Illustration by Victoria Fernandez.
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 marvellous cakes, these festive European Christmas dishes will surely satisfy your culinary desires.
Party hats and crackers at the ready, in the UK, it’s time for turkey. This festive fowl keeps good company, being 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? Just one of many confusing British Christmas traditions.
If you’re in Germany, you better preorder that Thanksgiving turkey in advance because they are far and few. 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 Christman 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 could end up in a pear tree.
Moving to a place a bit warmer for the holidays, on the Catalonian table are Jamón (dry-cured ham), escudella carn d’olla (minced beef stew), and ternasco (mutton). Yum!
Not entirely a European Christmas, but 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 comes from Southern Italy and is said to celebrate the birth of baby Jesus.
Closer to the arctic circle, Russians enjoy zakuski (appetizers) of pickled fish, shrimp, and pirozhki (stuffed dumplings), with a main dish of of pike-perch, eel whiting or kulebyaza (pirog stuffed with salmon) — though of course, the meal is not complete without shots of vodka between dishes!
For the more adventurous 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 little smelly, but apparently very tasty.
Otherwise, why not surprise the local butcher by ordering something fit for a feast from Greenland — mattak (whale blubber), for example, which is traditionally swallowed whole, or kiviak – partially rotted baby auks, fermented in seal skins, which tastes a little like gorgonzola cheese.
Delicacies for Dessert
Do you have more of a sweet tooth? Discover a medley of ginger treats at German Weihnachtsmärkte (Christmas Markets): A Hansel and Gretel style Pfefferkuchenhaus (gingerbread house), Christstollen (fruit cake made with marzipan), and Plätzchen und Lebkuchen (chocolate and ginger cookies).
Turrón (sticky nougat) is a favourite in Spain, and you’ll find up to 80 varieties of this sweet on food delivery site, Ulabox.com. It’s so popular that Spanish supermarket Mercadona sold 24,000 pieces a day in a single month in 2016 after releasing their novelty turrón flavour — chocolate with fried peanut and honey.
In Italy, families are divided when it comes to choosing between Panettone and Pandoro, so both usually end up on the table. These festive fruit cakes can reach 15 cm high and weigh 1 kilogram.
Having a party?
At a Dutch gourmetten everyone cooks their own dish on a hot-plate at their table, while a Swiss Fondue Bourguignonne has guests dining on thinly sliced beef dipped in cocktail, curry and tartar sauces.
The French also celebrate in a traditionally sophisticated manner: A fête française, or just Les Fêtes for short, features such novelties as coquilles Saint-Jacques (scallops with herbs and cheese), foie gras (goose or duck liver), oysters, lobster, crayfish, and 13 desserts, which always include the national favorite bûche de Noël which is similar to a yule log.
And Christmas isn’t Christmas without emptying the drinks cabinet. A tankard of Glögg or Glühwein (mulled wine) fills every hand in Sweden and Germany whereas the Spanish prefer a standard gin and tonic, and for the Danes it has to be schnapps.