British foods have been an important part of the Sehy family’s Christmas celebrations for more than 30 years. We’re particularly fond of sausage rolls and desserts like chocolate Yule logs and sherry trifle. Are you interested in adding more British foods to your holiday gatherings? Then read on for lots of ideas.
TRADITIONAL CHRISTMAS FOODS
It would be easy to assume that familiar British Christmas foods like mince pies, mulled wine, and Christmas pudding are outdated stereotypes, but they’re still quite popular in the UK. Take mince pies, for example. Love for these small fruit- and spice-filled pies runs deep. When I was in living in London in 2015, they were happily consumed at every holiday party I attended. Stores across the UK and Ireland stock a wide range of the tasty little treats and you’ll also find them at the Christmas markets that pop up in cities all over Great Britain. If you want to try your hand at making your own mince pies, Anglotopia recommends this authentic recipe from Jane Colston.
I was also offered mulled wine at several holiday gatherings in London. This hot beverage is typically made with red wine, sugar, citrus, and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger. Other popular Christmas party foods include sausage rolls, pigs in blankets (small sausages wrapped in bacon), cheese straws, vol-au-vents, and smoked salmon.
At the end of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge gives the Cratchit family a nice fat turkey for their Christmas dinner. That was in 1843. More than 175 years later, turkey is still the highlight of Christmas feasts across the UK and Ireland. Other popular entrees include goose, roast beef, and ham.
Turkey is typically served with stuffing, gravy, and cranberry sauce, just as it is in America, but the stuffing is often rolled into balls and wrapped in bacon. Bread sauce, a thick mixture of breadcrumbs, milk, cream, butter, onions, and spices such as cloves and nutmeg, is another traditional British accompaniment to turkey.
Roasted, mashed, or boiled potatoes almost always make an appearance on Christmas dinner tables, along with Brussel sprouts and roasted parsnips, which are two of the most popular Christmas vegetables in Great Britain. You usually won’t find either of them in a typical American Christmas dinner.
CHRISTMAS PUDDING AND CHRISTMAS CAKE
What about Christmas puddings and Christmas cakes? Are they relics of a bygone era? No, both are still popular today, although they’re often store-bought rather than homemade.
Christmas puddings are rounded, dense, steamed cakes brimming with sultanas, currants, cherries, apples, citrus zest, and nuts in a batter made of flour, breadcrumbs, eggs, sugar, suet, spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon, and a liberal dose of rum, brandy, or other alcohol. The mixture is packed in a pudding basin, placed in a pot of boiling water, and steamed for hours, then stored in a cool place so it can mature until the big day.
Traditionally, Christmas puddings are set alight before they’re brought to the table. This is done by warming a small amount of brandy over low heat, then carefully lighting the brandy (preferably with a long match) and pouring it over the pudding. Personally, I find the process a bit nerve-wracking, but if you want to give it a try, it’s easy to find YouTube videos that demonstrate the process. Christmas pudding is often served with brandy butter, a mixture of brandy, butter, and sugar that’s easy to make at home.
Like Christmas puddings, traditional British Christmas cakes are filled with dried fruit, candied cherries, citrus, nuts, spices, and alcohol. The cake is often covered with a thin layer of apricot jam and marzipan, then topped with a layer of royal icing. A ribbon and fondant decorations are sometimes added. This BBC Good Food article offers more decorating ideas.
Other popular Christmas desserts include Yule logs, which are sometimes called bûche de Noel, and trifle. Dessert may be followed by a cheese board featuring a selection of cheeses (cheddar, Stilton, and brie are popular choices), as well as fruit, crackers, and oatcakes.
CHRISTMAS IN IRELAND, WALES, AND SCOTLAND
The traditional Christmas dinner menu is surprisingly similar across the United Kingdom and Ireland. Soda bread will usually grace the Irish table, and both turkey and ham are often served. Spiced beef is a favorite in the south of Ireland, especially in County Cork. For dessert, you might be offered Bloc na Nollaig, the Irish version of a Yule log. Homemade taffy (toffee) is a traditional holiday treat in Wales.
In Scotland, Christmas dinner often starts with a broth-based soup such as cock-a-leekie. Clootie dumpling may be served instead of Christmas pudding (the two are similar) and a mixture of raspberries, oats, cream, and whisky called cranachan is also popular.
The Church of Scotland discouraged Christmas frivolity for hundreds of years and the day was typically celebrated in a low-key fashion until the mid-twentieth century. Instead, Hogmanay (December 31) was Scotland’s big winter celebration. It’s still an important Scottish holiday today. Typical Hogmanay foods include Scotch broth, cock-a-leekie soup, haggis (a dish of sheep’s organs, oats, and spices traditionally boiled in a sheep’s stomach), steak pie, neeps and tatties (parsnips and potatoes), and black bun, a type of fruitcake encased in pastry.
MAKING AND BUYING YOUR CHRISTMAS GOODIES
Christmas is almost here so you’ll have to hustle if you want to add British treats to this year’s menu. My October Eating British in America column has some great sources for British recipes, including BBC Good Food, which has lots of traditional Christmas recipes as well as vegetarian versions of many favorites.
The October column also has some suggestions for tracking down British provisions and Anglotopia maintains an extensive list of stores that carry British foods. Imported Christmas foods can sell out quickly; I recommend putting a reminder on your calendar for early November, so you can place your orders while there’s still a good selection.
I’m a big fan of Jungle Jim’s International Market in Ohio, which carries lots of British foods. We stopped at the Fairfield store earlier this month to explore the large selection of Christmas puddings, cakes, biscuits, and chocolates. There’s also a wide variety of British cheeses that are perfect for a festive cheese board. Unfortunately, Jungle Jim’s doesn’t ship, but it’s definitely worth a detour if you’re anywhere near Cincinnati.
Cost Plus World Market, a national chain with 250 stores around the country, stocks its own brand of British-made mince pies and Christmas puddings, as well as a large assortment of Walkers shortbreads, mince pies, and puddings, Burts Welsh fruit cakes, and sweets like Cadbury and Quality Street. A friend of mine recently found a nice selection of British treats at her local Fresh Market, including Tudor Kitchen Christmas puddings, Walkers shortbread and puddings, Robertson’s mincemeat, and a range of Christmas teas. The Fresh Market chain has 159 locations in 22 states.
MORE IDEAS FOR ADDING A TASTE OF BRITAIN TO YOUR LIFE
You can check out the Christmas in England and Classic British Food boards on my Pinterest page for more British foods, then head over to Anglotopia’s Christmas Central to read more articles about British Christmas celebrations.
Thank you for joining me on my quest to eat British in America. Be sure to stop by often in 2020. Over the coming months I’ll be exploring the history of Cornish pasties in America and sharing some of my favorite fish and chip shops, pubs, and tearooms.