Christmas is all about traditions and never more so than when it comes to food. At Christmas we eat what we ate as children.
But it doesn’t have to be exactly the same every year. We can look abroad and borrow some amazing traditional Christmas recipies from European countries to add a bit of difference and interest to our festive palette. Let’s take a trip with Father Christmas as he travels round the continent and see what’s cooking.
Starting with our near neighbours the French, the Buche de Noël is one of the most famous Gallic Christmas foods. It is similar to the British Yule Log, but is generally lighter and made with a light coffee or nut buttercream rather than heavy chocolate as the core filling ingredient.
Chef Raymond Blanc has a great recipe for a Buche de noel
Flying on to Netherlands, speculaas biscuits are definitely worth a quick stop. Buttery soft spiced cookies, these are utterly delicious and very easy to make.
In Germany you will find they make a huge deal out of Christmas and have just as many food traditions as we do here in the UK. Dresdener Stollen is now sold in every British supermarket at Christmas. It has been a favourite Christmas food in Germany since the fourteenth century and is in my opinion something close to distilled essence of Christmas. A slice of stollen and a glass of Gluhwein and you feel you have been wrapped in swaddling and plonked in a manger in Bethlehem. If you want to make your own then give Nigella Lawson’s Stollen recipe a try. She adds a bit of rum which works beautifully with the almond flavours in Stollen.
By the time we get to Poland we might be feeling a bit full, which could be a problem because a strong Polish tradition is to eat a 12 course banquet on Christmas Eve. Carp always plays a central role here and Brits who perhaps think of carp as a muddy tasting fish will be in for a delightful surprise. Polish carp dishes are delicious. You will also find mushrooms and cabbage making regular appearances during the meal, but traditionally there is no meat or dairy because we are technically observing a pre-Christmas fast. To accompany the food you may find yourself enjoying a runny fruit compote whereas further east in the Baltic States you might enjoy a cranberry juice drink.
Belarusians and Russians also observe the fast, breaking it only when the first star appears in the sky, by eating a bowl of rice or wheat porridge flavoured with dried fruit, nuts, honey and poppy seeds.
Santa and his sleigh now turn right and head southwards to the lands around the Black Sea. Ukrainian Christmas foods are similar to Russian, but we must give a mention to the lovely honey cake known as Medvinyk which is eaten at midnight on Christmas Eve.
Romania has a diverse ethnic population and so lots of food traditions combine here in the Carpathians. Cabbage still features heavily on the savoury side, but when it comes to sweet dishes, the food here is something altogether more appetising. An endless range of nut filled pastries are a feature of Christmas in Romania. The Transylvanian Saxons were mostly Lutherans and didn’t drink too much alcohol, but at Christmas a Rumtopf was often opened. This is a huge earthenware jar that is slowly filled with slices of seasonal fruit through the year and topped up with Rum or Vodka. At the end of the year the pot is sealed and left to mature for a further year. Then at Christmas this utterly delicious and seriously boozy fruit cocktail makes parties go with a bang.
Making your own Rumtopf is really easy to do and if you make a few you can give some as Christmas presents… But keep at least one for yourself.
In Bulgaria there are Christmas food traditions similar to their neighbours, but when it comes to bread,they have a one of a kind winner. the Bulgarians bake a big sun shaped enriched sharing bread called Koledna Pitka which tastes delicious but also has a coin hidden inside for good luck, just like a traditional British Christmas Pud. I wonder who copied that idea from whom?
In neighbouring Greece you still find cabbage on the Christmas menu ( in the form of stuffed cabbage leaves) which is beginning to make me think the rest of Europe knows somehing that we don’t. The Christmas treat that Greece should be best remembered for are Melomakarona cookies. They have a lovely mix of orange zest and sugary spices that anyone who has enjoyed a Greek Christmas will never forget.
Father Christmas now takes us west across the Mediterranean and soon we are flying over the south of Italy. Panettone is the traditional Christmas food from Italy that you can now buy everywhere in the UK. it is a light sweet bread with fruit and lots of people buy it as a lighter alternative to the traditional British Christmas cake. panettone can also be used as the base for a brilliantly indulgent version of bread and butter pudding. Santa is in a bit of a hurry to get all the presents delivered before dawn, so A piece of Torrone (an Italian nougat filled with almonds) will keep us going as we carry on westward toward Spain and Portugal.
Well here they have almost the same Turron to keep their dentists in business, but in Spain I was more interested in the savoury than the sweet. They love their meat as much as we Brits do, but rather than roast it, you are likely to find Spanish families enjoying taking wafer thin slices from a leg of Iberian ham. These hams are bought at any time of year but especially at Christmas it seems every household has a cured ham to enjoy. In my best Spanish I asked around, but didn’t find anyone who would admit to eating cabbage for once.