Most families in the United Kingdom traditionally sit-down on Christmas afternoon for their festive Christmas Dinner. Today the centerpiece is usually a roast Turkey served with stuffing, sausages wrapped in streaky bacon ( pigs in blankets ), crisp roast potatoes, parsnips, Brussel sprouts and lots of other vegetables, and cranberry sauce. This is followed by Christmas pudding and brandy sauce, maybe sherry trifle and mince pies. But how have we got here?
A bit of history
‘If he is to get on in life, he must get on umbly, Master Copperfield!’ In medieval England, if you were very rich you might have eaten venison from your hunting grounds and the bits or umbles – the heart, lungs, liver, tongue, and kidneys would be chopped, mixed and baked in a pie to be given to the poor. The original [h]umble pie. Down the pecking order ( sorry ) you might find goose or woodcock covered in butter and saffron and roasted. For dessert, you would find frumerty a thick, spiced porridge with currents and enriched with egg yolks or a boiled plum pudding the ancestor of today’s Christmas pudding made with suet and dried fruit, flavoured with clove, ginger, and cinnamon, plum is an old term for raisins.
A boar’s head would be the centerpiece of the Christmas feast for a Tudor nobleman. It is believed that the tradition came from a centuries-old pagan tradition celebrating the Norse god of the harvest. If you could not get hold of the highly prized head, you would have a ham which is now a staple of many Christmas meals. Sugar, spices, and nuts were considered highly exotic and very expensive, so marzipan sweetmeats were a sign of your wealth and importance.
‘My name is Sherlock Holmes. It is my business to know what other people don’t know.’
During the 17th century, turkeys started to become part of the Christmas feast although goose would remain the most popular roast well into the Victorian era where it was common for Goose “Clubs” to be set up, allowing working-class families to save up over the year towards buying a goose. Sherlock Holmes solves a trick case involving the theft of a precious stone the blue carbuncle when it is found in a Christmas club goose.
Gingerbread has an incredibly long history, near to a thousand years. It was often sold in monasteries, pharmacies, and markets and prized for its supposed medicinal properties and was used to aid digestion. It became so popular its manufacture was highly regulated in Germany and supervised by a guild who lifted the restrictions on who could bake gingerbread at Easter and Christmas. By Victorian times Gingerbread men were baked and hung on the Christmas tree.
In the 18th and 19th century, Twelfth Night, the fifth of January, was one of the most important dates in the festive calendar. Twelfth Night was the last feast of the Christmas celebrations ( Epiphany ) and the centerpiece of the parties which involved eating, drinking and playing games was a cake. A forerunner to today’s Christmas cake it evolved from an enriched fruit bread to a more familiar fruit cake decorated with almond and sugar pastes. A dried bean was included in the recipe and whoever found it was crowned ‘Lord of Misrule’ or ‘King of the Bean’ and presided over the festivities.
When Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837, the turkey was still an expensive choice for the very rich, for Christmas dinner. A famous Christmas dinner scene appears in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, where Scrooge sends Bob Cratchit a large turkey. In northern England, roast beef was commonly served on Christmas Day while in London and the south of England, a goose was still the favourite. Those too poor to afford beef or goose made do with rabbit. However, by the end of the 19th century, most people feasted on turkey for Christmas dinner.
Mincemeat was from Tudor times chopped meat mixed with dried fruits, sugar, and spices. This recipe continued right up to the Victorian era when less and less meat was included in the recipe so that the mince tart we eat today is filled entirely with dried fruits, sugar, spices, and suet to keep it moist. Most premade mincemeat mixtures now use vegetable fats rather than the traditional suet in keeping with mincemeats origins.
So today’s recipe is for the Christmas centerpiece a roast turkey. I have memories of my mum getting up at 6 to put the oven to prepare a monster of a turkey for the family. As in popular legend, it did seem that we ate turkey leftovers for days after. You should never put stuffing into a turkey cavity as it will not cook properly and could be a health risk but I do like to stuff the breast end of the bird which helps keep the meat moist. I have included my favourite stuffing recipe.
Roast Turkey with Bacon, Apricot and Cranberry Stuffing Serves 8
4-4.5 kg Gold standard Turkey
6 Rashers Smoked Streaky Bacon
150 gr Butter
3 medium Onions, peeled
2 large Carrots, peeled
1 large Lemon halved
A small bunch of Thyme
3 Large Pieces of Rosemary
2 Bay Leaves
Sea salt & freshly ground Black Pepper
For the Stuffing
400 gr Quality minced Pork
8 Rashers Smoked Streaky Bacon
1 large White Onion peeled and very finely diced
2 sticks Celery, washed and finely diced
2 large cloves of Garlic, peeled and crushed
100 gr dried Apricots
50 gr dried Cranberries
1 large free-range egg
2 teaspoons fresh Thyme leaves
1 large handful of fresh Breadcrumbs
Zest of 1 Lemon
1 good pinch Grated Nutmeg
Sea salt & freshly ground Black Pepper
Olive Oil for frying
For the Turkey Gravy
2 heaped tablespoons Plain Flour
1-litre quality Chicken Stock
A good Splash of Port
Sea Salt & freshly ground Black Pepper
For the Stuffing ( Can be made in Advance )
Heat a generous splash of olive oil large frying pan and cook the bacon strips until crisp. Remove and drain on kitchen paper and cut into thin slices when cool. Add the onion, garlic, and celery to the saucepan and sauté for about ten minutes until soft and golden brown. Take the pan off the heat, add the breadcrumbs and stir together, transfer to a large bowl and allow to thoroughly cool. When cool add the pork mince, thyme, dried fruits, lemon zest, nutmeg, egg and lots of salt and pepper, and mix everything together well.
For the Turkey
Take the turkey out of the fridge a couple of hours before roasting to get up to room temperature. When ready to cook, preheat the oven to 450 F / 230 C / Gas mark 8. Give your turkey a good wipe, inside and out, with kitchen paper, and season the cavity really well. Next place the turkey on a board, with the neck end towards you. Find the edge of the skin that’s covering the turkey’s breasts and carefully peel it back. Gently ease your fingers and then your hand under the skin, teasing it away from the meat. You should be able to pull all the skin away from the meat, keeping it attached at the sides. Carefully spoon your prepared stuffing between the skin and the breast, tucking the flap of skin underneath to stop anything seeping out. Weigh the stuffed turkey and calculate the cooking time allow twenty minutes per every five hundred grams.
Place the lemon halves, one onion, half the thyme and one piece of rosemary inside the turkey cavity. Dab the butter all over the turkey, especially over the breasts, season generously and then cover with the streaky bacon. Place the turkey on a large roasting tray, and add the chopped carrots, onions, and remaining herbs, cover with tinfoil and place in the preheated oven. Cook for twenty minutes then turn the heat down to 350 F/ 180 C / Gas Mark 4 and roast for the allotted time, or until the juices run clear from the thigh when pierced with it a small, sharp knife. Remove the tinfoil for the last forty minutes to allow the turkey to brown. Carefully lift the turkey out of the tray and rest on a tray, somewhere warm, loosely covered in foil and a couple of folded tea towels, for about an hour.
For the Gravy
Very carefully skim the surface fat from the roasting tray and add port. Place on a medium heat and sift in the flour. Stir really well and slowly pour in the stock, when the gravy starts to thicken, reduce the heat and simmer for five minutes stirring regularly. Strain it into a pan ready to reheat. Carve your turkey at the table, serve with all the trimmings, the gravy and enjoy.
Allergens in this recipe are;