Instead of stodgy plum pudding, why not indulge in the foods you actually love at Christmas? Our columnist explains what to eat during the festive season.
I don’t get Christmas. I mean, I get the bit about the little baby Jesus and Bethlehem, Morecambe & Wise and the ancient British tradition of gathering to watch the Strictly Christmas special, but what I don’t get is the food.
It all started with the Three Wise Men whose gold, frankincense and myrrh immediately characterised the season as one of OTT bling and heavily perfumed aromas. Interestingly, in 2007, on BBC2’s Heston Blumenthal’s Perfect Christmas Dinner, Berkshire’s tastiest boffin made a frankincense tea that guests stirred with a myrrh-wood spoon (frankincense is sometimes used as a food flavouring). Served Hezza’s half-hot, half-cold mulled wine, Terry Wogan twinkled: ‘I don’t think I’ve ever drunk anything so ridiculous.’
That statement is applicable to most Christmas dining. The modern Christmas is a Victorian creation and, in many ways, we still eat like Dickens’ characters, consuming a gut-busting slog of stodgy, spicy, sickly foods: cannonball puds, spiced hams, pork pies, eggnog, bread sauce. Our palate is increasingly given to zingy Asian or new Nordic flavours yet, every December, we start sharing plum pudding recipes. Why?
I am baffled that so many of us feel Christmas food should have a thematically Christmassy flavour, one that leaves us suffering novelty date and port versions of foods that ordinarily we would not touch. Why not simply indulge in the foods you love all year over Christmas? This is meant to be a holiday, not an endurance test.
In recent years, this seasonally affective eating disorder has become a mania, as, in a feverish bid to lure shoppers, brands avidly rework products with a festive spin. As if we can only appreciate food in the weeks prior to the 25th if Santa has given it the full ho-ho-ho overhaul.
Mulling everything from hot chocolate to gin (cloves and cinnamon being two of the least discreet spices in the rack) ruins fine drinks, and I avoid all dark, sticky, noxiously spicy Christmas ales. Do you know why breweries don’t normally brew beers with nutmeg and dried fruit that taste like someone has laced them with brandy? Because they are awful.
A few years ago, I was tasked with taste-testing supermarket Christmas sandwiches for The Guardian. It was traumatic: endless cold turkey dinners or bacon-stuffing-cranberry combos on malted granary. But in 2013, the Christmas sandwich was a relatively benign British eccentricity, a silly seasonal idea quarantined from the rest of food.
Not now. Now no food is immune. Perfectly enjoyable chocolate is, suddenly, studded with seasonal white chocolate snowmen or stars. Perfectly good burgers and pizzas are given tinsel-bedecked twists, from unsuitable dollops of cranberry chutney to full Christmas dinner toppings. For a month, sad, flavourless turkey becomes the meat du jour in pasties, pies and burritos. Last year, Morrisons released, I kid you not, a three-course Christmas dinner pasty. Pâté one end, pud at the other.
Crisps are the latest battleground in an arms race that peaked in 2018 when Walker’s released a Brussels sprouts flavour, to ‘get the nation talking’. Or, in my case, fulminating in a volley of language that displayed little goodwill to all men. And I like Brussels sprouts.
I used to laugh at brands: crackers, pastas, ketchups, that, wearily, would stick a few token snowflakes on their packaging at Christmas, in a half-hearted attempt to exploit our festive cheer. But in retrospect, by declining to release new-recipe Christmas versions of their products, those companies were heroes.
Eat! Drink! Be merry! But why not gorge on foods you truly love this Christmas? Do not succumb to this seasonally spiced nightmare.
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What will you be eating this festive season? Leave a comment below...
Tony Naylor writes for Restaurant magazine and The Guardian.