Christmas Dinner...on a plate

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Indy Lifestyle Online

We got it wrong about the turkey. It doesn't come from Turkey at all, but America. Still, we didn't get it as wrong as the French, who called the great bird coq d'Inde, later abbreviated to dinde. The wild turkey is a much racier bird than its domesticated cousin, hence the application of its name to a brand of bourbon. The gobbler made it across the Atlantic as early as 1523. In the following three centuries, turkeys were grown in cereal-rich East Anglia and driven to London on foot for Christmas, with their feet protected by a tar dip.

We got it wrong about the turkey. It doesn't come from Turkey at all, but America. Still, we didn't get it as wrong as the French, who called the great bird coq d'Inde, later abbreviated to dinde. The wild turkey is a much racier bird than its domesticated cousin, hence the application of its name to a brand of bourbon. The gobbler made it across the Atlantic as early as 1523. In the following three centuries, turkeys were grown in cereal-rich East Anglia and driven to London on foot for Christmas, with their feet protected by a tar dip.

In the 19th century, the turkey began to take on its ample modern proportions. As Dickens wrote in A Christmas Carol (1843), the great bird purchased by Scrooge on Christmas morning "could never have stood upon his legs... he would have snapped 'em off short in a minute, like sticks of sealing-wax". The rail revolution assisted the transportation of these monsters, which were mainly two breeds: the Cambridge Bronze, from Mexican stock, and the tastier, but smaller Norfolk Black, which originated in the US. During the 20th century, the old breeds were ousted by faster-growing white turkey hybrids.

The Jacobeans found even the unadulterated breeds somewhat wanting in flavour, judging by a 1615 onion sauce, flavoured with claret, orange juice and lemon peel. By Victorian times, the bird arrived on the table accompanied by the familiar "trimmings". A dish of roast turkey swagged with sausage links bore the name "Alderman in Chains".

Ensuring this generously proportioned beast is properly cooked and has at least a suggestion of flavour has elicited a host of ingenious solutions. In his book The Man Who Ate Everything, Jeffrey Steingarten offers two techniques. Thompson's Turkey produces "the most flavourful and most meat you will ever taste". You paint a paste of flour, egg and onion juice on to the bird, which is stuffed with 29 ingredients. It is baked within the crust for five hours, basting every 15 minutes.

Steingarten prefers High-Temperature Turkey, which involves roasting a 5-kilo bird (11lb) for 1 hour and 20 minutes at 250C (500F). Jiggle with a wooden spatula every 15 minutes to prevent sticking. "Your kitchen is filled with smoke," warns Steingarten, "but the meat is juicy (if bland) and the skin is as crunchy and intensely flavoured as anything you've ever dreamed of."

David Eyre of Eyre Bros restaurant in London promises a perfectly cooked 5-kilo turkey, if you first place it in a non-alum-inium container (he uses a plastic bucket) and spend 10 minutes rubbing 1 kilo of salt into the skin and as far under the skin as you can reach. Afterwards, cover with water and leave the turkey to soak in the brine solution for six to 12 hours. Remove and spend 20 minutes washing away the salt in running water, then roast for two-and-a-half hours, without basting, at 180C. "The aim is to ensure that the turkey breast does not dry out," Eyre says. "It will be slightly bacon-like in colour, with the crispest skin you've ever had."

 

and other medieval survivors

Traces of Christmas foods from centuries ago can still be found on modern tables. The Elizabethan marchpane, an almond paste tart weighing 3-4lbs, continues in a sadly diminished form as the marzipan on Christmas cakes. Our flaming plum pud evolved from a savoury ancestor called pottage, a meat and onion stew flavoured with wine and thickened with breadcrumbs. It began to take on its modern form when raisins and prunes were introduced in the 16th century. The invention of the pudding cloth completed the transformation from slurry to cannonball.

The medieval extravaganza, cockatrice – up to seven birds of diminishing sizes stuffed inside one another – survives in the form of the five-bird roast produced by Heal Farm Meats of Umberleigh, Devon. For £97.55, you get a turkey stuffed with breasts of chicken, guinea fowl and pheasant and boned quails, that will feed a party of 30. (They still have a few available, if you can collect: 01769 574341.)

But the seasonal treat that most readily whizzes us back through the centuries is the mince pie. The suet in modern mincemeat is the last remnant of a mince pie that really contained minced meat: a spicy meat pie brought back from the Crusades. In the 17th century, Elinor Fettiplace's recipe for mince pies contained equal quantities of boiled mutton and suet with dried fruit and spices. The result was more savoury than sweet, and dry, like a samosa.

The tendency to buy ready-prepared mince pies is not all that new. In 1662, Pepys recorded that he "sent for a mince-pie abroad, my wife not being well enough to make any herself yet". By 1747, the recipe for mincemeat in Hannah Glasse's cookbook did not include any meat. But even in 1861, Isabella Beeton hedged her bets by including versions both with and without meat. In her book English Food, Jane Grigson described Mrs Beeton's traditional mincemeat, which contains 12oz minced lean rump steak, as being "particularly good... I notice when I make this mincemeat, the mince pies disappear more quickly than usual". Though tempting, it's too late for this Christmas. The raw mince, which is mixed with dried fruit, apples, spices, sugar, suet, lemon-juice and rind and a quarter-pint of brandy, has to be bottled for "at least a fortnight" before being used.

 

Sprouts arouse stronger emotions than anything else on the Christmas table. You either love them to bits or hate them from the depths of your soul. Appropriately, perhaps, these disputatious vegetables originate in the region around Afghanistan. By the Middle Ages, sprouts had migrated to the more tranquil terrain of Belgium. In her Vegetable Book, Jane Grigson says they were sold in the Brussels market in 1213. By the 16th century, they were served at Flemish royal wedding feasts. Then the little beasts were pushed to the side of the plate for 300 years or so, before staging a revival. We know that Captain Cook served them to his sailors to avoid scurvy. By 1845, the sprout was praised by Eliza Action, though she overboils them at "eight to 10 minutes".

Personally, I have felt both ways about these concentrated cabbages. The worst thing I've ever put in my mouth was a sulphurous, soggy spout I once received in hospital. It put me off for years. Yet, when I recently steeled myself to repeat the experience in a Chelsea restaurant, I was astonished to discover that sprouts were not bad at all. I was an instant convert.

"There's nothing special about them – but go for baby sprouts," said the restaurateur. "They're twice the price but well worth the money. Boil in salty water for four to five minutes. Don't cover. When they're nearly done, drain and fry briefly in butter until they've turned a bit crunchy." Jane Grigson informs us that in 1818, a Belgian professor elaborated this procedure by adding two tablespoons of wine vinegar to the fried sprouts. Sizzle for a few seconds. Add chopped herbs before serving. Delia offers the variation of frying the boiled sprouts with pre-fried bacon and shallots before adding a glass of riesling to the pan. When the sprouts have absorbed the wine, they're done. Oh, and one more thing. That business about cutting a cross in the base is a waste of time, unless you need to occupy paterfamilias with a spot of yuletide whittling.

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