The Christmas season sparks jolly memories of traditions aplenty, but there is one particular tradition that seems to unite us all no matter where on the globe we reside: indulging in savory, tasty, warm, holiday foods. This year why not spice up your Christmas spread and take a recipe or two from our European friends? From seafood spreads to marvelous cakes, this festive European Christmas food will surely satisfy your culinary desires.
The United Kingdom
Party hats and crackers at the ready! In the United Kingdom, Christmas is a time for turkey. While Americans tend to opt more for ham and roast beef at their Christmas feast, turkey is the go-to choice of British revelers. This festive fowl keeps good company, served with pigs in blankets, stuffing, and a mound of vegetables — including, of course, the humble sprout. Oh, and don’t forget the gravy.
A few years ago the British supermarket Waitrose started putting a spin on the classic with their “Turkeys with a Twist.” How does turkey stuffed with Christmas pudding sound to you? It’s just one of many confusing British Christmas traditions.
If you’re in Germany, turkeys are few and far between. That’s because another bird rules the roost: Weihnachtsgans (Christmas goose) festooned with dumplings, red cabbage, oma’s Grünkohl (spiced stewed kale) and eine Knacker (a smoked sausage) are mainstays of every German Christmas feast. However if goose isn’t to your taste, a traditional German Christmas meal can also consist of Hasen (hare) or Rebhuhn, the German word for “partridge.” I guess not all of them end up in a pear tree.
Moving to a place a bit warmer for the holidays, we arrive in Catalonia, an autonomous region in Spain. On the Catalonian table are jamón (dry-cured ham), escudella carn d’olla (minced beef stew), and ternasco (mutton).
At a Dutch gourmetten everyone cooks their own dish on a hot-plate at their table. These usually feature small meats and vegetables which you can put in your own little pan. Every host is different, so the options can vary widely. It’s also often served with a salad to make the meal less meat-heavy.
You’re probably at least somewhat familiar with the concept of fondue, which in the United States mostly consists of shoving various meats into steaming pots of cheese. Swiss Fondue Bourguignonne (or “beef fondue”) is a little different. It has guests dining on thinly sliced beef dipped in cocktail, curry and tartar sauces.
If fish is your favorite, draw inspiration from the Mediterranean, like many Italian-Americans do. Every year Italian-Americans hold the Festa dei sette pesci (Feast of Seven Fishes) with 13 courses in total, serving everything from baccalá (salt-cured cod) to anguilla (smoked or fried eel) and buccino (whelk, also known as sea-snail). The tradition began in Southern Italy as a way to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus (and to respect the Catholic Church’s ban on eating other meat on certain feast days). After a mass immigration of Italians to the United States in the early 20th century, the tradition found a new home.
Today, most Italians aren’t even aware of the Feast of the Seven Fishes, so it’s not technically a European Christmas. But that doesn’t mean Italy doesn’t go all out on their holiday feasts. Christmas Eve comprises smaller plates that do feature fish (though not seven of them), and Christmas itself features heavier meals. Italy is large and varies, though, so a Christmas in Marche won’t taste the same as one in Campania.
Back to the Eastern hemisphere and closer to the arctic circle, Russians enjoy zakuski (appetizers) of pickled fish, shrimp, and pirozhki (stuffed dumplings). This is served alongside a main dish of of pike-perch, eel whiting or kulebyaza (pirog stuffed with salmon). And a Russian Christmas meal isn’t complete without shots of vodka between dishes.
For the more confident eaters out there, try the Norwegian delicacy lutefisk (fish marinated in lye). This aged stockfish, or air-dried white fish, is first put into water and then into lye, giving the final dish a gelatinous texture when cooked. A Norwegian Christmas may have a strong scent, but it’s totally worth it.
Surprise the local butcher by ordering something fit for a feast from Greenland. You could order mattak, which is whale blubber that is traditionally swallowed whole (technically not a fish, but it’s a product from the ocean). Or perhaps you’d prefer kiviak, which is a partially rotted baby auks fermented in seal skins (it allegedly tastes a little like gorgonzola cheese). Kiviak is a delicacy eaten by the Inuits of Greenland, particularly around Christmas time. It takes about three months to prepare, so perhaps this isn’t a recipe you should try to cook yourself.
Delicacies For Dessert
If kiviak isn’t to your taste, we can return to the real reason for the season: holiday sweets. At a German Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas Market) you can discover a medley of ginger treats. And if you’re not near a market, you can totally make these at home. A Hansel and Gretel style Pfefferkuchenhaus (gingerbread house), Christstollen (fruit cake made with marzipan), and Plätzchen und Lebkuchen (chocolate and ginger cookies) will all spice up your European Christmas celebration.
Turrón (sticky nougat) is a favorite in Spain, so much so that in some shops you’ll find up to 80 different varieties of this sweet Christmas dessert. It’s so popular that the Spanish supermarket Mercadona sold 24,000 pieces a day in a single month in 2016 after releasing their novelty turrón flavor: chocolate with fried peanuts and honey.
Many Italian families are divided when it comes to choosing between Panettone and Pandoro, so both usually end up on the table. These are both festive fruit cakes, made from a sweet bread loaf, that can reach 15 cm high (about 6 inches for the Americans here) and weigh up to 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds).
Sweden And Germany
Returning to those delightful German Christmas markets, it wouldn’t be the holidays without a mug or two of Glühwein, which English-speakers call mulled wine (though it literally translates to “glow wine”). Or if you’re in Sweden you might go for glögg, which is similar, though it sometimes mixes in stronger alcohol to really keep people warm in the winter. And these are just two of the endless variations of mulled wine that can be found all around Europe.
Spain, a little further south, doesn’t need the warmth of mulled wine quite as much. Spaniards opt for a simpler cocktail: gin and tonic. It doesn’t need to be too simple though, and some Spanish bartenders mix in other herbs, spices and seasonal fruits.
In Denmark, the most common Christmas drink is snaps. While that might put you in mind of schnapps, they’re not exactly the same thing. Danish snaps are almost always akvavit, a distilled Scandinavian spirit.
However and wherever you plan on celebrating this Christmas season, there’s more than one way to bring the traditions of European Christmas into your home.