Merry Christmas Everybody - Unless you live in 1652!
The changing face of Christmas food fascinates me. These days English supermarket shelves are full of exotic delights like panetonne and stolen, both almost unknown fifteen years ago. I recently made ten short features for a popular daytime television food series which explored this issue in an historical context. Not in any depth of course, because British daytime television is aimed at a demographic that is mistakenly assumed not to be able to cope with anything too mentally taxing. But I had some fun exploring a lot of lost British seasonal traditions. For instance most have heard of the wild boar's head served as a Yuletide dish 'in days of yore' (daytime television speak). This particular dish has become just as much a stereotypical symbol of 'Christmas Past' as that other latter-day Christmas cliché, the so-called turducken or multi-bird roast. But you may not know that in the Victorian period, boar's heads were imitated in sponge cake, iced with chocolate and stuffed with ice cream - much nicer to eat than the real savoury dish. I had a go at making one of these eccentrically shaped choc ices for the series, which is being screened here in the UK at the moment. The long and complicated recipe can be found in Charles Elmé Francatelli's superb The Royal English and Foreign Confectionery Book. (London: 1862), together with a delightful chromolithograph of the finished result (above).
|I usually publish a photograph of one of my Twelfth Cakes at Christmas, but this year, here is a version of Francatelli's Imatation Wild Boar Cake.|
Dubois and Bernard made their highly ornamental tête for Kaiser Wilhelm I. Whether it was really as truly amazing as the engraver has depicted, we will never know. One very faded photograph of another decorated boar's head which graced Queen Victoria's sideboard at Osborne House in 1888 shows that the English branch of the family did not insist on such artistic ambition. This wildly squinting beast has one eye not only larger than the other, but it stares in a different direction! A surprisingly amateur effort for a regal dining room.
Coming back to my chocolate piggy, the stand or socle was embellished with oak leaves and other ornaments in gum paste, loosely following Francatelli's scheme. I used what nineteenth century carved wooden moulds I had to hand.
In another episode I explored the strong associations that gingerbread has with Christmas and made a number of moulded figures, including this white gingerbread figure of St Nicholas. The German or Dutch mould was carved in the nineteenth century and belongs to my friend Charlotte Rees. Watch out for Charlotte, she is a food history prodigy. The three little boys sitting in a salting tub were allegedly rescued and brought back to life by St Nicholas. According to the legend, a wicked butcher had killed them and was salting them in preparation for selling them as hams in his shop! The myth was considered too violent for an afternoon teatime BBC audience and did not get explained in the programme. These moulds were used to make gingerbread gifts for children for the feast of St Nicholas on 6th December, usually, at least in the Netherlands, being given on the evening of the 5th December.
Those of you who do manage to watch the episode in the series concerned with the subject of wassailing may be mystified by the sudden appearance of a large wooden bowl ornamented with greenery. Unfortunately, the historical source of this object was left out in the final edit, making the whole story a bit open ended and puzzling. So for the benefit of any viewers who might be curious to know what was going on here, here is the source of that mystery object.
|My version of the Gloucester wassail bowl decorated with rosemary, bays and mistletoe.|
|I also made a gentry version of wassail - a lambs wool in fact - based on sherry rather than ale in this nice 1740s English Delftware punch bowl|
|I have looked for an original one of these rare vessels for a long time. As far as I know there are only about five in existence. So I commissioned my potter friend John Hudson to make one for me.|
Now this very rare broadside, probably printed so it could be attached to a church door, has been deliberately damaged. Somebody has excised the coat of arms of the commonwealth from the document, probably in an act of defiant vandalism. To me this makes it even more extraordinary. However, to show you what it would have looked like when complete, I have used Photoshop to show you its original appearance. Merry Christmas!