There are few things that better put people in a good mood than eating something they enjoy. So, no surprise then that sampling some supreme seasonal food can really get people into the festive spirit. However, just what that food is depends on where you are in the world.
For instance, should you be visiting London this month by staying at one of the 5 star hotels in Chelsea – so charismatic and fitting a locale to visit at this most wonderful time of the year – you’ll find yourself faced with the charms of pastries filled with sweetened spices, glasses of warmed wine and boiled fruitcake that’s set on fire…!
Arguably the UK’s most popular festive food tradition (well, rivalling a turkey dinner on the big day itself, that is), mince pies can be enjoyed throughout the festive season, which includes Advent (the three weeks and a bit that precedes Christmas, from December 1st onwards). Like with so may (British and other) seasonal mainstays, the mince pie came into its own in the Victorian era when the ‘mincemeat’, which makes up this sweet pastry cake’s filling, invariably featured sweetened dried fruit and spices. However, the mince pie can actually trace its origins all the way back to the 13th Century when its then exotic ingredients (which included, at that stage, meat) were introduced to England by soldiers returning home from the Crusades.
The dessert that’s enjoyed in households up and down the country on December 25th, Christmas pudding is, effectively, a boiled fruitcake that includes – like mince pies – dried fruit and spices, but can also be slightly alcoholic, as brandy may be thrown into the (cake) mix too. Usually served with custard or cream, it requires steaming for hours and hours and its exterior’s traditionally caramelised by its top being (carefully!) set on fire for a few moments, having been doused with brandy. For more detail, read your Dickens; the Cratchit family enjoy a Christmas pudding in A Christmas Carol.
Yes, it’s easily confused, but the very British Christmas cake is not the same thing as Christmas pudding. And, unlike the latter, it tends to be eaten throughout December (not least, appropriately, in the evening as a treat). In truth, this very blogger finds it something of a bland addition to the usually rich selection of seasonal sustenance, being essentially a regular fruitcake topped with a layer of marzipan and white fondant icing and, often, completed with ornamental decorations. However, its enduring popularity’s testament to the fact that it clearly sates many a taste bud.
Often a companion piece to a mince pie or two, mulled wine – for those sadly not in the know – is basically warmed red wine and, for obvious reasons, is enjoyed pretty everywhere in Britain at this time of year, being served specifically to warm the insides as the temperatures plummet. For visitors to London (whether they’re staying at the San Domenico House hotel Chelsea or not), there’s no question the way to enjoy it best is to sample a cup or two while doing the rounds at one of the city’s many Christmas markets. With a mince pie too, of course.
Another seasonal foodstuff that owes its status to the modern celebrating of Christmas that emerged in 19th Century Britain, biscuits specially made for this time of year became rampantly popular in the Victorian age – and thereafter – not least because they were commonly hung on the branches of the then new-fangled festive tradition that was the Christmas tree; introduced to Britain, from his native Germany, by Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert.
Nowadays, of course, such ‘Christmas biscuits’ are essentially biscuits of all kinds cut in appropriate shapes and with appropriate toppings (especially shortbread biscuits and US-style cookies), yet traditionally popular at the yuletide back in the day was gingerbread (when it was a luxury), whose Christmas serving might well be officially derived from Scandinavia – where it’s referred to as a pepparkakor.