Here in beautiful coastal Georgia, we are all taking a breath between our celebratory feasts of Thanksgiving and Christmas. However, back in jolly old England, the land of my birth, the British are eagerly anticipating their Christmas menus, especially since they have not been distracted by Thanksgiving.
Christmas dinner in the U.K. is traditionally turkey with all the “trimmings,” such as brussels sprouts, parsnips and roast potatoes. No sweet potatoes or green-bean casserole on British tables. Since my relatives in England did not overdose on turkey two weeks ago as we did here in the United States, the Christmas meat of choice there will be turkey — always roasted and never fried.
However, this was not always the case. Until the end of the 19th century, the centrepiece of a Christmas dinner was a fat goose — a species native to England. According to www.turkeyclubuk.org, (yes, turkeys in the U.K. really have their own club), turkeys are native to the Americas and were domesticated by the Aztecs in Mexico. They were taken to Spain by the Spanish colonists of South America in the 16th century and then introduced to England, where it took a couple of hundred years to overtake the fat goose at Christmas.
Historically in England, geese were herded from their breeding grounds out in the country in the autumn to the outskirts of big cities and market towns. Apparently, geese only lay eggs in the spring. They take about four weeks to hatch, so the goslings arrive between April and July, making them nature’s perfect choice for the Christmas table. In the 1720s, Daniel Defoe (author of the legendary novel “Robinson Crusoe”) described how a “prodigious number” of geese were driven to the London markets from Norfolk, a distance of more than 100 miles, taking up to three months. Before setting off, the birds were walked through tar, then grit, to provide “shoes” for the long journey. On reaching the city, the geese were fattened up to be made ready for market and the Christmas table. Turkeys became more popular in the 20th century, as they were an ideal size for the average family. The fat goose wasn’t quite fat enough for the larger families of those days.
At the end of the Christmas feast, the English have a traditional cheese course. I personally am not a cheese lover, but I have noticed this custom now gaining ground here in the USA in the years I have lived here, as well as an increase in the availability of artisan cheeses in America. I will always associate the strong smell of blue Stilton cheese with Christmas since my father (and now my husband) do love this during the festive season — usually accompanied by a traditional glass of port wine. I must admit I just cannot enjoy blue (or “mouldy,” as I used to call it!) cheese, but for many years, it was a seasonal cheese only available at the end of the year. Even today, the best Stilton is made in late summer, from when the cows have grazed since spring.
Stilton first appeared in England the early 18th century in the town of — you guessed it — Stilton. This sleepy little place was a staging post on the Great North Road, which has connected London with Scotland since medieval times. The cheese was sold at the Bell Inn, helping to make it famous across the land as travelers bought their Stilton and shared it at their destinations. Today, its protected status means that cheese branded “Stilton” can only be made in the three counties of its heartland in the English Midlands — Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire — with locally produced, pasteurized milk from cows grazing in the clover-rich grass of the region.
As we once again decide in our own home how to combine the best of British and American Christmas food traditions this year, I couldn’t resist sharing this anonymous quote reportedly from a 3-year-old boy. After eating his stuffed Christmas turkey dinner, he said, “I don’t like the turkey, but I like the bread he ate.”
God bless America!
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