Earlier this month I was asked by a museum to do some research on what food the Victorians enjoyed eating at Christmas and how they celebrated, as part of their forthcoming exhibition. Having been given a good reason to dust off my cookery books of the era, I thought I would help you get in the festive mood with what I’ve found about how the Victorians did Christmas.
Isabella Beeton, that doyenne of cookery and household management to the aspiring middle classes of the time, will be included, but with the Victorian era spanning from 1837 to 1901 there are many less obvious cookery writers to choose from, such as Alexis Soyer, Eliza Acton and Francatelli, who was Queen Victoria’s Head chef. Queen Victoria apparently favoured the writings of a much earlier cookery writer -Elizabeth Raffald, notes taken from her book were found amongst the Queens journals. I think it is no surprise that she perhaps didn’t take to Mrs Beetons writings, that well known enormous book of cookery and household management was first published in 1861 and this was the year that Queen Victoria lost both her Mother and Husband.
This time last year I wrote here about the tradition of Stir Up Sunday, which in 2014 falls on the 23rd November. This would be the day that the family would traditionally make their Christmas pudding, which can trace its origins back to medieval times. The Christmas cake is most definitely a Victorian invention, along with so many other festive foods and customs. It is my Classic Christmas cake recipe that I share with you this month.
The Victorian era must surely be the period in history when Christmas reigned supreme. They brought together the very best of the festive season, drawing together religion, charity, friends and family around a blazing hearth to enjoy the best food and drink of the year and exchange gifts. Typical dishes would be mince pies, these used to be made with minced beef, alcohol and spices, but this evolved into the beef being replaced with the animal fat- suet. Then there is the Christmas card image of a perfect round pudding with a sprig of holly on top. Interestingly this was only made possible by a small invention of the time called muslin cloth, which enabled puddings both sweet and savoury to be rolled into a ball and boiled or steamed in the buttered and floured cloth.
By definition Christmas has of course been celebrated for over 2000 years, but it is the Victorians that are responsible for many of the traditions that are synonymous with our modern Christmas. Such as Christmas crackers, cards, carols, the tree, pantomime (oh no they didn’t!) and even the image of Santa Claus. Although origins of many of these things can be found in medieval times and in Pagan festivals, it was the Victorians that brought all of these things together and made them new and improved.
A German American artist of the time called Thomas Nast created the picture of the rotund, jolly, bearded suited Santa. This image first appeared in Harper’s Weekly in 1863, replacing the taller Saint Nicholas figure of before. Coca Cola started using Nast’s Santa in their advertising campaigns from the 1930’s onwards, using just red and white on his coat and dropping the green that was there before. So the image of this most precious childhood figure was reinvented and painted in our minds forever more. (If you are a child that has by chance happened upon this article - nobody really knows what Santa looks like for sure because he is of course magical and you need to be in bed nice and early on Christmas Eve to make sure he comes with your pressies!)
The Victorian Author most associated with the era was Charles Dickens; his writing conjured up warmth, charity and goodness and the gathering of friends and family in celebration around a blazing fire to share stories, gifts, food and drink. The many films made of his classic “A Christmas Carol” and the countless retellings are testament to the power of this wonderful story. Every year there are shopping centres, shopping malls, markets and the like with the “Dickensian Christmas theme”, it seems to capture the very essence of what we want Christmas to be. I am lucky enough to have a copy of Dining with Dickens and Drinking with Dickens, two books written and inscribed by his Great Grandson Cedric. These two books really confirm the importance that Dickens novels had on how the population of the time aspired to celebrate Christmas.
Like most of our Christian festivals, there just under the surface are the Pagan origins and Christmas is no exception. A prime example of this is with trees, holly and mistletoe being brought into our homes for good luck and decoration. Most families would regard having a Christmas tree as essential, but this really only started in the form we know today, when Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree from his native Germany. Pictures of the royal family gathered around a beautifully decorated tree at Windsor were shown in newspapers of the day and the trend very quickly caught on. German confectionary such as Gingerbread also became very fashionable and an established part of our festive fayre, in fact Gingerbread Houses are more popular now than they have ever been.
Our cherished Christmas traditions feel like they have always been around but in reality they are relatively modern. The Victorians with all of their innovations are still at the very heart of our how we celebrate Christmas today.
Now for my Classic Christmas Cake recipe, it needs to be made by the end of the month in order to give it time to mature. Given the age of this recipe I hope you will forgive it being in imperial and not metric. It is a good old fashioned dark fruit cake with no fancy ingredients or twists. It keeps really well and tastes like a very splendid homemade Christmas cake that I hope Queen Victoria would have approved of but perhaps not be amused by.
Sadie’s Classic Christmas cake
7” round deep cake tin, scales, baking parchment or greaseproof paper, scissors, pencil, pastry brush, 2 large mixing bowls, little bowl, clingfilm, measuring jug, measuring spoons, large metal spoon, fork, pallet knife, sieve, zester, juicer, little knife and chopping board, hand held mixer, mug , foil and a cake box.
Grated zest of one lemon (unwaxed)
Grated zest and juice of one large orange (unwaxed)
A good 2 fl oz brandy
5oz Glace Cherries - halved
4oz unsalted butter
4oz dark brown sugar
3 medium free range eggs at room temperature as this will help to avoid curdling
4oz strong white bread flour
1 1/2 level tsp mixed spice
1 level tsp ground ginger
1/2tsp grated nutmeg
2oz ground almonds
Little bit of melted butter for greasing
Slug Brandy for feeding cake after it is baked.
I find it easier to prepare everything on day one and then bake the cake on day two.
First of all please don’t use spices that have been hanging around in your cupboard since last Christmas and are probably two years out of date, you know they’re in there lurking! If you are going to go to the effort and expense of making your own lovely Christmas cake, then you don’t want to spoil your cake mixture with spices that have lost their flavour at best or taste of manky old sawdust at worst.
Zest your orange and lemon, preferably organic and unwaxed. If you can’t get unwaxed then pour boiling water over the fruit in a bowl and rinse off and repeat a couple of times, otherwise you are just grating wax into your cake mix. Dry off well and zest and then juice the orange into a measuring jug. Add the generous 2 fl oz of brandy to the zest and juice and put to one side.
Weigh out your Sultanas, Currants and Raisins into a bowl together. Pour over the brandy and juice mix.
Weigh and half your cherries and then mix them in with your dried fruit and cover with clingfilm for the night.
To make the baking super easy in the morning, grease your tin and double line it. This is important to protect the outside of the cake as it bakes for a long time. Melt a little bit of butter to grease the tin before you line it and then with the pastry brush paint on top of the greaseproof paper too. I hate messing about with lining tins, but on this occasion it is really important as it protects this special cake. Also if you don’t want to decorate it with marzipan and icing it is super important to not overcook the outside. The way I do it is to draw around the base of your tin and cut two circles out. Put your first circle onto the bottom of the greased tin. Then cut a strip deep enough to go up the sides of the tin and about an inch above the top. I cut little slashes in the bottom of the paper about half an inch apart, as if you were making a toy castle, this then ensures the fanned bit sits on the bottom and you can curve it around the inside of the tin a bit easier. Use the melted butter to stick the paper to the side. Put the second disc in the bottom and repeat the sides.
Weigh your butter and sugar into a large mixing bowl and cover.
Weigh your flour, spices and almonds together into a bowl and cover.
Preheat your oven to 140c/275F/Gas1
Lightly beat your eggs into a jug.
Beat together the butter and sugar with a hand held whisk/mixer, until pale and fluffy.
Gradually whisk in the eggs.
Sieve in the flour mix and fold in.
Tip your fruit in and mix everything together, it should be a good soft dropping consistency.
Spoon it into the tin and level it off
Put it into your preheated oven for approximately 2 hours.
It is ready when it feels springy to the touch and a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Cool in the tin on a cooking rack.When cool prick the top of the cake all over, put a slug of brandy in a mug and with a clean pastry brush, brush the brandy all over the top of the cake so it soaks in.
Take it out of the greaseproof lining that it baked in and wrap in fresh greaseproof paper and then wrap the cake in foil and store in a cake box somewhere cool and dark to let the flavours develop and mature.
This fruit cake is delicious with or without any marzipan and icing and I serve it at Christmas with just a sprig of holly on top, which is also very traditionally Victorian. Just marzipan and ice it as you would normally if you do like all the trimmings. If you make this cake I would love to see pictures of your finished cake, please email me your photos through to the address below.
Sadie Hirst is a member of the prestigious British Society of Baking and Select Lincolnshire, which promotes Lincolnshire’s amazing produce. She is passionate about preserving our rich baking heritage, recreating and collecting historical recipes; Sadie is often asked to publicly speak about historical cookery writing and works with local organisations on food history research. If you would like any of Sadie’s previous Target recipes please visit www.rjhirstfamilybutchers.co.uk or email email@example.com