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December 8, 2011

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Lavish Christmas feasts

TRACING the history of Christmas feasts, John H. Isacs finds that people around the world have eaten their fill on the holiday for close to 2,000 years. Meals include everything from roast lamb, fish and, of course, turkey to Japan's preference for KFC.

In many countries around the world the Christmas feast is the most important meal of the year. In modern times, the growing hegemony of roasted turkey on Christmas tables threatens some more ancient customs.

Who's to blame? In the mid-16th century the rotund King Henry VIII is credited as being the first English monarch to serve turkey at Christmas but it wasn't until about a century later that turkey became more widely popular in England. By the time that Scrooge sent Bob Cratchitt a large turkey in Charles Dicken's "A Christmas Carol" first published in 1843, turkey and Christmas were an institution throughout England and because of the reach of the British Empire became increasingly popular in the four corners of the world. Today, from Europe to the Americas where the giant fowl originated, to Africa and some countries in Asia you will find this weighty bird proudly perched on multicultural dinner tables. While I certainly enjoy delving into a plump roasted turkey, let's take a look at more historic as well as more diverse Christmas foods.

Ancient and Medieval feasts

The precursor holidays to the Christian Christmas holiday were pagan celebrations held on or around the 25th of December to celebrate the winter solstice. The rather wild gatherings of meals often lasted three to four days until attendees succumbed to drink and exhaustion. With the birth of Christ and advent of Christianity the date took on greater meaning but we have little proof of the first Christmas dinner. The Roman Empire outlawed the celebration of Christmas for three centuries until the Emperor Constantine I himself became a Christian in AD 312. The earliest documented celebration of Christmas on the 25th of December was in AD 354, but lavish feasts to celebrate the nativity were probably held much earlier. Typical foods at these ancient feasts included dates, figs, apples, wild boar and venison, fish from the Mediterranean Sea and numerous desserts and alcoholic beverages sweetened with honey. Like the earlier pagan celebrations the Roman feasts would last for days and involve copious gluttony, drunkenness and lewd behavior.

By Medieval times, dishes we would recognize today like mincemeat sweetened by nuts and fruits and Christmas cakes and cookies were popular holiday treats. Nobility devoured huge amounts of wood-roasted fowl and meats along with expensive sweets and wines while the peasants had to make due with more simple fare like cabbage flavored with onions and lesser cuts of meats along with whatever mushrooms and winter vegetables they could forage from the forest. Home brewed beer was the prevalent beverage. It's amusing to note that while certainly not as palate pleasing, the peasants' meal was far more healthy than the high calorie and high cholesterol foods enjoyed by the nobles.

Modern feasts

Despite the growing hegemony of roasted turkey on global Christmas menus today, the gourmet cultures of the world still offer an intriguing and delicious diversity of Christmas foods. Not surprisingly the ingredients and cooking techniques vary greatly according to geography, culture and weather.

In European countries like Poland, the Czech Republic and Austria many meals commence with varying styles of fish soup and are often followed by roasted or fried carp accompanied by potato salad made with onions, carrots, eggs and mayonnaise with chopped pickles sometimes added. The best potato salads are made the day before so the ingredients can mellow and integrate. The result is one of the world's great comfort foods. In these religious countries, meat is often avoided in deference to the Catholic custom of not eating meats on a holy day.

In France, Christmas meals are enjoyed after the midnight Mass and often start with an abundance of fresh raw oysters, continue with other typical French delicacies like goose liver, escargot and roasted capon, goose or venison and almost always end with the classic Buche de Noel. The Buche de Noel literally means Christmas log and refers to the traditional Yule log burned during the holy day. Genoese sponge cake is spread with butter cream and sometimes other flavorings that are shaped into a log and coated with chocolate butter cream that's textured to look like a log replete with meringue mushrooms and small Christmas figures.

Roasted goose traditionally graces German tables on Christmas Eve. As I am ethnically half German, I vividly remember the wonderful aromas of the goose being slow-roasted by my great grandmother who grew up in Germany and the succulent and moist meat and beautifully crispy brown skin. Unfortunately, she passed away many years ago and I've never been able to relive this hedonistic German gourmet experience.

On the Iberian Peninsula, classic dishes like bacalhau, dried cod, langoustines, roasted lamb and rich almond and chocolate desserts are typical Christmas fare. Of course, more than a few Spanish tables will also feature the national favorite paella rice dish.

Some of the most fun Christmas foods are enjoyed in Central and South America. In Honduras and neighboring countries spicy tamales of varying types are popular while Mexicans enjoy big feasts that include flavorful meat stews, cod fish seasoned with rosemary and various cheeses, fruits and local sweets. In Brazil a great bounty of local fruits, vegetables and nuts are accompanied by many types of roasted meats. Not to be outdone by their neighbors, Argentineans love to feast on a three-inch thick cut of steak called Ninos Envuettas that's stuffed with ground meat, spices, hard-boiled eggs and onions. Roasted peacock garnished with its own colorful feathers is another favorite.

Strange feasts

Perhaps the funniest Christmas meal is the one enjoyed by the Japanese. For a people whose cuisine is the very epitome of freshness, delicacy and health it is indeed perplexing that Kentucky Fried Chicken has become the Christmas meal of choice. Japanese friends tell me that some people book tables at KFC months ahead of time while others wait in line for hours to enjoy their bucket of fried chicken. Despite dedicated journalistic research, I've been unable to come up with a definitive reason why KFC has become the preferred Christmas feast other than many Japanese believe there is a striking resemblance between Colonel Sanders and Santa Claus. This may be amusing, but the next strange Christmas food is utterly disgusting.

In Greenland, a traditional Christmas treat is a small seagull-like bird called Auk. Months before Christmas the dead birds are wrapped in a seal skin and placed under a rock. When Christmas arrives the small birds are dug up and the rotten liquefied guts removed then the preserved meat, skin and bones of the diminutive creature are consumed whole.

Recognized as one of the 12 stinkiest foods in the world at a recent gourmet event, I've only met one person in my life that actually enjoyed this Christmas treat. He rather enthusiastically told me it tasted a great deal like blue cheese.


I couldn't possibly finish this column without mentioning something about wines because a feast without wine is clearly a misnomer. Depending on what you'll be eating this Christmas, the ideal wines are as diverse as the foods of your feast.

In light of the plethora of ingredients, flavors and textures in most Christmas meals it's important to pick wines that can be paired with many different foods. One country that offers a wide range of wines that will pair well with almost anything you eat this Christmas is Spain.

In the white wine category a good choice would be a lively and fresh Albarino from the northeast of Spain that has enough acidity to awaken the flavors of your meal. Though not widely known in many markets including China, a good Albarino is one of the most food friendly white wines offering bracing acidity and wonderfully dry fruit flavors. Like good Sauvignon Blanc wines, top Albarino wines are highly aromatic.

For reds I recommend balanced wines that combine generous dark fruit flavors with mouth-coating, supple tannins to facilitate digestion. Good examples are classic Tempranillo wines from Rioja and Ribera del Duero and for something more modern but equally delicious try a Cabernet Sauvignon from Penedes.

Of course, quality sparklers are always perfect to start a meal. If the meal consists mostly of seafood and white meats it's fine to continue savoring bubbles throughout the meal. In part because of its very Christmas color, I often enjoy a nice rose sparkler on Christmas. Keeping our focus on Spanish wines, I suggest a quality CAVA that's made in the same method as Champagne but with different grapes.

When the sweets are presented at the table, it's time to have a Sherry Christmas. Sherry is Spain's classic fortified wine and has several styles of sweet wines. Try an off-sweet Medium, sweet Cream or super sweet Pedro Ximenez as all three wines will gracefully complement your desserts and help your digestive system recover from the meal.

Sorry, but I have no suggestions for the rotten Auk bird other than a strong dose of stomach-soothing digestive medicine.

Martin Codex Albarino, 2008
Region: Rias Baixas, Spain
Varieties: Albarino
Aging method/Potential: 12 months on the lees in stainless steel tanks/enjoy now or within 2 years.
Serving and food pairing: Served well-chilled about 8°C; nice as an aperitif, but perfect with seafood, including classic Spanish paella.
Price/Importer: 365 yuan/Everwines
Body: Dry/Sweet:

one of the best wines to enjoy with seafood; this wine features a light yellow color with greenish hints, exuberantly fragrant nose of citrus fruit and wild flowers and fresh white and yellow fruit flavors with a fresh acidity and persistent finish.

Torres Mas La Plana, 2006
Region: Penedes, Spain
Variety: Cabernet Sauvignon
Aging Method/Potential: 12 months in oak/drinking nicely now and can be cellared for a decade.
Serving & Food Pairing: allow 30+ minutes for breathing and serve at 18°C; match with grilled or roasted meats including suckling pig
Price/Importer: 572 yuan/Everwines

one of the surest bets as a quality red wine, the 2006 Mas La Plana is a smooth and delicious international style wine with a deep purple-red color, cassis and exotic spices nose and flavors of dark berries and a hint of chocolate; the 2006 vintage in Penedes was excellent.

Freixenet Cordon Rosado Brut, NV
Region: Catalunya, Spain
Varieties: 70% Trepat, 30% Garnacha
Aging method/Potential: 12-18 months bottle aging/drink now or over the next 18 months.
Serving and food pairing: Serve well-chilled, about 7-8°C; lovely as an aperitif but also quite nice with a variety of salads, seafood and white meats.
Price/Importer: 143 yuan/ASC
Body: Dry/Sweet:

Great value rosé bubbly, this wine features a bright strawberry-pink color, medium-size bubbles, lively nose of red fruits and flowers and plenty of fresh red fruit and citrus flavor and a pleasingly clean acidic finish.

Williams & Humbert, Canasta Cream, NV
Region: Jerez-Xérès-Sherry, Spain
Variety: Palomino, Pedro Ximénez
Aging method/Potential: Solera system with 6+ years in American oak/best within 3-5 years of purchase.
Serving and food pairing: Serve at 8°C or on-the-rocks; match with all types of desserts including cakes, cookies and fruits as well as spicy Asian dishes.
Price/Importer: 268 yuan/Horse Dragon

Popular sweet Cream Sherry, this wine has a mahogany color, lively nose of nuts and raisins and generous stewed fruit and nut flavors with a smooth lasting finish.


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