A Taste of Christmas Past

These days there is no escaping the fact that turkey is the centrepiece for many a Christmas meal. But, this wasn’t always the case.

A team led by Professor Giles Gasper from our Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies has delved into records from as far back as medieval times to find out what a Christmas feast looked like over 700 years ago and, spoiler alert, there was no turkey!

Seasonal fare

Records including the household accounts of the Bishop of Hereford’s Christmas feast in 1289 revealed a hearty meal of beef, partridge, goose, venison and wild boar.

There was even a stuffed boar head, although most likely this was for decoration (later becoming a dish of its own).

Other records from the period show a flair for culinary inventions including dishes made to look like everything from mythic beasts to castles, or looking like one food but tasting like another.

Warming wines and sweet treats

Records also showed a plentiful supply of beverages including wine and ale, as well as recipes for a warming spiced wine, or ‘clary’. This seasonal drink included cinnamon, ginger, mace, nutmeg and cloves - not dissimilar to the mulled wine many still enjoy today.

For those with a sweet tooth, a medieval Christmas feast would have included gingerbread, a spiced crème or custard, and even custard tarts with fruits such as figs, dates and raisins.

Bringing the past to life

This research is part of a decade-long collaboration between Giles and Andy Hook, the proprietor of Blackfriars Restaurant in Newcastle (UK), to bring medieval recipes to a modern audience through workshops, lectures and, most recently, online cook-along courses.