I was watching a cookery programme the other day and was struck by the fact that two viewers asked questions about how to cook beef – their meat of choice for Christmas day. A few days later a beef farmer on the Radio 4 programme Farming Today said that he believed poultry was still the favoured food, but that a lot of people would eat beef in a special meal over the Christmas period.
Turkey has not always been England’s choice for the Christmas table. Turkey was first mentioned as one of several Christmas meats by Thomas Tusser – farmer and poet – in 1573 in his Five Hundred Points Of Good Husbandry:
Beef, mutton and pork, shred pies of the best
Pig, veal, goose, capon and turkey well dressed.
In Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a Scrooge reformed by teachings from Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come buys a huge turkey for the Cratchit family. Turkey at that time was considered a luxury food – it was not until after World War II, with the advent of intensive and factory farming, that mass production of turkey brought down prices enough to make it a viable bird for the majority of the population’s Christmas feast.
Historically goose used to be the popular Christmas choice for those who were not well off in England. Every part of the goose could be used – feathers for warmth, quills for writing, fat for cooking... People who did not have money would capture whatever they could bring to the table – often small game birds which could be eaten separately or stuffed inside a boned goose. The goose could also be wrapped in pastry – which brings me back to the present. Celebrity chef Jamie Oliver suggests Turkey Wellington for small Christmas gatherings (a great twist on Beef Wellington). He uses turkey breast filled with cranberry jam, covered with mushroom pate and rolled in shortcrust pasty. Cut through the finished dish and you can see all the layers clearly – the red of the jam, the lightness of the turkey, the dark mushroom pate and the crisp golden pastry.
To return to the past – the rich could have sumptuous Christmas feasts a favourite centrepiece being boar’s head. Other favourites included swan and peacock, often garlanded with feathers. A far cry from the Christmas meals of today.
If you are a fan of Heston Blumenthal and/or enjoy creative cooking you are likely to appreciate Heston Blumenthal’s Perfect Christmas, a programme where he creates a Christmas feast for a few select guests - Rob Brydon, Richard E Grant, Dara O’Briain, Sue Perkins, Kirsty Wark and Terry Wogan.