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Festive Food Traditions from around the world

© by Kat Morgenstern, December 2007

FeastingNo other feast day, except perhaps Thanksgiving (if you live in the US), is more centered around food than Christmas. The tradition goes way back in time, long before Christ was ever conceived. How can that be, if we are celebrating his birthday? Well, today we choose to celebrate his birthday at this time of the year, but in ancient times, people celebrated the return of the sun on the 21st of December, the day of the Winter Solstice. The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year, but it also signals the rebirth of the sun, of warmth, of light - and to our ancestors that was a great reason to celebrate. And although most of us are not aware of the fact, we still carry on many of these age-old traditions associated with this great mid-winter festival. (Or have you never kissed under the mistletoe?)

Interestingly, many of our festive food traditions go way back in time, when people celebrated the gifts of the earth by sacrificing them to the ancient Gods of fertility and growth. To 'sacrifice' means 'to make something sacred'. The Christmas Goose, or hog were both considered sacred in the ancient days.

Vegetarian faux meat - pig head roast

This pighead is actually vegetarian - if you want to know how it was made, visit this excellent blog: Green Gourmet Giraffe

In German speaking countries there is a tradition of serving a pig's head with an apple in its mouth symbolizing the idea of regeneration and eternal life. The pig signifies fertility and the apple is a symbol of regeneration and renewal. Nowadays though, people have become rather squeamish and don't appreciate such overt displays. In fact, at some point animal sacrifices, were substituted by festive breads, baked especially for the occasion. These breads were often huge, taking the shape of a ring (circle of eternal life) or formed into an elongated shape with a medial cut, which some scholars have interpreted as a unified symbol representing both the male and female principles.

In rural areas these breads were taken to the midnight mass on Christmas Eve to be blessed by the priest, a process that was believed to endow them with magical powers. This blessed bread was thought to protect against disease and misfortune and bring blessing fertility and riches to all who shared in it. After the mass people would return to their homes and gather around the Christmas feast, but the first thing they did was to share this magical bread. Even the maids and farm helpers were given a piece and some was crumbled up and mixed into the animal feed for the chickens, the pigs, the cows, the horses - each received their little blessing. One piece was even ground down into flour again and mixed with the seed that was to bring the harvest for the following year.

Essentially this substitution follows the same logic as the animal sacrifices of our pagan ancestors, for the blessed bread is the body of Christ. In breaking the bread and partaking of it we partake of his essence, thus imparting the power of regeneration (or resurrection as it is called in Christian terminology), on his birthday each year, when he is 'reborn'.

All the rest of the elaborate food preparations were just embellishment for this important ritual of sacrifice and blessing. Much later on, another important tradition evolved which, however does not bear any of the spiritual significance. This tradition involves the rare and exceedingly precious spices that started to arrive in the western hemisphere on arduous journey from far away countries, on ancient trade routes from the East. Cinnamon, cloves, pepper, nutmeg, nuts and dried exotic fruit were at one time so expensive that the amount that can be found on an average kitchen shelf today would have marked the owner as a millionaire. A single nutmeg could set you up for life. So to create fine baked goods such as Lebkuchen (a term that signifies 'life' and 'cake'), rich in such expensive extravagancies was a treat that came close to the symbolic eating of gold.

Today we have no way of understanding the preciousness of such foodstuffs. The only 'precious' spice today is saffron, and even that is affordable in small quantities. We have everything available all year around and at reasonably cheap prices too. We could, if we wanted to, eat Lebkuchen everyday and not break the bank. But we don't. We have, to some degree, preserved its symbolic special status by only making it available at Christmas time. The same goes for sweetbreads, such as the German 'Stollen' or the English 'Christmas Pudding', which are rich in dried fruits and nuts - a treat that symbolises the gifts of the earth in the shape of a cake. In time, each country developed its own particular Christmas foods that conveyed the spirit of the season like no other. Below I have gathered a collection of recipes from different parts of the world (don't read this if you are on a diet or adhere to any kind of 'no fat, no sugar, no wheat, no eggs, no nuts, no whatever' type of philosophy):

United States

In the US, what constitutes a traditional Christmas dinner depends very much on ethnic background and area. Though in general most will feature either roast beef, ham or turkey. Other foods are often very similar to those served at Thanksgiving and apart from the cookies, eggnog and candy canes, there may be nothing much that distinguishes these holiday traditions. Naturally, most of these food traditions are derived from various European sources that have all merged into one, once they arrived in the big ethnic melting pot known as the US of A.

The North-American Hispanic community has its own Christmas traditions. These may include Turkey with mole sauce (as is common in Mexico) or Tamales, which some families only make on this occasion.

Christmas TamalesTamales are steamed packets of corn paste, filled with pork, chicken or beef and wrapped in cornhusks. They are quite laborious to make and the preparation is spread over a couple of days, as a group of women works together to make them.

Here is an excellent guide for how to make them and some ideas for some delicious stuffings too:

Guide to making tamales

Canada

Canada, like the US, borrows several traditions from the pool of its ethnic heritage. There will be eggnog, candy cane and ginger bread men as well as well as the traditional Christmas Ham or Christmas Turkey.

Yule Log - Bûche de NoëlThe traditional dessert is the Bûche de Noël, which is quite a common Christmas cake in various parts of Europe, including Scandinavia, UK and France. There are various stories regarding its origin, but the most likely is derived via a pre-Christian tradition, which involved an actual log that was brought into the house at Winter Solstice. The log would have been decorated with ribbons and apples etc and represented a sacrifical offering to the fire of the hearth (the hearth played a central role in such folkloric traditions). The log was thought to bestow fertility, blessings and riches on the family.

This Christmas Log tradition is thought to be Norse in origin and probably spread with the vikings. Originally it served as a way of honoring the God Odin, who was celebrated at the Winter Solstice. Variations of this practice lasted long, even into the last century in places where large fireplaces still existed, but as these have become replaced by radiators there is no longer a place for yule logs in our homes and we have to make due with substitutes in the shape of chocolate logs, the caloric value of which will keep us warm in antother way.

The Yule log cake consists of a sponge base filled with whipped cream and rolled up. The frosting is often treated with a fork to create a more realistic bark-like look. Sometimes one end of the roll is cut off and placed on top to resemble a chopped off bark. The whole thing is sprinkled with confectionary sugar to imitate snow and some people even go so far as to mold little mushrooms to place around the log.

Tio de NadalBut the most curious of all the Yule log traditions that still survives in a more or less original form, can be found in Catalonia (northern Spain). Here an actual log, addressed as 'Tió de Nadal', still plays the central role. this log, which nowadays is often decorated with a real face and propped up on 4 legs is treated as a special guest. Starting on the 8th of December this 'guy' gets regular offerings of food and drink and he is covered with a little blanket so he should not get cold. On Christmas day he is taken to the fireplace and urged 'to have a good s**t , he may even be beaten and/or sung to, in order to entice him to do his duty. And as he 'poops' he blesses the onlookers with his gifts: candies, nuts and torrons, a special, very hard Catalonian Christmas cookie, perhaps some dried fruit, figs or nuts. When it is "pooped out", it drops a salt herring, a bulb of garlic, an onion or "urinates". Tió's poop is a gift to be shared communally among the whole family.

Australia

Christmas downunder is a bit oxymoronic. Northern hemisphere traditions influenced by the darkness of the season and the cold weather just don't really fit with the Aussie summer. It would be hard to imagine eating a full roast dinner while one is baking in the sun. But apparently for some Australians traditions are paramount, despite their impracticality and so it is not that unusual to come across such winter foods at the beginning of summer. More sensible types opt for a Barbeque on the beach with beer and champagne and ample amounts of Pavlova as a Christmas treat.

Here is a Pavlova recipe:

Ingredients:

  • 3 egg whites
  • 3 tablespoons water
  • 250g (9 oz.) caster sugar
  • pinch of salt
  • 5 ml or 1 tsp vinegar
  • 5 ml or 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 1 tsp. cornstarch (optional)

For Decoration:

  • Whipped Cream
  • Sharp fruit such as strawberries, kiwis, passionfruit, red currents etc.

Method

  • Beat the egg whites and salt until very stiff. Add water and continue beating before folding in caster sugar, vanilla and vinegar. The mixture has achieved the right consistency when you can form stiff peaks that hold their shape.
  • Pour the mixture onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake at 150°C (300°F) for about 45 minutes, which will dry the moisture and crisp the exterior while the interior remains soft and moist.
  • The decoration gets a little tricky - not because it is difficult, but because the Pavlova will start to absorb moisture from the decoration as soon as it is lathered on. Thus it is best to wait with the decoration to the last minute. If you can't do that it is a good idea (though not traditional) to turn the Pavolva upside down, since the bottom is usually crisper than the top. You can also leave the Pavlova in the oven after baking with the heat turned off to prevent it from collapsing. If it does collapse you can compensate by adding extra cream.
Cougnou

Belgium

In Belgium the sweetbreads tradition plays a central role, though here they take their own approach. On Christmas day "Cougnou" are served - these are sweetbreads shaped into a figure that is meant to resemble the Baby Jesus. It is made with a typical egg, yeast, milk, flour dough, mixed with raisins.

making Cougnou

Ingredients:

  • 1kg of all purpose flour
  • 500ml whole milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 70g yeast (fresh)
  • 80g sugar
  • 15g salt
  • 200g butter
  • 200g pearl sugar
  • 200g dried raisins

Method

  • Pass the flour through a sieve and make a well in the middle
  • Warm up the milk to about 40°C and crumble the yeast into it. Add sugar, salt and eggs and pour into the well.
  • Mix rapidly with the flour. Add the butter and work the dough until it is very smooth.
  • Finally, work the pearl sugar and raisins into the dough.
  • Divide the dough into equal portions (about 10). And roll them into little sausages. Allow to rest for about 20 minutes.
  • Shape the 'jesus babies' by performing a movement with your hands as if you were going to chop off its head and legs.
  • Place on a greased baking sheet (allow enough space between them) and leave in a warm place until the little figures have doubled in volume.
  • Carefully coat each bread man with a mixture of egg yolk and water
  • Preheat the oven to 230°C and bake for about 11 minutes.

Scandinavia

RisamandeThe Scandinavian countries tend to feature a lot of fish in their Christmas menus. In Sweden the traditional Christmas dinner is the yulbord - basically a variation on the buffet-style 'smorgasbord', where one can find a dozen different types of pickled herrings (mostly sweet), Christmas ham and Christmas salmon. In the northern regions and in Finland, reindeer is a prominent features of the Christmas meal. Almost all Scandinavian countries share the tradition of rice pudding as a dessert, which may be more or less elaborate in terms of its ingredients, but often involves almonds, raisins and cinnamon. The 'game' aspect of this special food is to 'hide' one whole almond within the rice pudding - whoever finds it may win a prize, or is deemed to get married the following year, or is otherwise thought to have been blessed with special good fortune.

Rice porridge:

  • 1 litre of milk
  • 150g short grain porridge rice
  • 1 vanilla pod, cinnamon
  • Honey to taste

To enrich the porridge:

  • 500ml whipping cream
  • 100g almond flaked, or chopped
  • 1 whole blanched almond

Cherry sauce:

  • 1 large jar of stoneless cherries
  • 2 tsp corn starch/Maizena
  • 2 tbsp cold water

Method

  • Prepare the milk rice as you normally would, stirring constantly to avoid it getting burnt. Allow to cool.
  • Stir in the almonds.
  • Whip the cream and fold into the mix.
  • Empty the jar of cherries and the juice into a pan.
  • Blend the cornstarch with the cold water and stir into the cherries.
  • Heat and stir until they simmer for a few minutes until the sauce starts to thicken.
  • Can be served cold, but it is especially delicious if the cherry sauce is hot.
Force Feeding Geese to make Foie Gras

France

In France the traditional Christmas dinner usually features a roasted capon (castrated male chicken) or wild boar. Foie Gras pate is also considered a special Christmas delicacy, although it is available all year around and not a french invention, as this ancient egyptian illustration clearly shows (the person in the image is force feeding geese which is how the animals develop their 'fatty liver'). Another dish that is often served as a starter during the Christmas feasting season (which can continue for a week) are freshly cooked mussels.

Lebkuchenhaus

Germany

In Germany, Christmas and pre-christmas preparations are a cult. From the first Sunday of December through to Christmas anticipation rises, fed by regular nibbles from the sweets plate known as 'Bunter teller' which is laden with special Christmas cookies (hundreds of types exist with regional variations), Stollen cake, chocolates, nuts, dried fruit, apples and mandarins, as well as all sorts of marzipan treats. A special feature is the 'hexen house' or Lebkuchen house, which is especially popular with kids. It is a representation of the witches house from the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, made of Lebkuchen, as well as other decorative sweets such as smarties, cookies, coloured sugar sprinkles, nuts, candied fruit etc. and copious amounts of icing used which serves as glue and to simulate snow. For Christmas dinner itself, a goose is the traditional dish, embellished with red cabbage and dumplings or potatoes.

Christmas Stollen

Ingredients

  • 1kg plain, all-purpose flour
  • 200g sugar
  • 110g fresh yeast
  • ½l milk
  • 1 tsp good quality vanilla extract
  • a few drops of almond extract
  • a pinch of ground nutmeg
  • a pinch of ground cloves
  • a pinch of salt
  • 400g unsalted butter, melted and cooled down
  • 110g finely chopped almonds
  • 400g raisins
  • 200g currants
  • 250g chopped mixed orange and lemon peel
  • 450g good quality marzipan
  • extra unsalted butter, melted
  • icing sugar for dusting
  • Melt the butter over low heat, taking care not to burn it
  • Heat the milk to no more than about 40°C
  • Crumble the fresh yeast and place in a bowl with a teaspoon of sugar and add the warm milk.
  • Sift the flour into a large bowl and add the sugar, pinch of ground nutmeg, pinch of ground cloves, pinch of salt, vanilla and almond extract. Mix all ingredients well.
  • Add the melted and cooled butter and the yeast/milk mixture (which should be well foamy now) and knead well
  • Gradually knead chopped almonds, dried fruit and chopped peels into the dough
  • Once all ingredients have been well mixed into the dough and the dough is smooth, return it to the mixing bowl, cover with a towel and put into a warm place for another 1-2 hours or more
  • Divide the dough into two halves and knead it again then roll it out
  • Knead the marzipan and roll out (marzipan usually comes as a solid chunk. It is most pliable when warm)
  • 1Place the marzipan in the centre of the rolled out dough and fold the dough over it
  • Place on an greased baking sheet and leave to rise again for another 1-2 hours, or more
  • Cover with a piece of baking paper to prevent burning and bake the Stollen in a preheated oven: 190°C ( 375°F / gas 5 ) for 1 hour or more
  • Take the Stollen out of the oven. While still hot, brush it with copious amounts of melted butter and dust with icing sugar.
  • Leave to cool on a wire tray
  • When cool you can wrap it in foil or store it in an airtight container. Keep cool
  • Just before serving dust it again with icing sugar

The marzipan can be omitted if you don't like it. There are plenty of variations on the theme. If you are a fan of German Christmas baking, there are some good recipes here: http://german.about.com/library/blrezepte02b.htm

Christmas Pudding

England

In England, roast turkey or roast beef, serves as the centrepiece of the festive dinner table, along with roasted winter vegetables. Sometimes honey-roasted ham is also a feature. Christmas pudding, a heavy, fruit cake that is steamed before being covered in brandy butter and cream for serving, is an essential part of the Christmas dinner. Christmas pudding is usually made well in advance - at least 4 weeks ahead of time to allow all the ingredients to blend well together. Its origins go way back to the 15th century, although back then it was a way of preserving meat at times when winter fodder was rare. Mixing meat with copious amounts of dried fruit and spices acted as a way of preserving it. Nowadays Christmas pudding does not contain meat anymore, but it may contain suet.

Ingredients

To make two 1-pint puddings

  • ½ lb raisins
  • ¾ lb currants
  • ½ lb sultanas
  • ½ lb sugar (or less)
  • ¾ lb shredded suet (can be vegetarian; see note below)
  • ½ lb breadcrumbs
  • ¼ lb candied peel
  • 2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 oz almonds (chopped, but not too small)
  • ⅓ cup flour
  • ⅓ pint milk
  • 3 large eggs (beaten)
  • Brandy
  • Juice and rind of 1 lemon (organic)
  • ⅓ of a nutmeg
  • Hanging Christmas Pudding

    Method

    • Mix all ingredients and stir well.
    • Place in a pudding basin or wrap up in buttered greaseproof paper, tied up tightly with string.
    • Steam for 7 hours and keep till Christmas Day.
    • Steam again for 2 hours just before serving. Less time is required if you use a pressure cooker.
    • This process sounds very easy, but it is in fact quite involved. The Green Gourmet Giraffe has an excellent and elaborate article on the intricacies of making Christmas Pudding and before attempting to make your own I would highly recommend reading Johanna's blog

    Flamed Christmas PuddingPuddings are often flamed with brandy before serving. Where suet is not available (or wanted) butter can be used as a substitute. Melt the butter over a low flame, taking care not to burn it and pour into your mixing bowl. Traditionally each family member takes a turn in stirring the mixture while making a wish. In times gone by it was common practice to include some little token in the mix, such as small silver coins, which the lucky finder was allowed to keep. This practice has been abandoned due to health and safety concerns. Just prior to serving, the Christmas pudding is traditionally decorated with a twig of holly, brandy is poured over it and it is set aflame. And this is how it is brought to the table, where it receives a round of applause. If it is not flamed the pudding may be covered by a thick layer of marzipan and icing. It is usually served with brandy butter, cream or custard. The dense pudding keeps very well and one is often preserved for the following year.

    Drinks

    In continental Europe the traditional Christmas drink is mulled wine - a hot, sweetened wine mulled with cinnamon, cloves and simmered with slices of orange and apples, which provides warmth and comfort. In Scandinavian countries a similar drink known as glogg is served.

    Mulled wine is the sort of drink you can have sitting on the stove to keep warm and serve throughout the evening. Quantities depend on how many people there are to serve. But the basic idea is to simmer some nice full bodied red wine with cinnamon sticks, cloves ginger or allspice. A measure of brandy is added to give it a little punch and a sliced orange is also added. Rub off the peel and add as zest, but make sure you only use organic, untreated oranges for this. Sweeten to taste with honey.

    And, almost universally, eggnog accompanies Christmas feasts around the world. Although everybody probably has their own favourite eggnog recipe, for those that don't here is a standard one:

    Ingredients

    All liquids should be very cold. Refrigerate in advance. With an electric mixer beat the eggs for 2 or 3 minutes at medium speed until very frothy. Gradually add the sugar, vanilla and nutmeg while continuing to beat. Turn the mixer off and stir in the cold brandy, rum, whipping cream and milk. Chill before serving. Sprinkle individual servings with more nutmeg.

    Makes about 2½ quarts.

    On this note, cheers! And happy Yule-Tide to you all...


    For questions or comments email: kmorgenstern@sacredearth.com

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