A Traditional British Christmas Dinner

If we were to run a poll on what Britons would be eating for Christmas Dinner this year, there’s a good chance turkey would be at the top of the list.

But did you know that it took centuries for turkey to become the main course?

Legend has it that King Henry VIII was the first English monarch to enjoy turkey on Christmas Day.

So keep your head about you and do as kings do—tuck into the turkey!

Oven roasted brine-soaked turkey. Credit TheKohser
Oven roasted brine-soaked turkey. Credit TheKohser

In medieval England, the wealthy dined on goose, woodcock, venison, and with the king’s permission, swan.

If the poor folk were lucky, they might get some of the “pluck” from the venison—the heart, liver, tongue and brain.

Known as ‘umbles, it would be mixed with vegetables and spices and made into a pie.

Ever heard the expression “to eat humble pie”? This is where it comes from.

For dessert, the medieval folk would have enjoyed a pudding made from spiced oatmeal, currants, dried fruit, and egg yolk.

It was the forerunner to our perennial favourite, the Christmas Pudding.

Christmas Pudding. Credit James Petts
Christmas Pudding. Credit James Petts

By the time Queen Elizabeth I came along, people were feasting on sweetmeats, including collops (slices) of bacon, coated with ground almonds and sugar.

Sounding more like something you’d choke on was a beverage called “lambswool”.

It was made from hot cider or ale, nutmeg, ginger, and mashed baked apple.

Lambswool Drink. Credit Oakden Traditional Cookware
Lambswool Drink. Credit Oakden Traditional Cookware

When the baked apple mash was whisked or poured vigorously between two large vessels, it created a froth resembling lambswool.

“Next crown the bowl full
With gentle Lambs wool,
Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger,
With store of ale too,
And thus ye must do
To make the Wassail a swinger”

‘Oxford Night Caps’, by Richard Cook, Published 1835.

For Georgians of the 18th and early 19th centuries, Twelfth Night on January 5 was a highlight of the Christmas festivities.

It was celebrated with Twelfth Cake, a precursor to our modern Christmas Cake, which traditionally included a dried bean and a dried pea.

Christmas Cake. Credit James Petts, flickr
Christmas Cake. Credit James Petts, flickr

As part of the fun and games on Twelfth Night, the man who had the slice with the bean was made King for the evening, and the woman whose slice contained the pea was crowned Queen.

During the earlier years of Queen Victoria’s reign, most families couldn’t afford turkey at Christmas so made do with beef (in the north) and goose (in the south).

Poorer folks caught their own rabbits.

Catching Rabbits by William Sidney Mount, 1839
Catching Rabbits by William Sidney Mount, 1839

In Charles Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol, it would have been very unusual indeed for someone in Bob Cratchit’s position to receive such a large turkey on Christmas Day.

'It was a Turkey' by Charles Edmund Brock. Credit Philip V. Allingham
“It was a Turkey” by Charles Edmund Brock. Credit Philip V. Allingham

Our seasonal favorite mince pies were originally made from meat, but tastes changed in the latter half of the 19th century to the spiced fruit filling that we prefer today—even though we still call it “mincemeat”.

Mince Pies. Credit beck, flickr
Mince Pies. Credit beck, flickr

By the turn of the 20th century, most people were feasting on turkey for Christmas dinner.

And it has remained the most popular Christmas main course ever since.

Choose your favourite trimmings below.

White turkeys by Charles Courtney Curran, 1899
White turkeys by Charles Courtney Curran, 1899

Do you like all the trimmings with your Christmas dinner?

Here are 10 of the most popular.

Pick your favorites.

Whittaker, Andrew (2009) Britain: be fluent in British life and culture Thorogood Publishing, 2009
Christmas dinner through the ages: Festive food from the Medieval period onwards

8 Surprising Facts About British Tea Traditions

There’s hardly a more British custom than a nice cup of tea. This magical elixir helps Brits get through the day and seems to make problems disappear … at least temporarily! It is said that tea was our secret weapon during the dark days of World War II.

80% of Britons drink tea and consume 165 million cups daily, or 60.2 billion cups a year!

Tea drinking in Britain has spawned several lasting traditions over the centuries.

Here are 7 facts that you might not know about British tea traditions:

1. 10th-century monks invented Cream Tea

Ruin of the abbey cloister at Tavistock, Devon, England
Ruin of the abbey cloister at Tavistock, Devon, England

Not much remains today, but these ruins were once a Benedictine Abbey at Tavistock in Devon.

There is evidence in manuscripts that Monks served bread with clotted cream and strawberry preserves to local workers who helped rebuild the Abbey after it was damaged in a Viking raid in 997AD.

It was an instant hit among the locals, and the monks started serving it to passing travelers.

The Devonshire cream tea was born.

Today, Devonshire cream tea typically comprises a pot of tea, along with scones, strawberry preserves, clotted cream, and sometimes curds and butter.

Credit Shane Global
Credit Shane Global

2. A hungry Duchess originated the tradition of Afternoon Tea

It was around four o’clock in the afternoon at Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire, England, during the early 1840s. Anna Russell, seventh Duchess of Bedford noticed she had a “sinking feeling” at this time of day.

Dinner would not be served until eight o’clock, so she ordered tea with bread and butter to help stave off her hunger.

Woburn Abbey. Credit Jason Ballard, Ljuba brank.
Woburn Abbey. Credit Jason Ballard, Ljuba brank.

When the Duchess asked friends to join her, the idea soon spread, becoming the popular social occasion of Afternoon Tea that we know and love today.

3. Low Tea is “posher” than High Tea

Isn’t tea just a drink?

Tea” is used to denote both a beverage and different types of meal.

Two terms sometimes used in the Victorian Era were “low tea” and “high tea“.

Low tea was served on low lounge chairs and sofas with low tables (similar to today’s coffee tables), and high tea was served on high chairs around a table.

"Low Tea" (Afternoon Tea)
“Low Tea” (Afternoon Tea)

But here’s the surprising part: “low tea” was enjoyed by the aristocracy and “high tea” by the working class.

Confusion has arisen because “high tea” simply sounds classier than “low tea“.

Which leads us to our next surprising fact …

4. High Tea is not the same as Afternoon Tea

Afternoon tea is derived from the social tradition started by the Duchess of Bedford. Taken at around 4 – 6 pm, it typically comprises Devonshire cream tea and an assortment of delicate crustless sandwiches, sweets, and cakes.

In short, this is the “posh” tea, served today in country tea rooms or city hotels.

Left: Afternoon Tea, Fairmont Château, Lake Lousie. Credit Elsie Hui. Top right: Afternoon tea at the Sanderson Hotel. credit Su-Lin. Bottom right: Victoria Sponge slice. Credit Carwyn Lloyd Jones.
Left: Afternoon Tea, Fairmont Château, Lake Lousie. Credit Elsie Hui. Top right: Afternoon tea at the Sanderson Hotel. credit Su-Lin. Bottom right: Victoria Sponge slice. Credit Carwyn Lloyd Jones.

High Tea is traditionally an end of day meal for the working class, comprising things like cold meats, pies, salad, pickles, bread and butter, cakes, and a pot of tea.

Usually shortened to just “tea”, the term is still used in the Midlands and the North of England.

If you visit the north of England today, you may hear someone say, “I’ve got to get home and make the tea for the kids”, or the northern tendency to personalize with “our/us”, as in “what’s for us tea?”

"What's for us tea?" Credit Paul Townsend
“What’s for us tea?”

5. Cream Tea in Devon and Cornwall are different

Anyone trying Cream Tea for the first time may wonder “do I add the cream first or the preserves?”

Thanks to the rivalry between Devon and Cornwall, it doesn’t matter. Phew, that’s a relief!

A subtle distinction between the way Cream Tea is eaten in the counties of Devon and Cornwall is the order of applying the silky-smooth clotted cream and the delicious strawberry preserves.

Left: the Cornish scone method. Right: the Devon (or Devonshire) method.
Left: the Cornish scone method. Right: the Devon (or Devonshire) method.

But in Devon, the clotted cream is applied first, with the strawberry preserves second.

6. How you pronounce “scone” says a lot about where you’re from

How do you pronounce “scone”?
Research conducted by YouGov

According to global market research and data analytics company YouGov, the pronunciation of the word is influenced by two main factors: region and social grade. Individuals in the North (60%) and Scotland (80%) predominantly pronounce scone like “gone”, whereas those in the Midlands (56%) and London (50%) are more inclined to opt for pronouncing scone like “bone”.

Social class also influences the pronunciation. Those in the working class (semi-skilled/unskilled/unemployed) tend to be evenly split on how they pronounce “scone”, whereas those in the middle class (professional/skilled) tend to favour pronouncing scone like “gone” by a significant margin.

7. For a “proper cuppa”, add milk last

Milk Last. Credit Matt Baume

If you really want to drink tea like they do on Downton Abbey, you will add your milk last.

Inferior china cups were inclined to crack when hot tea was poured into them, but the finest china was much stronger and didn’t crack.

So putting the milk in last became a way for the upper class to show they had the best china.

Milk in last also lets you judge the strength more easily—too much milk can ruin the perfect cup of tea.

8. “Pinkies Up” is out

According to etiquette expert William Hanson, an outstretched little finger has apparently become one of Afternoon Tea’s most common faux pas and is considered rude in most social settings. One misconception is that it somehow helps balance the cup.

Here’s a video from William giving us some useful etiquette tips on how to enjoy Afternoon Tea the “proper” way.

Sources and Additional Reading
Were cream teas “invented” in Tavistock?
Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History by Andrea Broomfield

The British Pork Pie—History and Tradition

In cockney rhyming slang pork pies, porkie pies, or just porkies, means lies.

But rest assured it’s no word of a lie that Brits love pork pies!

Pork pies are made with roughly chopped or minced pork and pork jelly sealed in a special pastry used for making savory pies called “hot water crust”.

Pork Pie from a Farmer’s Market. Credit Su-Lin

The jelly helps preserve the pie’s freshness by filling in air gaps within the pie, which is usually eaten cold.

Porkies. Credit Ian ‘Harry’ Harris

On a sunny day, it’s difficult to beat sitting at a bench in a pub garden and tucking into a ploughman’s lunch and a pint of ale, or a hearty sandwich with pork pie and Branston, or even pork pie on its own with Branston pickle and mustard. Oh yes!

Ploughman’s Board of pork pie, scotch egg, mature cheddar, artisan bread, pickled onions, Branston pickle, and celery. Credit Matt, flickr
Pub lunch of ale, sandwich, pork pie & pickles. Credit Sebastien Cevey
Pork Pie with Branston Pickle and Mustard. Credit Kake, flickr

Pork pies can be found all over the UK under various brand names in supermarkets. But there is one place that is so special, it has its own signpost.

Pork Pie is Important. Credit Rob Watling

Melton Mowbray Pork Pies

There are pork pies and there are Melton Mowbray pork pies.

Named after the market town in Leicestershire, Melton pies have been handmade in Melton Mowbray since the late 18th century.

The uncured meat is chopped rather than minced and the crust is formed by hand to give an irregular shape. Unlike molded pies, the pies are cooked free-standing so that the sides bow outwards during baking.

Unwrapping a Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. Credit ben dalton, flickr

Melton Mowbray is a beautiful town surrounded by ancient monuments and hundreds of buildings with special historical interest.

The name “Mowbray” dates back to the Lords of the Manor of feudal Norman rule—namely Robert de Mowbray, described by English chronicler and Benedictine monk Orderic Vitalis as,

Powerful, rich, bold, fierce in war, haughty, he despised his equals and, swollen with vanity, disdained to obey his superiors. He was of great stature, strong, swarthy and hairy. Daring and crafty, stern and grim, he was given more to meditation than speech, and in conversation scarce ever smiled.

It’s a shame pork pies hadn’t been invented yet—they would have given him reason to smile more often.

St Marys church, Melton Mowbray. Credit Russ Hamert
View of Burton Street, Melton Mowbray. Credit Russ Hamert

There lies an ode to the Melton pie in the 1961 book Eating and Drinking – An Anthology for Epicures

A Melton Mowbray Pork-pie
Strange pie that is almost a passion!
O passion immoral for pie!
Unknown are the ways that they fashion
Unknown and unseen of the eye.
The pie that is marbled and mottled,
The pie that digests with a sigh:
For all is not Bass that is bottled,
And all is not pork that is pie.Richard Le Gallienne.

In the town center sits Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe with the black and white fronted Half Moon pub next door.

Dickensons and Morris Pie Shop Melton Moybray. Credit Russ Hamer
Dickensons and Morris Pie Shop Melton Moybray. Credit Russ Hamer

The shop is home to Dickinson & Morris who have been baking pork pies in Melton Mowbray since 1851.

Since 2009, Melton Mowbray pork pies have enjoyed PGI status (Protected Geographical Indication), which means that only pork pies made in a zone around Melton can use the Melton Mowbray name on their packaging.

A British tradition lives on!

Other pork pie shops worthy of note

J Stanforth – The Celebrated Pork Pie Establishment in Skipton, North Yorkshire. Credit robert wade
Eley’s Pork Pies of Ironbridge, Shropshire. Credit Matt Brown

The Pork Pie Hat

The pork pie hat refers to several styles of hat popular since mid-19th century—and bearing an uncanny resemblance to a pork pie!

A classic brown felt men’s pork pie hat from the 1940s. Credit KDS444