth of the welfare state, that big houses edible alms would be given out at the gate. So you could well see a situation where a beautiful guilded pie made with something like veal, dried fruit and loads of spices in are served at the top table, and the bits of leftover meat are eaten but the kitchen staff on the way out, and then that crust, especially the nastier bits that’ve been in the over, the crust ifs broken up and given tot her poor at the gate. Anything really unfit to be eaten goes to the pigs who’ll eat anything. Then of course they are turned into bacon and the whole cycle begins again.
Judith: Well talking about fitness to perhaps consume some foods, these days were blessed, we have cold storage, refrigerators in our home. As we go through time can you talk to us a little bit about the changes in technology or how people stored food, or how their ability to store or not store their food would have impacted the preparation of the foods they ate at Christmas or other times of the year?
Annie: Again, you’ve got a lot of class differences within food storage, so I think we tend to think of the past where food went off really quickly and there’s a great food myth that meat that was tainted was then disgusted with spices. But no one is going to disguise meat which is relatively cheap in a lot of cases with phenomenally expensive spices, and they’re not going to eat tainted meat because it would’ve given them chronic diarrhoea – and there was no Imodium in the past. So lets just throw at one straight out, people were not eating tainted meat disguised in spices.
First of all things would be delivered and coming in fresh all the time. So, lets take a snapshot of the early C19th by which point you’ve got a pretty good network of shops and butchers. The servant, head housekeeper or head cook would order in the food on a weekly or bi-weekly basis and would be getting deliveries every other day – from the bitcher, from the dairyman, from the farm on the estate – so cream and butter would be coming in and being made fresh every day. Big houses got through a lot of stuff, 9-15lbs of butter a day. And that has to be made fresh every day because that’s a lot of butter.
Then you’ve got a system of ways of storing things, especially things that needed to be kept cold in summer. So dry larders for things like flour, sultanas and dry things. Wet larders for things like fish, and the wetter goods and are lined with marbles, and with shuttered vents so the air circulates. You’d get some use of ice for some level of preservation although not as much as we might thing. Ice is usually used for making things like jellies and making ice cream but it is used as a sort of type of proto-refrigeration.
There are things called ice caves, or refrigerators in the Victorian era which are boxes filled with ice. And they are not to keep things cool in but they are used to set jellies and cool drinks. So not so much for preservation but to create that sensation of something chilly.
For proper refrigeration you have to wait until the 20th century, early fridges started to go into houses before WWI – based on ice, but this time specifically for keeping foods for l9onger. Then electric fridges started to come in until 20’s and 30’s but fridge penetration was very low really until the 1960’s. An awful lot of people still didn’t have a fridge in their houses because many had a pantry. I suspect many of the people listening to this will be familiar with houses that have got pantries which have been converted. Usually these days if you buy a house that had a pantry its usually a storage room off the kitchen, and ironically usually has a fridge in it.
But pantries were good, pantries usually had a small window, lots of circulating air, stone shelves to keep things cool. We do have a bit of an obsession with fridges in our modern day and many things get kept in the fridge that don’t need to. So things like eggs, tomatoes, aubergines – all notorious for being things not to be kept in the fridge as the fridge will ruin them.
When we think about storage in the past, sometimes we get a bit overly obsessed with what we would do and we forget some of these things don’t need to happen.
But the flip side of course which is preservation, and a lot of things were preserved as well. If you’re looking at the autumn or summer gluts you can preserve them by salting, smoking, by drying things out, by putting them in sugar – hence our obsession with jam and marmalade, theres so many ways to preserve things.
But if you’re rich it doesn’t matter! If you’re rich enough you can have pineapples in the middle of winter, asparagus on your Christmas table which was a tremendously [popular Christmas vegetables. The reason you’re doing it is to show off, and show that seasonality doesn’t effect you. You don’t need to preserve it in the first place. You’ve got a huge garden, skilled gardeners and you’re getting through coal at a rate of knots.
It’s so dependent on who you are, and what the technology you’ve got access to.
Judith: Well it’s a really interesting point you make about fridge and the fact we put everything in friudges these days, and actually it is tremendously important to store our foods correctly and make sure were not eating things that go bad. But we are in a bit of an interesting situation in the world, where were so obsessed that we also have a lot of food waste, and if food waste was a country it would currently be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions. So we all need to do something for our consumers to help them not to waste food.
But just going back in time, you mention dairy. And obviously this ins a dairy in discussion podcast, so I’d be really interested to know if there were any particular dishes that were eaten around Christmas that were particularly dairy heavy throughout the years.
Annie: Well one of the key ones of course is cheese. Stilton is associated massively with Christmas today, is was associated massively with Christmas in the pat- it really was Stilton above all others in the past. It was mostly because it was tangy, it kept well and most importantly it could be packaged up and sent as a present. You find the same thing with a load of hard cheeses, they’re perfect for giving. Parmesan was one that was given a lot for Christmas, Henry VII was famously given a parmesan for Christmas. Peeps notoriously buried his parmesans in his backyard during the fire of London because he didn’t’ want them to get burned, because they were some of the most precious things in his house.
So sending someone a huge wheel of cheese, particularly hard cheese, which took time and effort to prepare and was more prestigious was very much associated with Christmas and gift giving. In terms of what was on the table, cream and butter were the mainstays of British cuisine from the 18th century onwards. Its hard to conceive of any dish on the table which didn’t make use of butter.
I’ve seen accounts from 18-19th century tables and Christmas dinners and the phenomenal, 20,30,40lbs of butter – so 20/25kg butter – being used in the Christmas dinner, which frankly makes me feel very happy because I love butter. But in terms of specific Christmas dishes, the one I can think of, which is rather glorious is a 19th century Christmas dish is nesselrode pudding. Now nesslerode pudding wasn’t just a Christmas dish, one of the things about Christmas dishes in the past was they were also winter dishes. So they were eaten throughout the winter season but often became associated with Christmas because that’s the big feast occasion. It’s a sort of chestnut and cherry ice cream. It’s a riff on the plum pudding because a lot of them were moulded in a round mould so they’d look like plum pudding, or as we call it today Christmas pudding, which was boiled in a cloth so it was always spherical. But it looked white, or creamy and it had these bits of fruit in it.
It’s one of these things where the invention was a bit murky, it was early 19th centruey – names after a Russian Count called Nessle Rode. Possibly invented by a man called Moni, possibly invented or riffed off Antoine Carême a big figure in French cuisine.
There are lots of different versions of it and it’s absolutely divine. It uses chestnuts, loads of cream and you can make a set version made with gelatine. That was very popular on the tables of not just the wealthy but also the middle classes, especially the blancmange version set with gelatine. I think if you were going to revive a dairy based Christmas dish from the past, that’d be the one to do. Because its got all the flavours we’d associate with Christmas today, cherries, chesnuts, candied peels in a lot of the versions and sometimes you put in a massive slug of cherry brandy. It’s absolutely lovely and I’d say that’s your go-to dairy dish of the past.
Judith: As you know I mentioned at the beginning of the podcast that we’ve just had our Annual Ceremony of the Christmas Cheeses, and the history of cheesemakers donating to the Royal Hospital and how the ceremony came about. Obviously as a sector we are dedicated to recognising the service of those men to the country over time. I wonder if you could tie my introduction a little bit together with what we’re still doing for the Chelsea Pensioners, in terms of talking to use about what Christmas would’ve looked like during the two great wars.
Annie: Erm, the First world War wasn’t that different in many ways to what had been before, int hat rationing didn’t come in until the end of the war.
So the First world War, food was short and there were food shortages and food panics, but for a lot of people especially the wealthy, Christmas dinners didn’t look that different to what they had done. I mean the 212 courses at Blenheim got scaled down to about 11 so a terrible terrible time for those aristocrats struggling during difficult times. Things got scaled down but they weren’t that different.
The Second World War was very different. Rationing came in in January 1940 and lasted 14 years. What many people tend to forget when they think about wartime food was that it was worse after the war when the soldiers returned home and the lend-lease agreement with America came to an end, so food shortages were worse in 1945-6. But it really did impact on Christmas, both in real terms – because you couldn’t get hold of meat because it was rationed so your turkey went out the window unless you were breeding them. Most people had rabbit or perhaps chickens that they were breeding, so pot broiler old fowl. You couldn’t get hold of sugar, or cheese – so many things were tightly restricted. You have these extraordinary set of recipes for things like mock goose for Christmas and mock turkey – which I don’t think were really cooked. Most of them are potato with sage, a tiny bit of sausage meat and maybe marmite you’ve got left, and it’s a lot of effort for something that looks like a brick and doesn’t taste remotely like goose. I think that’s why they weren’t cooked, because when you look at them you think, really?, and just go down the road and beg a rabbit off someone. Or liver – anything is better than mock goose. But food writers of the time did try.
You get wartime Christmas puddings as well based on a lot of carrot, and they’re absolutely awful. They look pale and insipid, and they tase, well – of carrot – there’s no way of getting around it. You can’t make them in advance either, after a few days these things are completely moudly. And you’re not going to have any brandy sauce or brandy to have with it either, as you’ve drunk it all in Christmas past. So its all a bit dire.
There are good wartime christmas cake recipes actually, which are based usually on vinegar. There’s a vinegar cake recipe that’s been circulating for years. So you can use dripping rather than butter, and vinegar and no eggs – and its not awful. I wouldn’t go so far as to say its amazing, because fruit cake is incredible, but its not awful and better than many of the other things.
Christmases were really paired down, but mentally it had a really really big effect as well. All these people eating their horrible Carroty pudding and trying to eek a rabbit out to feed a family of six, they started dreaming about what Christmases had gone before. And Christmases before were a really mixed bag, most didn’t eat turkey, they ate beef or fowl, but in peoples minds Christmas and Christmas dinner started to coalesce and people started to dream about food in a way that was quite obsessive. You read war diaries and people are spending all days tracking down an orange. There’s really a level of food obsession.
It’s that crucial period that the end of the war, when the soldiers return home, they want to come home to a country that is grateful to them and that recognises them. A labour government comes in, and there’s a wave of hope – we’re going to build homes for heroes, and give people lots of food, but they can’t get hold of any because of rationing. That’s when Christmas dinner becomes a big thing in peoples mind, so when rationing gets removed in 1954 that’s the point where you see the modern Christmas dinner come together. And most of that is because for 14 years people have dreamt of crispy skin on birds, and stffing that steams when you put your spoon into it and isn’t just based on potato and onion, they’ve dreamt of puddings, of wheels of Stilton and all the things they couldn’t get hold of.
So Christmas is as much in the mind as it is on the table, during the Second World World.
Judith: Looking at today, we’ve talked a lot about history but lets see if your crystal ball is working. Do you think we’re seeing the emergence of any new Christmas meals, or things that will become classic food combinations that any future food historians will look back on?
Annie: I think we are seeing a shift in Christmas dinners. I mean realistically, it has always been in flux. We’ve always eatend a wider variety of things than the media has told us we have. Even though turkey is very universal, its still only 60-70% of people who consume it when you look at the stats. The biggest thing on the table at the moment is the roast potatoes, so I think this could be the big era of the vegetable side dishes.
Judith: So let me just ask you, do you have a favourite Christmas recipe from any period in history?
Annie: I’m a big fan of plum pudding, which is what later develops into Christmas pudding in the middle of the Victorian period. I’ve eaten a lot of plum puddings and plum pottage – the precursor of plum pudding based on beef broth. So I’d go for a plum pudding with custard as my ultimate favourite. But specifically there’s a 1950’s plum pudding which is a banana based plum pudding, which sounds grim, but the banana makes it shine a lot when it comes out of the dish. It takes a mould really well so it can make some great designs with it. It gives it a softness which I really like and it goes amazingly with custard in a way that only bananas do.
Judith: Interesting! The other thing I wanted to ask you was, in the great scheme of academic history our knowledge of what food does within our bodies and how it helps them stay healthy is relatively new. And, because it’s evolving, it’s confusing for people sometimes to know what’s healthy and what’s not. Before all the pioneering studies of the nutritional greats like Elsie Widdowson, what would the medical profession have known about nutrition, and indeed would everyday people have tried to put meals together.
Annie: A lot of it depends when you were looking at. A lot of medical theory around food for a very long time, until the 17th century was based on galenic tradition. The idea of the 4 humours, you were choleric, melancholy, sanguine – and the other one. They went together with fluids black bile, yellow bile, blood and phlegm. The idea was that you were a certain type of person, you could be naturally choleric, naturally melancholic, sanguine, and those also went together with hot, cold, wet, dry.
So if you were ill, it might be you had a cold – that clearly meant you were cold and wet, so the idea was you would eat foods that were hot and dry to restore your balance. It got very complicated, partly because medical science wanted it that way so you’d go and pay someone for their advice.
Certain foods were given certain characteristics and it wasn’t always obvious. Sugar was neutral – it was always good for you no matter what, white wine was hot and dry – so that would help you if you had a cold and you’d drink lots of white wine, mutton was hot and dry, spices were hot and dry, because they tasted hot and dry – but not all of them.
A lot of the food mixing that went on until the end of the 17th Century was based on humoral medicine. You add into that the Doctrine of Signatures – which is that food will effect you, it has signals that will tell you.
So if you look at the petals of the Clary Sage they have veins on, so that has something to do with blood, actually it looks like a bloodshot eye, so if you’ve a bloodshot eye that’ll help you.
There are loads of things which look like genitalia so they become aphrodisiacs. So if you’re suffering from impotence you should eat the roots of certain orchids, and you should eat a Ringo root, stinkhorn mushrooms, and you should always eat testicles because obviously they’re aphrodisiacs.
So there’s a lot of that that goes into foods, you see pies and read the ingredients and you say: I see what’s going on here. This is a pie for the gentleman that’s drunk too much the night before and who can’t get it up the next day. And that’s quite obvious once you realise what these foods are.
That starts to change in the C18th, as people do more dissections, and they realise the body is not what they thought it was. They start to discover circulation, blood, and realise that women’s genitalia isn’t just men’s genitals inverted – which is quite a move forward.
At that point the study of the body, science and food goes into a state of flux. By the 19th century you have a nascent understanding of food science, but its based on very long held ideas about what food is good for you. For example white bread is thought to be good for you because its easy to digest, but that goes with snobbishness about the fact that white bread is the only thing rich people can afford. Meat is thought to be very good for you, especially beef. If you were English Beef would naturally help you patriotic temperament.
There were a lot of bonkers ideas that went into things, and the general food that you’d have when you were ill, which was completely generic – didn’t take any note of your symptoms – was beef tea. Essentially beef stock with no vegetables. You might have something like pap, which was breadcrumbs in brandy or water. Or Chicken milk, which is orange, flour and milk if you were lucky – sometimes it’d be water. Queen Victoria ate nothing but that when she was dying in 1901.
There were ideas about how food was linked to the body but until vitamins and the impact and the whys and wherefores were discovered, much of it was based on gut feel. Gut feel emphasised meat, meatiness, fats and flesh formers – meaty and carbohydrate foods.
Very little thought went into your Christmas meal would be good for you. Although, lets look at the Christmas meal today which is about 5,000 calories, and gargantuan. I’m not completely convinced people put a lot of thought into what goes into it today.
Judith: Annie I was smiling all the way through that and how you brought it to life. But I was also thinking I’m extremely grateful that our knowledge about food and health has moved on dramatically since then.
And there you have it!
I hope you enjoyed our walk through the history of Christmas traditions today with Professor Annie Gray and that you’ll join us for the next episode of Dairy in Discussion. In the meantime, I wish you a very happy and healthy Christmas if you celebrate Christmas or a very happy and healthy holiday that you do celebrate. I’d also like to wish you a very happy New Year.