There are few things that can trigger memories the way certain tastes and aromas can, and in an instant transport us to events and places that have a strong connection to an emotion.The taste, smell, and even texture of food can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back memories not just of eating food itself but also of place and setting.
When asked, many people will list off the smell of cinnamon, clove, cardamom, allspice, vanilla, ginger, cranberry and orange as typical scents of Christmas and these uniquely bold flavours and aromas have become synonymous with the season.
This advent series has been exploring the roots of many of our Christmas traditions and symbols and the origins of certain foods and recipes associated with Christmas are a very broad subject to cover. We could spend hours comparing traditional Christmas dinners according to cultures and nations and learning about the origins of these meals, but for the sake of brevity, this post will limit its exploration to a few specific edible concoctions that draw on these strong flavours and that really beg an explanation for their popularity.
The popularity of gingerbread during the holidays can be attributed to the belief that spices heated one up in the cold of the winter. Gingerbread refers to a broad category of baked goods, typically flavoured with ginger, cloves, nutmeg or cinnamon and sweetened with honey, sugar or molasses.
Although this sweet treat came to the Americas with settlers from Europe, the ginger root was first cultivated in China for its medicinal and magical properties and was brought to Europe by an Armenian monk who taught baking to French Christians in the 13th century. Gingerbread rose to popularity with the story of Hansel and Gretel, written by the Grimm Brothers in which the main characters stumble upon a house made entirely of treats deep in the forest. It is unclear whether or not these houses were a result of the popular fairy tale, or vice versa, nevertheless Gingerbread houses, cookies and snaps are now one of our favourite tasty Christmas staple
In the song “We Wish You a Merry Christmas”, the carollers ask for “figgy pudding”. Knowing that many of the Christmas Carols originated in Britain, we have logically concluded that this must be a favourite among Brit countrymen, but few of us in North America have actually sampled it.
Also known as plum pudding or Christmas pudding, it is indeed a traditional Christmas dessert that surprisingly, contains no figs — and it isn’t what we usually mean by “pudding” (just like what they call a Christmas jumper in Britain is an ugly Christmas sweater to us).
Figgy pudding is a steamed cake-like dessert, traditionally made with suet (which is raw beef or mutton fat), eggs, brown sugar, breadcrumbs, spices, dried fruits and, last — but certainly not least — brandy. I pause here for some head scratching.
I conclude that it could be a bit like what we call Christmas fruit cake, but when it is regularly basted or soaked in brandy, rum or bourbon.
Everyone has heard of eggnog and knows it is a chilled, sweet dairy-based beverage, containing eggs and strong spices like nutmeg, cardamon, cinnamon, vanilla and to which we will add distilled spirits such as brandy, rum or whisky or bourbon. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground on eggnog. You either love it or hate it. I never developed a taste for it, and would rather pour the mixture over bread and bake it into a tasty bread pudding!!
In Britain, the drink was originally popular among the aristocracy. Milk, eggs, and sherry were foods of the wealthy, so eggnog was often used in toasts to prosperity and good health. Since brandy and wine were heavily taxed, rum from the trade with the Caribbean became a cost-effective substitute.
The inexpensive liquor, coupled with plentiful farm and dairy products available to early colonists, helped the drink become very popular in America. When the supply of rum to the newly founded United States was reduced as a consequence of the American Revolutionary War, Americans turned to domestic whiskey, and eventually bourbon as a substitute.
The tradition of mulled wine for Christmas, did not appear until the late 1800s, thanks in part to the popular Christmas markets of Germany. The idea of consuming mulled wine to warm up at an outdoor market in the middle of winter was appealing to sellers and they began to offer the beverage, each with their own recipe and a particular glass or label design, to stand out from the competition.
But it was the Romans who came up with the idea of mulled wine. They would heat wine to defend their bodies against the cold winter and as they conquered much of Europe throughout the next century, their love for mulled wine spread across their empire and the regions they traded with. Europeans would mix heated wine with spices because they believed it would promote health and avoid sickness. (This is starting to sound a lot like cough syrup to me.) They would also use herbs and flowers as natural sweeteners to make unpalatable wines taste a lot nicer. (The thought of adding herbs and flowers is what makes it unpalatable in my opinion, but I am already not a fan of heated wine.)
Understandably, over time the craze for mulled wine (let’s just call it medicinal wine ) faded across most of Europe except for Sweden, where its popularity only increased. Claret (Rhen wine, sugar, honey and spices) and Lutendrank (various spices, wine and milk- what?!?) were just two of the variations that the Swedish monarchy made famous over the coming centuries.
In many European countries today, it remains a favourite and each have developed its own method of production, adding local ingredients to the original recipe. So today you can enjoy it in several ways:
- The traditional method: red wine, cinnamon, oranges and brown sugar.
- Alsatian style: with local white wine, Riesling or Pinot Blanc.
- Swedish style (and all over Scandinavia): with red wine, sugar, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and cloves. Sometimes vodka, aquavit or brandy are also added.
- Latvian style: by adding Black Balsam, a black liqueur from Riga.
- Hungarian style: using local wine, Egri Bikaver, as well as cinnamon and cloves.
- Bulgarian style: by adding honey, apples and citrus fruits.
- Moldavian style: called Izvar, it is composed of local red wine, pepper and honey.
- Polish style: made from hot beer and accompanied by the traditional ingredients of mulled wine (fruit, spices). It is called Piwo Grzane.
Historically, mincemeat was a way of preserving meat using sugar and alcohol without smoke or salt. The meat of choice tended to be mutton and it was chopped finely – hence the term “mince”. As trade brought spices to Europe, oriental spices such as cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, and mace were added to the sweetened preserved meat dishes, which symbolically also commemorated the gifts of the Magi. I am not sure whose idea it was but eventually, eating small bite-size pastry filled with the meat was incorporated as part of the Twelve Days of Christmas, and eating one a day was considered lucky.
By the end of the 1600s, mincemeat was a mixture of fruit (prunes, raisins, dates) and finely diced meat, along with wines or vinegars. But by the 18th century, wine and vinegar were replaced mostly by brandy or other distilled spirits.
The dish almost faded into history but the Victorians recast it as a refined Christmastime tradition
Fast forward to modern times, particularly toward the mid-20th century, and meat was primarily gone from the recipe. Commonly acceptable fruits included dried fruit, chopped apples, citrus peel, currants, citron, candied fruits, brandy, rum or another liqueur. Suet – which is kidney fat – was sometimes included and occasionally still is.
While I take a moment to regroup from this journey into sweet meats, medicinal wines and drinking raw eggs as ideas of a good time, I am reminded that people like different things, and I am in no position to judge.
I will not disagree with the aromatic pleasures of cinnamon, cardamon, vanilla nor with how the combination of spices, spirits and sugar can yield wonderful Christmas treats. The traditional concoctions described above may not appeal to my palate, but I still appreciated learning more about their origins, and conclude that with minor modifications, many of these have become other treats that I have come to enjoy during the holidays. To each his/her own.