On the Beeton Path

22/12/2011 by Gerard Baker

Christmas and feasting go together like turkey and cranberries – just ask Mrs Beeton, says Gerard Baker

Christmas 150 years ago had many of the best attributes of ours today – sharing food and spending time with friends and family.

The trappings of today’s Christmas have their origins in much older celebrations: a feast to mark midwinter and the gradual return to spring; the use of greenery to symbolise the fact that midwinter had passed; and the sharing of gifts to symbolise the gifts the wise men gave to Jesus. Albert can be credited with having brought many of our Christmas traditions to a wider audience – Isabella Beeton was echoing the tastes and themes of her time quite clearly.
 
The food eaten 150 years ago is not dissimilar to that we eat now – Mrs Beeton recommends the black turkey as having the finest flavour, which is still the case today; the breed is now known as the Norfolk black and was saved from extinction in the Second World War by the Peale family, who still farm them. For my updated version of Mrs Beeton’s book, cooking the turkey involves first softly braising the legs with aromatic vegetables, then roasting the crown to ensure that all parts of the bird are cooked to delicious perfection.  
 
Goose, historically of course, would have been the bird of choice for many – birds born in the spring were fattened for Christmas, and still are by country people, including my grandparents. As it is a rich meat, Isabella recommends serving the goose with apple sauce – and I would recommend braised red cabbage to go alongside it for a tasty twist on the traditional Christmas dinner. Of course, the lovely fat can then be saved to cook the best roast potatoes ever.
 
One of the joys of working with Isabella’s recipes is that my grandmother’s ones connect me to the days when her children were alive – it is recent history and the parallels are clear. Living in straitened circumstances, she made the best of her situation, collating her book at a young age in difficult times.  
 
Although Mrs Beeton: How to Cook is a book suitable for year-round use, readers will find many delicious Christmas recipes with clear instructions: parsnips cooked with orange and honey, braised red cabbage, stuffing – the list goes on. Of all the recipes, the fruit cake and Christmas pudding are the two I am most fond of: the fruit cake has a generous splash of brandy and a light citrus tang, while the pudding recipe is almost all fruit – tasty and lighter than any other because much of the flour has been taken out, allowing the flavours to come to the fore. 
 
 
Gerard Baker's Mrs Beeton: How to Cook is out now, published by W&N.

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