Christmas culinary traditions
Not everybody easts roast turkey on Christmas day as part of their celebrations. We are a cosmopolitan bunch at allmanhall with team links to Poland, Denmark, Italy and Spain, as well as Kenya and the Philippines, so we thought it would be fun to look at the culinary traditions of those countries during the festive season…
In Poland, Christmas Eve dinner is the most important celebration of the year. Although this meal is reserved for close family, in the Christmas spirit of hospitality to strangers, the dinner table always has one empty place in case an unexpected guest drops by.
Christmas Eve dinner, also known as Wigilia, starts when the first star appears in the sky. Nobody can start eating until the whole family has broken Christmas wafers (opłatek) together and exchanged wishes for good health and prosperity. The supper, which traditionally includes twelve dishes and desserts, can last for over two hours. This custom is derived from traditions observed by the nobility and minor gentry. Twelve referred to the number of the Apostles and months of the year. It was intended as a wish for sufficient amount of food for each month of the next year. During the meal, all guests should taste a bit of everything but as Poland is more than 80 per cent Catholic, the Wigilia meal is meat-free. A main course of fish, most famously carp, is meant to bring good fortune.
Christmas Eve dinner often starts with barszcz, a beetroot soup sometimes known as red borscht, made with fermented ingredients. Other popular festive soups include white borscht or mushroom soup.
Then guests move onto the carp dish. The tradition of carp farming in Poland is at least 700 hundred years old and the fish is now a Christmas Eve must-have for many families. The carp is often accompanied by hot sauerkraut with dried mushrooms, a vegetable salad or potatoes.
Herring is another classic Christmas Eve dish. The most popular recipes are classic herring fillets (soused, usually called matjas) in oil or with cream, sour apples or chopped onions, and they are usually served with root vegetable salad or potatoes.
Pierogi are an indispensable part of the Christmas Eve supper in all parts of Poland. They have been eaten in Poland since the 13th century and were probably brought over from the Far East. Each housewife had her own recipe passed down through many generations. The Christmas version of pierogi is stuffed with cabbage, or with sauerkraut and mushrooms.
Kutia is a dessert served by many families with roots in eastern Poland. It is a mixture of cooked, unprocessed wheat grains, cooked poppy seeds, honey, dried or candied fruits soaked in a small amount of port or red wine, and various nuts and seeds, usually almonds, sunflower grains or walnuts.
Old Polish piernik takes time and effort to prepare. The dough consists of honey, lard, sugar, eggs, flour and a mixture of gingerbread spices. It must be made a few weeks in advance to mature and gain that special gingerbread taste. It is then cut on Christmas Eve and eaten with layers of traditional plum preserves (powidła)
Black poppy seeds symbolise prosperity and are traditionally included in the Christmas menu. Poppy seed cakes are eaten by Poles all year round, but the traditional Christmas poppy seed cake is a bit different. The layers of the dough should be thinner than usual and the layers of the sweet poppy seed cream should be thicker.
Dried fruit compote cannot be left out of any Christmas Eve dinner table in Poland. Dried apples, plums, pears and apricots, and sometimes almonds, are soaked with water and served at the end of the meal for better digestion.
Italians have a saying: “Natale con i tuoi, Pasqua con i vuoi” – Christmas with the family, Easter with who you like. The Christmas menu can vary massively from region to region, and even household to household. The only defining characteristic is that, for most Italians, food is central to the festivities. Although the food eaten at Christmas varies throughout Italy, the Feast of the Seven Fishes is a Christian practice that’s still observed in many homes. Abstaining from meat before the big day is rooted in Roman Catholic tradition, though this certainly doesn’t mean guests will go hungry. At least seven varieties of fish are usually eaten, with some families enjoying up to 20 different dishes.
One traditional Christmas Eve dish is capitone (eel), although it’s becoming less popular. European eels are now listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as critically endangered. They are in decline around Europe due to a range of factors including habitat alteration, dams, pollution and fishing, and are currently on the “avoid” list for fish and seafood. More common fish eaten on Christmas Eve include baccalà (salt cod), octopus, and shellfish, such as the lobster dish pasta all’astice.
After feasting on Christmas Eve, Christmas dinner on the 25th December begins with pasta in brodo (pasta in broth) a common starter across Italy, but particularly in the north. Guests might then expect to be served lo zampone, the skin of a pig’s foot filled with spiced mincemeat, in Northern Italy, pasticcio al forno (baked pasta) in central or southern regions, or a classic lasagne Bolognese in the north-east.
Italians aren’t generally big on desserts, but when it comes to Christmas, sweet breads such as panettone and pandoro are popular across the country – and beyond. So what is the difference between panettone and pandoro? Panettone is a Christmastime cake from Milan. The sweet, yeasty cake has a distinctive domed shape. Panettone is often compared to fruitcake because both are traditionally made with raisins and candied fruits. Pandoro is a Christmas cake that originated in Verona. True to its name (pan d’oro means ‘golden bread’), the cake has a bright yellow colour. Pandoro is traditionally a star-shaped cake that is dusted with powdered sugar.
The Danes love baking throughout the year and December is no exception. In preparation for the Yuletime celebrations, various sweet concoctions are baked including Pebernødder, ‘peppernuts’. The tiny cookies are served as snacks in the whole month of December, and their name comes from the white pepper included in the recipe.
According to allmanhall’s resident Dane, Christmas just wouldn’t be Christmas without Klejner. Klejner is an old and very traditional Christmas snack, a small piece of dough shaped and twisted like a small knot or diamond and then deep-fried until it is crisp and golden.
Then there are Æbleskiver – spherical fried dough balls that are dipped in strawberry jam and icing sugar! Danish home cooks have a special pan used to make them.
When it gets to the main event, Christmas Eve is celebrated with a buffet of pickled herring, liver pate, tartelettes with white asparagus and chicken in white sauce, and rye bread, along with heavier dishes of duck, goose, turkey or pork belly, along with kale, a salad of pickled red cabbage, caramelised potatoes, boiled potatoes and a thick meat gravy. To wash everything down, Danes drink schnapps and Christmas dark pilsner beer.
Dessert is traditionally risalamande – a rice pudding with cream, vanilla and almonds served with a cherry sauce. The person who finds the whole almond gets a present called a mandelgave (almond present). Traditionally the little present was a marzipan pig. Now a marzipan pig is still sometimes given, but it’s also often something like sweets or a little toy.
Then after dinner, but before presents are opened, family and friends join hands, sing Christmas hymns and walk or dance around the Christmas tree, a tradition meant to give Santa Claus time to deliver his gifts.
80% of Spaniards are Catholic so the majority of the population goes to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, or Nochebuena. The special mass is called La Misa Del Gallo or The Mass of the Rooster because a rooster is supposed to have crowed the night that Jesus was born.
Most families eat their main Christmas meal on Christmas Eve before going to the service. The traditional Spanish Christmas dinner always used to be Pavo Trufado de Navidad which is turkey stuffed with truffles. In Galicia, north-west Spain, the most popular meal for Christmas Eve and for Christmas Day is seafood. This can be all kinds of different seafood, from shellfish to lobster and small edible crabs.
Popular desserts and sweets include mazapán, made of almonds, sugar and eggs, turron, made of honey and toasted almonds, and polvorones, made of flour, butter and sugar.
Eating 12 grapes at midnight on New Year’s Eve is both a tradition and a superstition in Spain, as everyone focuses on eating all 12 of the “miraculous grapes” that symbolise 12 lucky months ahead. While the goal of getting the 12 grapes down in time can spark a contest of who is más macho around the table, the biggest challenge is more likely to be not choking as the grapes are swallowed.
The camera of the main national TV channel focuses on the clock tower of the 18th-century Real Casa de Correos in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. At the first chime, Spaniards from Bilbao to Cadiz pop a grape into their mouths. If you eat all 12 by the end of the final bell’s chime, then you will have good luck in the forthcoming year.
In Kenya, Christmas is a time when families try and be with one another. Many people travel from cities, back to the villages where the main part of their family might live. This is often the only time large families will see each other all year, so it is very important.
The big Christmas meal is called ‘nyama choma’. Nyama choma is Kenya’s unofficial national dish, meaning barbecued meat in the Swahili language. The meat is usually goat or beef, served roasted throughout the country, from roadside shacks to fine restaurants. It is often paired with local beer and side dishes such as ugali, or cornmeal.
People often make their own beer to drink and different tribes also have special dishes they make. If you live in a city you might have a western Christmas Cake, but these aren’t very common in rural areas.
Most Filipinos are Christians with about 80% of people being Catholics. It’s the only Asian country with so many Christians. Because of this, Christmas is the most important holiday in the Philippines. Their formal Christmas celebrations start on 16th December when many people go to the first of nine pre-dawn or early morning masses. The last mass is on Christmas Day.
In the Philippines the early masses held before Christmas are called the Misa de Gallo, just as in Spain (harking back to their colonial roots), or Simbang Gabi in Filipino.
On Christmas eve, the Noche Buena, is a big, open house, celebration with family, friends and neighbours dropping by. Most households have several dishes laid out including lechon (roasted pig), ham, fruit salad, steamed rice and rice cakes known as bibingka and puto bumbong.