Evolution of the Christmas dinner

Humble pie, stuffed peacock and sugar mice have left our Christmas tables seemingly never to return. But what was it that forever pushed such dishes from our hearts and feasting?

To some, the Christmas institutions of turkey and sherry trifle are what make the season. But many other traditional recipes have faded into obscurity never to reappear on the festive table, leaving only a handful of retro staples.

Humble pie, which disappeared in the 18th century, was a concoction of deer ‘umbles’ including brain, liver and heart blended with suet, apples and currants. A treat that really defined Christmas for our forbears and now seems completely revolting, the pie recipe dates back to the 1700s and was mainly eaten by servants and peasants.

Animal offal was not favoured by the affluent set, who would instead have been treated to a banquet of force-fed wild boar head and roast swan, with a show-stopping stuffed peacock centrepiece.

The following course probably consisted of candied sweetmeats and fruits, all with enough spice and dye to take down a horse, but meant strictly for visual appeal only.

Now a protected species, the idea of catching a swan for the Christmas table is not only forbidden by law, but would turn the stomach of even the least environmentally friendly. And peacocks disappeared from the menu soon after the demise of the frivolous Elizabeth I.

But what happened to sugar mice, a children’s favourite for generations? Once hung on Christmas trees around the country and stuffed into every stocking, these candied animals with string tails have lost popularity, replaced by chocolate Santas and Mars selection boxes.

But not so long ago children would hang their stockings and wait for them to be filled with a few exotic treats like oranges, nuts, and candy mice.

Although the obligatory satsuma and nut selection may remain, health conscious parents have discarded the mice on the grounds that they are pure processed sugar and surely bad for teeth. So it seems we only cling onto a few steadfast recipes that have evolved to suit more modern 20th and 21st century palettes.

Mince pies, derived from medieval minced pies, were once rich and fruity, bursting with orange peel, brandy and beef remnants. Although the recipe remains, the tradition of adding meat was discontinued in the 1800s, and beef suet replaced it instead.

Now in another update of the ancient recipe the beef suet has been dropped in favour of a vegetable alternative, and some manufacturers even tout their pies and puddings as a functional food.

Meanwhile the unchanged hardy perennial Brussels sprouts, surely every child’s favourite, date back to 1587 where they were first cultivated in Belgium. Although the strain is thought to originate in Roman times it was not until their migration further north that they started to plague our festive spreads.

Now seen as an important weapon in the fight against cancer, the cruciferous vegetable is definitely here to stay with thousands of tonnes about to be consumed this season in the UK alone.

Clearly, unabashed appreciation of all things retro and twee is never greater than at Christmas time. Yet even this annual splurge of nostalgic references cannot quite stretch to innards of deer. But, we’d like a recount about the sugar mice.

Happy Christmas!

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