Christmas Dishes of Yore

Christmas is a time for family and friends to gather together, celebrate wonderful traditions and enjoy delicious food. Christmas lunch differs from home to home – for some it’s roast turkey or a leg of lamb, for some it’s grilled Halaal fish, and for others it’s anything they can fit onto their braai grid. But have you ever wondered what Christmas lunch was like years back – way, way back – 375 years back to be exact? Well, thanks to an enlightening article, we now know what delicacies were served all those eons ago, and it wasn’t for the faint-hearted or picky eater.

One of the earliest known published Christmas menus harks back to 1660. Taken from a book called The Accomplisht Cook, it was written by an English chef named Robert May who was trained in France and spent most of his life creating dishes for the nobility. In a part of the book entitled ‘A bill of fare for Christmas Day and how to set the meat in order’ May recommends 39 dishes – not to choose from mind you, but in totality – divided into two courses and rounded off with oysters, citrus fruit and jellies for dessert. Are you feeling overwhelmed yet?

Taken from the article and also Project Gutenberg, here are Mr May’s 39 dishes and interpretations where records still remain.

First Course – starting with Oysters, followed by:

  1. A collar of brawn
  2. Stewed Broth of Mutton marrow bones
  3. A grand Sallet [salad]
  4. A pottage of caponets [young domestic fowl]
  5. A breast of veal in stoffado [stuffed veal]
  6. A boil’d partridge
  7. A chine [a cut of meat containing backbone] of beef, or surloin roast
  8. Minced pies
  9. A Jegote [sausage] of mutton with anchove sauce
  10. A made dish of sweet-bread
  11. A swan roast
  12. A pasty of venison
  13. A kid with a pudding in his belly [stuffed young goat]
  14. A steak pie
  15. A hanch [back leg] of venison roasted
  16. A turkey roast and stuck with cloves
  17. A made dish of chickens in puff paste
  18. Two bran geese roasted, one larded
  19. Two large capons [castrated domestic cocks], one larded
  20. A Custard

Second Course – starting with Oranges and Lemons, followed by:

  1. A young lamb or kid
  2. Two couple of rabbits, two larded
  3. A pig souc’t with tongues
  4. Three ducks, one larded
  5. Three pheasants, 1 larded
  6. A Swan Pye
  7. Three brace of partridge, three larded
  8. Made dish in puff paste
  9. Bolonia sausages, and anchoves, mushrooms, and Cavieate, and pickled oysters in dish
  10. Six teels, three larded
  11. A Gammon of Westphalia Bacon
  12. Ten plovers, five larded
  13. A quince pye, or warden pie [pears or quinces peeled and poached in syrup, then baked in a pie]
  14. Six woodcocks, 3 larded
  15. A standing Tart in puff-paste, preserved fruits, Pippins, &c
  16. A dish of Larks
  17. Six dried neats [calfs] tongues
  18. Sturgeon
  19. Powdered [salted] Geese

And ending with Jellies

Mark Twain said ‘the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside’ – which makes you wonder how the insides of diners at Mr May’s table would have felt after feasting on such opulence.

Well, now that you know a 39-dish Christmas meal once existed, planning your own Christmas lunch doesn’t seem quite so daunting, does it? So, here’s to good old-fashioned and delicious meat, fish and poultry – with the odd Jegote thrown in for good measure of course.