Thought for Food | Food

The importance of fowl in a Christmas meal

What shall we have for Christmas?

Fowl is fair, the wise man said, and I know why. For Christmas, there is nothing quite like a good, fat, stuffed bird. At least, that’s what our books tell us. Of course, there is lamb with mint sauce and a suckling pig with an apple on the table, too, but birds are Christmas specials.

The importance of fowl in a Christmas meal jumped out of the pages of a book called History of Christmas Foods and Feasts by Claire Hopley. Take this 1747 recipe. The recipe by Hannah Glasse, an English cookery writer of the 18th century, calls “for a turkey stuffed with a goose, which was stuffed with a chicken, which in turn had a pigeon stuffed with a partridge inside it.”

Game plan

Christmas meals, of course, have changed with the times. The author tells us so, too. Some old dishes have lost their magic. Ox palates or heifers’ udders are no longer as appetising as they once were. “Our meat is tenderer; our bread is softer; our butter less salty; modern brewing and wine-making produce drinks that differ from those quaffed by our ancestors. Still, the closest we can come to Christmas feasts in medieval courts, Renaissance manors, or an 18th century country house is by trying to recreate the dishes recorded in their cookery books and mentioned by the diarists, poets, playwrights and novelists of that period,” she writes.

The book goes on to tell the history of some dishes, the way food was cooked and eaten, and a host of other things, including recipes. In a section called ‘Christmas birds’, she writes about the role that chickens, geese, ducks and wild fowl played during Christmas.

“Swans were semi-domesticated and their cygnets raised for the table well into the 18th century. Baby herons and egrets were shaken from their treetop nests and kept in barns with high beams where they could perch. Holes in the roofs let in the rain to keep them happy,” she writes.

Smaller birds — blackbirds, plovers, larks, gulls and so on — all made it to the kitchen. “Large birds, spit-toasted and brought in with their legs and wings pointed upwards, were prestigious centre-pieces at feasts. Smaller birds could be roasted too, but they were also baked in pies as delicacies in the second or third course of a feast. Larks were still eaten in Victorian England; Charles Dickens’s wife Catherine suggested them in a menu in her 1852 book What Shall We Have For Dinner?

The book refers to other authors and their Xmas stories of food, and mentions dishes they or their characters cooked or ate for Christmas. “Jane Austen and her mother entertained at Christmas with a tray of widgeon, preserved ginger, and black butter. This black butter is actually a firm apple and berry preserve,” Hopley writes.

In a letter dated December 22, 1808, Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra about a Christmas dinner: “The tray had admirable success. The widgeon and the preserved ginger was delicious as one could wish. But as to our black butter, do not decoy anybody to Southampton by such a lure, for it is all gone.”

All is also gone from the box that contained delicious ghee-laden barfis that a friend brought for us. Hopley’s book made me so hungry I couldn’t wait for the bird stuffed in bird stuffed in bird. I made do with the barfis.

The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 5:12:05 AM |

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