The perfect Christmas roast turkey dinner. Most families in the United Kingdom traditionally sit-down on Christmas afternoon for their festive Christmas Dinner. Today you find the centerpiece is usually a roast Turkey served with stuffing, sausages wrapped in streaky bacon ( pigs in blankets ), crisp roast potatoes, parsnips, Brussel sprouts and lots of other vegetables, and cranberry sauce. This is followed by Christmas pudding and brandy sauce, maybe sherry trifle and mince pies. But how have we got here?
A bit of Christmas Dinner history
‘If he is to get on in life, he must get on umbly, Master Copperfield!’ In medieval England, if you were very rich you might have eaten venison for Christmas. Killed in your hunting grounds and the bits or umbles – the heart, lungs, liver, tongue, and kidneys would be chopped, mixed and baked in a pie to be given to the poor. The original [h]umble pie. Down the pecking order ( sorry ) you might find goose or woodcock covered in butter and saffron and roasted. For dessert, you would find frumerty a thick, spiced porridge. This was made with currents and enriched with egg yolks. Alternatively there might be a boiled plum pudding. The ancestor of today’s Christmas pudding made with suet and dried fruit. It would be flavoured with clove, ginger, and cinnamon. Plum is an old term for raisins.
A boar’s head would be the centerpiece of the Christmas feast for a Tudor nobleman. It is believed that the tradition is centuries-old. It came from pagan celebrations of the Norse god of the harvest. If you could not get hold of the highly prized head, you would have a ham which is now a staple of many Christmas meals. Sugar, spices, and nuts were considered highly exotic and very expensive. Highly decorated marzipan sweetmeats were a sign of your wealth and importance.
‘My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.’
During the 17th century, turkeys started to become part of the Christmas feast. Although goose would remain the most popular roast well into the Victorian era. It was common for goose “Clubs” to be set up, allowing working-class families to save up over the year towards buying a goose. Sherlock Holmes solves a tricky case involving the theft of a precious stone the blue carbuncle when it is found in a Christmas club goose.
Gingerbread has an incredibly long history, near to a thousand years. Originally it was often sold in monasteries, pharmacies, and markets. Gingerbread was prized for its supposed medicinal properties and was used to aid digestion. It became so popular its manufacture was highly regulated in Germany and supervised by a guild. The guild lifted the restrictions on who could bake gingerbread at Easter and Christmas. By Victorian times Gingerbread men were baked and hung on the Christmas tree.
A dickens of a christmas
In the 18th and 19th century, Twelfth Night, the fifth of January, was one of the most important dates in the festive calendar. Twelfth Night was the last feast of the Christmas celebrations ( Epiphany ). The centerpiece of the parties, which involved eating, drinking and playing games was a cake. A forerunner to today’s Christmas cake it evolved from an enriched fruit bread to a more familiar fruit cake decorated with almond and sugar pastes. A dried bean was included in the recipe. Whoever found it was crowned ‘Lord of Misrule’ or ‘King of the Bean’ and presided over the festivities.
The perfect Christmas roast turkey dinner
When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the turkey was still an expensive choice, only for the very rich, for Christmas dinner. A famous Christmas dinner scene appears in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge sends Bob Cratchit a large turkey. In northern England, roast beef was commonly served on Christmas Day while in London and the south of England, a goose was still the favourite. Those too poor to afford beef or goose made do with rabbit. However, by the end of the 19th century, most people feasted on turkey for Christmas dinner.
Mincemeat was from Tudor times, when chopped meat mixed with dried fruits, sugar, and spices. This recipe continued right up to the Victorian era when less and less meat was included in the recipe. The mince tart you eat today is filled entirely with dried fruits, sugar, spices, and suet to keep it moist. Most premade mincemeat mixtures now use vegetable fats rather than the traditional suet in keeping with mincemeats origins.
So today’s recipe is for the Christmas centerpiece a roast turkey. I have memories of my mum getting up at 6am to put the oven to prepare a monster of a turkey for the family. As in popular legend, it did seem that we ate turkey leftovers for days after. You should never put stuffing into a turkey cavity as it will not cook properly and could be a health risk but I do like to stuff the breast end of the bird which helps keep the meat moist. I have included my favourite stuffing recipe.