Victorian Christmas Fare

The Victorian Christmas Feast
The Victorian Christmas feast included dishes whose names, and sometimes recipes, are familiar today: mince pies,  Christmas puddings and the festive roast. Though roast beef or roast goose remained popular throughout the Victorian period, the very first December issue of the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine (begun in the May of 1852) in its column "Receipts for Cookery" told readers

Prominent in our list of Christmas delicacies, the turkey, in the estimation of many, stands unrivalled, and on this account we shall treat of how to cook and carve it.

Recipes for boiling and roasting the bird were given and a diagram accompanied directions for carving. Whilst a sausage-meat or bread stuffing was recommended for the roast bird a more interesting stuffing was suggested for the boiled turkey. It was left to the January issue to provide advice on selecting and cooking a goose.

Make a stuffing of bread, herbs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, lemon-peel, a few oysters or an anchovy, a bit of butter, some suet and an egg; put this into the crop, fasten up the skin, and boil the turkey in a floured cloth to make it very white. Have ready an oyster- sauce made with butter, and pour it over the bird, sometimes liver and lemon- sauce is preferred. (extract from the cooking directions.)

Victorian Christmas Puddings

Other early volumes of the Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine  carried a column "Cookery, Pickling, and Preserving" to which readers contributed their own recipes. One particular column in 1858 was devoted to "Christmas Recipes" and contained no less than six different recipes for Plum Pudding under that name and the now more familiar "Christmas Pudding".
In terms of the ingredients, although the recipes were all based on dried fruits, sugar, suet and eggs, there were distinct variations:- flour was specified in some, whereas others used breadcrumbs or a mixture of both. Brandy was added in some recipes, milk in others. Some included almonds; some added extra sugar. Some specified particular spices in combination: "beaten ginger and half a grated nutmeg" or "one ounce ground nutmeg, 1 ounce ground cinnamon".

All the recipes directed boiling the puddings for several hours, though some recommended putting the mixture into a mould, whilst others used a pudding cloth. The quantities given would have produced different sizes of puddings.

Particularly interesting, in view of the extraordinary popularity of the classic cookery book bearing the Beeton name, which adopted a standard formula in which all the ingredients and quantities were listed before a detailed method, is the varied structure of the recipes. Family recipes handed down, and ones submitted by a cook, or elicited from her by her mistress, would not necessarily spell out the kind of detail a novice in the kitchen would require. Perhaps it was such a situation that resulted in the shortest recipe for Christmas pudding - Victorian or otherwise - which I have ever seen. [If you know of one to beat this for brevity do let me know!]

A GOOD CHRISTMAS PUDDING - one pound of flour, two pounds of suet, one pound of currants, one pound of plums, eight eggs, two ounces of candied peel almonds and mixed spice according to taste. Boil gently for seven hours.
Anyone following this recipe would need some idea of how much and which spices suited the taste-buds of the diners, be aware that the ingredients should be mixed thoroughly, and know that the result should not be cooked directly over a stove, but contained in a mould or pudding cloth, before being steamed/boiled in a pan of gently bubbling water.

Luckily the most elaborate recipe for

not only gave ingredients, but instructed the reader how to prepare the pudding-cloth, and decorate the pudding for serving, with powdered sugar and split almonds. [This particular idea seems to me an attractive alternative for anyone looking to avoid the usual holly and lighted brandy routine, which appeared in Isabella Beeton's original Book of Household Management (1861) ]

There was also this added tip, proof that some Victorian cooks were as careful of their choice of ingredients as any modern food writer:-
N B Muscatel raisins can be purchased at a cheap rate loose (not in bunches); they are scarcely higher in price than the ordinary pudding raisins, and impart a much richer flavour to the pudding; they should be stoned and cut up.

This is on a smaller scale than the "Unrivalled Christmas Pudding" and does not include bitter almonds. It will still be in time for your Victorian Christmas celebration as these recipes were designed to be made a few days before Christmas rather than months before. Apart from its omission of any instructions for  transferring the  mixture to the prepared pudding-cloth, it is surprisingly detailed in its methodology.
Like the extremely short recipe above, it is one of the alcohol-free recipes, and relies for its sweetness upon the sugar in the dried fruits (and probably the peels which were available candied). If you wanted a "keeping" pudding then you could take advice from some of the others, which suggest adding sugar "to taste" and replacing some of the milk added at the final stage with a wine-glass of brandy. Some recipes stipulate only "half a wine-glass".
The pudding could of course be boiled in a lightly-greased pudding-bowl tightly-wrapped in the modern way.

CHRISTMAS PLUM PUDDING - A pound of suet, cut in pieces not too fine, a pound of currants, and a pound of raisins stoned, four eggs, half a grated nutmeg, an ounce of citron and lemon-peel shred fine, a teaspoonful of beaten ginger, half a pound of bread-crumbs, and half a pound of flour, and a pint of milk; beat the eggs first, add half the milk; beat them together, and by degrees stir in the flour, then the suet, spice and fruit, and as much milk as will mix it together very thick; then take a clean cloth, dip it boiling water, and squeeze dry. While the water is boiling fast, put in your pudding, which should boil at least five hours.

In Home Chat November 1895  I found  an advertisement, which would, I imagine, have been widely published in magazines, inviting 'Ladies, Housekeepers, and all those responsible for household management to write at once for Bird's celebrated Old English Plum Pudding recipe.' The overt inducements were three-fold viz.: that the recipe would be sent 'gratis and post free', was 'Entirely without Eggs' and, that though presumably using the convenience of Bird's Custard powder (which isn't actually mentioned), it made 'the richest and most wholesome Plum Puddings'. At the same time the recipe title "Old English Plum Pudding" reassured the harassed cook that the old traditions were maintained, a message reinforced by the Gothic style of font in the heading.

Victorian Mince Pies

It may surprise some readers that in the late 1850s two of the three recipes for mincemeat and mince pies followed the ancient pattern of meat and dried fruits. Here is one of them- the 'pimento in fine powder' is an interesting touch:-

Take a pound of beef, free from skin and strings, and chop it very fine, then two pounds of suet, which likewise pick and chop; then add three pounds of currants, nicely cleaned and perfectly dry, one pound and a half of apples, the peel and juice of a lemon, half a pint of sweet wine, half a nutmeg, and a few cloves and mace, with pimento in fine powder. Have citron, orange and lemon peel ready, and put some in each of the pies when made.

In 1861 the Ladies' Treasury in its short cookery article "The Epicure", gave two lengthy seasonal recipes, written in a discursive narrative style. Below is an extract from one of them, omitting the detailed directions for making flaky (or puff) pastry, as the main interest in this recipe lies in the ingredients and method of preparation of the mincemeat.
The italics are those of the original. 


Take a pound of the underdressed under-cut of sirloin of beef, mince it very fine indeed, put it in a pie dish, then cover it with a flat dish, into a moderately hot oven till it is cooked; drain off the fat from it thoroughly, and mix in two ounces of fresh butter, and half an ounce of finely ground allspice; four large apples pared, cored, and chopped very fine, and mixed in; half a pound of Sultana raisins washed and chopped fine, and mixed in; half a pound of currants well washed; three tablespoonsful of moist sugar; three ounces of candied orange peel (not lemon), chopped rather fine. Mix the whole of these ingredients well together; then place a half-pound preserve jar of raspberry jam in boiling water, but without letting any water enter, and without uncovering the jar, till the jam is dissolved, then strain the jam over the ingredients; taking care not to have the slightest portion of the seeds escape; throw these latter away, then mix the whole thoroughly ...
[Then follows the very full directions for making 'an excellent and simple paste for these or any other pies'. ]
...roll it to a sufficient thickness for the covers of the pies; then turning the patty-pans downwards on the paste, but without pressure, cut the paste round to the size; the remainder of the paste roll out and line the patty-pans; then fill them with the mince meat; put on the covers without wetting the edges, and take them in a very quick oven for a few minutes, or as long as necessary, but the quicker the better, so that they are sufficiently cooked. When the pies are nearly cold, lift the corner of each, and pour over the mince a teaspoonful of brandy. These will keep a good three weeks.
The peculiarity in these pies is, that no suet is used, which agrees but with few people, and that the juice of the raspberries gives them an indescribable but delicious flavour.
Another peculiarity is the addition of the brandy to each individual pie after cooking,(- which is why the tops must not be sealed -) rather than adding it to the mixture beforehand.  The alcohol would, therefore, not evaporate during the cooking in the very hot oven and would I imagine assist the raspberries in producing that 'indescribable but delicious' taste. In this context it should be remembered that brandy in small quantities was valued by the Victorians for its medicinal properties.


The 'plums' referred to would have been preserved, and probably the candied variety. The candied peels would have been chopped where this was not specified. The Victorians were usually careful to specify whether almonds in a recipe were "bitter" or "sweet"  since, though bitter almonds enhance the almond flavour, they are highly poisonous in the raw state and only minute quantities should be used in cooking.

Sam Beeton's Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine also features on Ladies' Page- Beauty Secrets and in "Editorial Rebukes" and "Agony Aunts" in the Editor's Mailbag. The Ladies' Treasury also has items on the main Ladies' and Gardens pages, on the Late Summer Gardens page and in the "Agony Aunts" article .

The holly motif is taken from a magazine of the 1880s;the illustrations of a Christmas pudding, and the serviette folded into a Fan from an undated late C19/early C20 cookery book. And yes - pace Nancy Mitford - the source termed them "serviettes" not napkins though for folding we are instructed they should be 'slightly stiffened, and very evenly folded in the ironing' and are usually of 'plain damask'.

A Disastrous Victorian "Olden Times" Christmas Feast
The nostalgic appeal of feasting tradition, implicit in the heading "Old English Plum Puddings" in the advertisement for Bird's Custard Powder, was harnessed to comic effect by Mark Lemon in a piece published in George Cruikshank's Table Book in 1845. "Christmas in the Olden Time". The narrator invited to a friend's house for his Christmas dinner is surprised to find he is to enjoy a recreation of an Elizabethan feast 'when England was "merrie England" -
    thou shall taste of the lusty brown and manchet-loaves -- the reeking sirloin and savoury goose, Master Robinson. Plum-porridge shall not be wanting, nor that lord of the feast, the Christmas pie. The wassail bowl shall come in its due season with its garnish of ribbons - and a soused boar's head crested with bays, and tricked out with rosemary ...

His host informs him that he has "drilled" his cook 'in the whole art of ancient cookery' for a week. As unpalatable course follows inedible course  in alarming succession the  host  is forced to confess to his unfortunate  guest that amazingly  the cook after all his trouble had  left without giving notice  that very morning  and consequently he had 'been compelled to secure the services of the greengrocer's wife...'

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©  Barbara Onslow 2007   Page published November 2007  Last updated January 18th 2010