O Christmas Feast, O Christmas Feast

A lull falls over Calcutta after Diwali. There’s a sense of relief that the nights are now cool and the days aren’t sweaty. We have also just about recovered from the excesses of Pujo (having overdone the fish fry, malaikari and Basanti pulao) and are entirely in the mood for hot chocolate and a glazed roast. Even though it’s not a white Christmas, it’s far from being a blue Christmas in Calcutta.

One of the things that makes Christmas special is that Christmas food isn’t available the rest of the year. One just has to wait for eleven months to pass by before honey-glazed ham or turkey with cranberry compote returns to the table. It’s a little like waiting for the land of treats to wander back to the top the Faraway Tree — which is fitting, because Christmas culinary traditions have trickled down to us from faraway lands, albeit because the faraway explorers stumbled upon Indian seas.

Come December, rose cookies begin to show up around teatime. Even though these are available all the time, they become particularly common closer to Christmas, a time when it becomes easier to replace your teatime butter cookie with rosies. My mother’s oldest friend from school begins to bake her rose cookies in December. It never occurred to me to ask why we couldn’t have them all year round. I’ve always associated rose cookies with Aunty Dolly’s Christmas tea spread, the apartment flooded with the aroma of baked goods. In a corner of the table would be the freshly fried rose-shaped crackers which my sister and I made a clean sweep of because they were more novel for us than plum cake. It’s widely believed that these biscuits were bequeathed to us by the Dutch who are also responsible for our daily biscuit. In Kerala, rose biscuits go by the name of Achappam and are made with coconut milk and rice flour, in signature Syrian Christian style. In Calcutta, the cookies made with flour, milk and eggs hark back to how they prepare rosette cookies in Scandinavia. Whether your Tamil colleagues are bringing out the acchu murukku at the office coffee machine or your Goan friends keep rose de coque handy at every winter gathering, it’s a delicious rose by any other name.

Since the weather isn’t likely to be meat-conducive too long, Christmas is the opportunity to pile on the glazed ham, the garlic-pepper meatloaf, Hungarian sausages, or even a rare Lamb Wellington. While the rest of the year is reserved for smoked ham, the special guest at the Christmas table is always sweetened ham. Yuletide ham dates as far back to the German pagans who sacrificed a boar to appease Freyr, the Norse god of fertility and good harvest. The Christians then adopted this porcine option to celebrate the birth of Christ and the Feast of Stephen, which paved the way for ham to become the centrepiece of the Christmas table. Occasionally one might come across suckling pig at smaller private parties where it is possible to carve up and serve a small piglet — usually slow-roasted so that the flesh remains moist while the skin crackles. In the Philippines, this is popular celebration fare all year round and is known by its Spanish name, Lechon, which dates back to the era of the Spanish East Indies. Of course, the hypocrisy of meat-eaters leads us to often balk at the suckling pig, torn from mother’s milk before six weeks, for slaughtering an older pig seems somehow less inhuman. My father’s friend used to host a party on New Year’s Eve which rose to culinary fame in their circle of acquaintances and quickly became the highlight of the month. The children were usually all deposited in a room which had Disney movies running on loop. It was at that party I had my first brush with a suckling pig on the sideboard, waiting to be carved by the host. I broke into tears because I thought it was horrid and all I wanted was chilli chicken and fried rice. My parents must have been apologetic about the little philistine they were bringing up. It took me years to appreciate the flavours of tender meat and then some more years to realise how barbaric we really are.

If we are lucky, the Wellington will feature at our Christmas spread too, not because it’s strictly tradition but because it’s a special dish that rarely pops up during any other time of the year. With our palates already honed on patties, quiches and other puff pastries, the Wellington (traditionally beef, but often filled with lamb) is a delightful surprise guest on any Christmas menu. The Wellington wasn’t nearly as common in my childhood as a flaky envelope stuffed with minced mutton. I discovered the Wellington much later, as the bigger, firmer, more glamorous cousin of the patties we used to have, the mushroom duxelles which padded the meat adding that extra layer of oomph. During a vacation with friends in London, I tasted Kangaroo Wellington but decided that the mutton patties we are used to at home strike a delicate balance of textures which also makes it a lighter dish to have. The English have a beef with the Americans about where the Wellington might have originated — British lore has it that the dish emerged from the kitchens of the first Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, who defeated Napoleon Bonaparte in the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. It’s plausible that the already popular French dish, filet de boeuf en croute — beef tenderloin coated with mushroom paste in puff pastry — might well have been rebranded to commemorate the outcome of said battle. If only they had stopped passing the beef there. Strangely enough, English recipe books made no mention of the dish but the Los Angeles Times mentions ‘Fillet of beef, a la Wellington’ at a bankers’ dinner at the Angeleus hotel in 1903. However, with the menu featuring other borrowed dishes such as Punch a L’lmperial and Neapolitan ice cream, the idea that the Beef Wellington might just as well have originated in America, is not bolstered. In fact, it also popped up in 1910 in a Polish cookbook by Maria Ochorowicz-Monatowa. Of course, when Julia Child, American-chef-trained-in-France, featured Beef Wellington on TV in 1965, the popularity of this dish shot through the culinary charts, and here we are now, eagerly waiting for one of the ‘European’ cafes to put the lamb variation on their Christmas special menu.

Christmas pudding as we know and love it is a hearty slice of the plum cake, possibly accompanied by a large dollop of brandy sauce, but if we are lucky, the pudding will be ‘blazing in half a quartern of ignited brandy’ as Charles Dickens vividly describes in A Christmas Carol. I was six years old when I saw Christmas pudding being set down on a gleaming white table, engulfed in blue flames; I was both wonderstruck and terrified because I was certain a spell was being cast on the merry diners. The version of pudding we have these days closely resembles the pudding made for Queen Victoria by her chef Charles Elmé Francatelli, in which (thank goodness for our hearts) the beef suet has been replaced by good ol’ butter. All in all, it’s a grand improvement on the original fruity mush that the British were passing off as pudding in the fourteenth century, which combined meat with dry fruit and was slurped up like soup. The flavours began to shift from savoury to sweet with the introduction of dry fruits (not necessarily only dried plums or prunes which served as popular filling for the Victorians) and gained a reputation for being sinful when the Puritans began to consider it unholy, even advocating for it to be banned during Christmas. Unsubstantiated conjectures have been made that an unkind nursery rhyme — Georgie Porgie, pudding and pie, kissed the girls and made them cry — alludes to the penchant King George I had for plum pie, but it certainly has been present at the Christmas table since his reign.

It is also believed that Queen Victoria, who ascended the throne more than a hundred years after the Pudding King, decided she wanted to have brandy butter with her pudding all year round. In India, Christmas pudding usually comes with a generous helping of what we call brandy sauce — an amalgamation of the American term hard sauce and Britain’s brandy butter. While the former is misleading phrasing (since the condiment is neither hard nor really a sauce), the latter tells us exactly what we are looking for — a soft, spreadable cream made of brandy, butter and sugar. When added to a hot pudding, it begins to melt and drip like a sauce. The traditional brandy sauce on the other hand is similar but made with egg yolks and heavy cream to be poured over all manner of steamed pudding. Even though the mulled wine was kept out of reach when I was a child, I was allowed liberal helpings of brandy sauce and rum-soaked pudding. My parents must have believed that as long as there was more sugar than alcohol in my food, I was safe from developing a taste for liquor. (Of course, that only meant that I grew overly dependent on dessert, but that’s a different piece!)

Spiced, warm beverages are the preferred drinkables at Christmas. It’s the only time of year when one isn’t parched for a fresh lime soda. Mulled wine, eggnog and hot chocolate are popular choices to be poured and distributed into glasses. As a child, I wasn’t allowed any eggnog, and was instead ushered towards the hot chocolate pooling in a cup. My mother allowed me to believe that eggnog was a concoction made with milk and raw egg and shrewdly led me to conclude that I wanted no part of it. I grew up to discover that eggnog really feels like Christmas in a glass, with the warm notes of cinnamon and nutmeg colliding with the brandy to make it a sinful milkshake.

The eggnog originated in Britain as what was known as ‘posset’, a warm ale punch made with milk, eggs and figs, popular with the monks in the Middle Ages — it’s easy to imagine Friar Tuck rolling about Sherwood Forest with a tankard of posset, making it his business to mimic the aristocrats in their culinary choices. When the drink made its way to the American colonies, where the brandy in the recipe was replaced by more affordable rum, it’s possible the name changed, with nog stemming from the word noggin to mean cup. America adopted the eggnog as a winter holiday beverage, which is how we now find it at the Indian Christmas table in its modern avatar as a runny, sozzled custard.

Of course, eggnog isn’t the only spiced, warm beverage people turn to, with plum cake in hand. Mulled wine is just as popular, especially with those who don’t need to combine their sweets with something sweeter. The ancient Greeks and Romans salvaged spoilt wine by infusing it with natural sweeteners such as honey, fruits and even flowers. This also acted as a preservative, allowing travellers to be fortified with wine on long journeys and of course they believed that the beverage would stave away winter illnesses, and the habit was co-opted for Christmas festivities by the Middle Ages. It became especially popular in Northern Europe and by 1843 it was common enough for Dickens to make a passing reference to it in A Christmas Carol when the Ghost of Christmas Past shows Scrooge a Christmas scene where ‘there was cake, and there was negus’, which refers to port wine warmed with sugar or fruit.

My particular ghost of Christmas Past takes me to the last week of school before Christmas holidays, which was always spent carolling in the Big Hall, accompanied by the grand piano, and looking forward to who gets to play Mary or Angel Gabriel in the nativity play. Term usually came to an end with a Christmas fete, an annual event we all counted down the days to. Of course the fete meant lots of games and no classes and the beginning of holidays, but it also meant rows and rows of food stalls lining the basketball court. My parents, who didn’t believe that children should be left to buy their own food, usually gave me enough coins to have a slice of plum cake and attempt canning the cans twice. For the next few hours, I lived on the largesse of friends whose parents thankfully believed that children should indeed be encouraged to buy copious amounts of junk food for themselves. We gambolled from stall to stall, devouring fried momos, marshmallows and ice lollies (despite maternal warnings about sore throats) while trying to curry favours with the popular seniors manning the music stall, to surprise our friends with messages accompanying the songs of the year — ‘Summer of ’69’ never got old no matter which winter it happened to be.

Christmas festivities didn’t end with the last day of school. There were Christmas trees to decorate and Christmas cakes to pre-order from our favourite bakeries, and of course, notes to be sent to Santa, begging for liqueur chocolates because it was the only time in the year alcoholic desserts were permissible. I used to try to stay awake to intercept Santa’s entry, in order to move my sister’s chocolates into my stocking — it would be clear then who was naughty and who was nice! But Santa was careful to make his appearance in the midst of my candy-coated dreams and I would wake up in the morning to find books tantalisingly placed on the mosquito net above my head and chocolates under the Christmas tree on the landing. The rest of the day would be spent in hedonistic pursuit of glazed ham and brandy-‘sauced’ pudding. Having been forced into some restraint these days, my body unable to keep up with the gluttony of my soul, I’m happy to pace my Christmas food through the latter half of December, heralding the season with glazed ham and bringing in the new year with dense hot chocolate. It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year after all.

Photo by Rodion Kutsaiev on Unsplash

Ramona Sen

Ramona Sen is one of the co-founders of content and communications company, Allcap Communications, based in Calcutta. Her first novel, Crème Brûlée, was published by Rupa Publications in 2016 and her novella, Pot Luck, was published by Juggernaut Books in 2018. Calcutta is the city of her soul, the backdrop of all that she writes.