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Muse Food’s Guide to an Early Modern Christmas

Tabitha Kaye offers her tips for creating your own Early Modern inspired festivities.

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Image Credit: Winslow Homer, Wikimedia Commons

In the years following the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy, the festive season was reinstated as a rather joyous affair. Any remnants of Cromwellian resistance towards Christmas celebrations were shaken off thoroughly, and the dawning of the Georgian era saw many with wealth party frivolously - little expense spared. A trip to Fairfax House -York’s very own capsule of Georgian splendour- around Christmastime will confirm that the northern elite enjoyed punctuating the season with lavish decorations and displays. Among this, however, is one centrepiece that cannot be overlooked by any attending guest: copious amounts of food and drink! The subject of socialising alongside festive treats crops up continuously in contemporary literary sources. In their 1795 poem, The humours of Christmas holidays, one anonymous author went as far as to open with their own dream-like vision of a Christmas spread:

Now the merry days of Christmas plays are coming to cheer our hearts,
See tables spread, from foot to head, With plumb puddings, pies, and tarts;
Nice hams and fowls, and punch in bowls, In every beer house found,
Whilst fiddlers they sweet music play, And jovial songs go round.

In this instance, nothing quite encapsulated the Christmas spirit than a hearty spread of pastry delicacies and fine meats. And, just as literary sources such as this survive, we are able to access a wealth of Early Modern recipes which offer an invaluable insight into how edible displays, such as the one described above, were achieved. Whether you’re a history fan or are just looking for some alternatives to modern Christmas classics, why not give these suggestions a go and create your very own Early Modern Christmas spread?



Festive Snacks

A Savoury Treat: Hannah Woolley’s ‘minc’d pies’

Bitesize ‘mince’ pies have become a staple delicacy at all modern festive get-togethers, and are often seen as synonymous with Christmas itself. However, the sweet treat we enjoy today holds a contested history, and one that was not originally aligned with the festive season. Dubbed ‘tartes of flesh’ in the fourteenth-century, large tarts filled with minced meat and fat were used commonly as a preservative and remained popular through the Early Modern period.

However, from the seventeenth-century onwards, we see many ‘mince’ pie recipes being revised for a more delicate palate. In the 1729 revision of Woolley’s 1670 household guide, The Compleat Servant-Maid, a recipe for a more delectable ‘minc’d pie’ is included: combine mince meat (in this instance, minced mutton) with ‘three pounds’ of ‘beaf [beef] mutton suet’ and season with ‘salt, cloves, and mace.’ Add ‘currants, raisins… a few dates, and some candyed [candied] orange-peels sliced,’ then mix together and bake in pastry (no timings specified).

Woolley’s recipe is far removed from our modern understanding in terms of portion size and meat content. More recognisable is the inclusion of heavy spices and dried fruit, which makes Woolley’s recipe easily adaptable for a meat-free modern equivalent; the inclusion of the candied orange peels make for a tasty citrus twist. Alternatively, an easy way to stay more faithful to the original is to swap out handmade mutton mince for a shop bought substitute of your own preference (beef infused with the cloves would work perfectly - or you could use any Christmas dinner leftovers!). This also applies to the suet, which can be bought in most supermarkets alongside a vegan alternative.



A Sweet Treat: The Yule Log or Plum Pudding

Sadly, for the modern party guest, the ‘Yule Log’ was far from a chocolate delicacy in the Early Modern period. Traditionally, the wooden yule log would be burnt throughout the twelve days of Christmas, culminating on ‘Twelfth Night’ (January 6) - the apex of festive celebrations in the Early Modern calendar. While the chocolate yule log is a Nineteenth-century invention, you can still encapsulate the spirit of ‘burning the log’ by making your own chocolate sponge (shop bought works too - we recommend Morrison’s ‘The Best Hand Rolled Fudge Yule Log’, £4.00) and heating it by the fire for an indulgent dessert.

For an authentic treat, why not try your hand at a plum pudding? In a 1687 satirical take on dignity in the domestic space, A dialogue betwixt Good House-Keeping, Christmas, and Pride, the character of Christmas jokes that ‘plum pudding’, alongside ‘mutton-pasties’ and ‘christmas-pye’ (both bearing resemblance to Woolley’s take on ‘minc’d pies’) are the perfect complementary pairing to ensure that their guests not only feast, ‘but banquet’.

To complete your own banquet brimming with festive pride, try this recipe for plum pudding taken from Charlotte Mason’s 1775 recipe book, The Lady’s Assistant (as transcribed here by food blog Savouring the Past): https://savoringthepast.net/2016/10/21/plum-pudding/



A Christmas Tipple

Hippocras

While hippocras was not enjoyed as a festive drink during the early modern period, its heavily spiced and sweet tastes make it an ideal festive companion for the modern palate. The medicinal importance of hippocras means that many recipes survive, ranging from ‘White / Pale Hippocras’ (white wine), ‘Red Hippocras’, and a non-alcoholic variation. We’ve transcribed and adapted a few recipes from William Salmon’s (a self-professed ‘Professor of Physick’) 1705 guidebook, The family-Dictionary: or, houshold companion, for you to try at home:

‘White / Pale Hippocras’: combine ‘two quarts [litres] of good white wine’ (two standard bottles will work fine) with a ‘pound of sugar’ (depending on your own taste, you may wish to only use 200g - around half this amount); an ‘ounce of cinnamon’ (roughly 28g); ‘a little mace’; ‘two grains of whole black pepper’ (we suggest grinding with a pestle and mortar); and ‘limon cut into three-quarters’. We recommend adding all ingredients to a pan over a low heat to help dissolve the sugar and infuse the flavours. Add the spices first, then tip the sugar in gradually while the ingredients infuse. Serve hot.

‘Red Hippocras’: similar to the recipe above, add two bottles of ‘good red wine’ to a pan over a low heat. As before, gradually add a pound or 200g of sugar to the mix, then combine ‘half a dram of cinnamon’ (we recommend two teaspoons); ‘grain and a half, or two grains of white pepper’; ‘a little long pepper’; ‘half a leaf of mace’; and ‘a spoonful of coriander-seed’. Allow the mixture to infuse as before, then add ‘fix sweet almonds [grounded] with half a glass of good brandy’ for a spiced twist.

For a non-alcoholic version (or ‘Another Hippocras without Wine’), Salmon suggests using water as a substitute mixed with the same spices listed above. However, your personal choice of non-alcoholic wine will work just as well for a fuller -and no doubt more fulfilling- taste!



‘Wassailing’

Toasting the festive season with a drink has long been the pinnacle of many Christmas gatherings with family and friends. This year, why not extend your scope further and try ‘wassailing’? At its core, the annual wassail consisted of communities visiting orchards on Twelfth Night in a spiritual endeavour to secure a good harvest for the upcoming year. Participants (‘revellers’) would share a communal bowl of warm, spiced alcohol (generally cider or ale) throughout the event.

The drink itself can be replicated easily with a basic recipe for mulled cider - the perfect companion to a warm glass of ‘Red Hippocras’! However, if you are feeling more adventurous, add a modern and sophisticated spin by attempting a ‘wassail cocktail’. You can find one of our favourite variations here, where vanilla bean and warm spices are infused with bourbon for a sweeter touch (but you could use a malt whisky for something more akin to a ‘Hot Toddy’): https://cookieandkate.com/wassail-cocktail/

Wassailing is still practiced today in many southern regions of England. If you do not feel like making your own wassail bowl, why not try an event hosted by the National Trust? You can find upcoming gatherings here: https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/lists/join-in-with-the-annual-wassail

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