Christmas is the time of indulgence and feasting with family and friends. Around the world, and especially in Europe, traditional foods are taken very seriously and often prepared months in advance. There are as many different foods as there are countries, in fact, more, as every country has more than one traditional Christmas food. All are steeped in history and tradition.
Many dishes are a result of the seasonally available foods in the old days, such as fruit cake, which is made from dried fruits, as normally fresh fruit was not available in winter, or chestnuts, which come into season in autumn. Others simply allow people to indulge a little and get spoiled over the festive season.
Here, I have selected a few that are generally available around the world — maybe not in your local supermarket, but in specialty shops, for sure. This way, you can add a bit of European festiveness to your traditional Christmas fare.
Panettone, a traditional Italian Christmas treat, is a yeast-leavened bread, usually made with raisins, candied fruit peels, almonds, and brandy. It is quite sweet, resulting in an ongoing debate whether it should be classed as bread or cake. To further the confusion, you can toast the slices off this tall, domed loaf, and serve them with cheese, or indeed, eat them cold, like cake, with your coffee.
Panettone originated in the northern Italian city of Milan and is said to date back to Roman times when they ate a similar bread/cake drizzled with honey.
Stollen, or to give it its more precise names: Dresdner Stollen or Christstollen, originated in the 1500s in the eastern German city of Dresden. Not unlike Panettone, even if a completely different shape, stollen is a sweet type of bread that is full of dried fruit, candied citrus peel, marzipan, and nuts — and covered in a snowy layer of icing sugar. Stollen is very much a Christmas treat, and its fame has spread far beyond the German borders.
3. Mince Pies
When I came across mince pies on my first Christmas in England, I was utterly confused because I had not long ago learned that “mince” was a type of ground beef. Imagine my surprise biting into one and finding it filled with dried fruit and warming spices instead of minced beef. I later learned that mince pies date back to the Middle Ages, when they were indeed filled with minced beef and a mixture of dried fruit as a way of preserving the beef. Although, then, they were a lot larger than their modern cousins. Today they are simply a much-loved — and sometimes boozy — treat. You’re “supposed” to eat one a day for each of the 12 days of Christmas to bring you luck.
4. Lebkuchen, Speculoos, Printen, Or Gingerbread
Call it what you will, but the various versions of gingerbread, lebkuchen, speculoos, or printen, are a Christmas staple. There are variations in all of these, from lebkuchen, generally being the round, often chocolate or sugar-coated cookie-shaped cakes with edible paper underneath; to the dry, spiced speculoos from Belgium, which are related to the Biscoff cookies known around the globe. Gingerbread is another version, often thicker and made into shapes from gingerbread men to gingerbread houses, while printen comes originally from the German city of Aachen, and again, have their own peculiarities and components. But all come out generally only around Christmas time —other than the speculoos, which are now so popular you can get them year-round with your coffee if you are lucky.
5. Christmas Carp
Now, here is one Christmas food that I do not like at all, but that doesn’t mean it’s not popular. I was first introduced to Christmas carp by my grandfather who was mightily proud when he pushed a great big, boiled (!) and wobbly fish in front of me. The tradition of eating carp on Christmas Eve dates to Catholic beliefs that you should eat fish on Christmas Eve, the last day of fasting over Advent, and the fact that carp lives happily in village ponds and is easily accessible. Before Christmas, many households keep a live carp swimming around in their bathtub until it is time to prepare it. It is still eaten widely in Central and Eastern Europe. Luckily most recipes now call for it to be baked in the oven.
6. Olivier Salad
Often accompanying said Christmas Carp is the Olivier or Russian salad. This is a potato, vegetable, and mayonnaise cold salad which is very much part of Eastern European Christmas and New Year’s celebratory meals. Named after Lucien Olivier, a Belgian chef who reportedly made the first version of this dish in the Hermitage restaurant in Moscow in the 1860s, it is now better known as Russian salad or Stolichniy salad, and can either be easily homemade or bought prepared in tubs in the cooler cabinets of the supermarket.
7. Christmas Pudding
The original Christmas — or plum — pudding, is believed to date back to the 14th century, although it was the Victorians who came up with the dish we recognize today. Very much steeped in faith and tradition, a Christmas pudding should have 13 ingredients — representing Jesus and the 12 disciples. The ingredients include raisins, currants, suet, brown sugar, breadcrumbs, citron, lemon peel, orange peel, flour, mixed spices, eggs, milk, and brandy. The puddings are either boiled in a pudding cloth or, more commonly now, steamed in a bowl, with some people making their puddings a year or several months in advance to get the full flavor out of the ingredients. When presented, brandy is poured over the pudding and set alight. Inside, there is usually a sixpence coin, and whoever finds it in their piece is believed to be guaranteed luck in the next year.
Captivated by this holiday tradition? This is the Royal Family’s Christmas pudding recipe (DIY video included)!
8. Roast Chestnuts
You know it’s nearly Christmas time when you smell roast chestnuts in the streets. Going out into the forests, be it in France or Italy, where the majority of chestnuts originate from, to collect chestnuts that drop from the trees in late fall and then roasting them over an open fire is a now-common tradition even outside of Europe, and in the cities and near the Christmas markets, there is nothing better than getting a bag of freshly roasted, still hot chestnuts and peeling and munching them as you go.
9. Bûche De Noël, Or Yule Log
The history of the Bûche de Noël starts, unsurprisingly, with a real tree log, supposed to bring good luck. In medieval times, this pagan ritual involved bringing in a log and putting it on the hearth, maybe sprinkling it with a little wine, to ensure a good grape harvest the following year. Thing is that the log needed to burn for a minimum of three consecutive days after being lit on Christmas Eve to bring good luck.
Eventually, the real log was replaced with a chocolate log, which is, luckily, not set alight. Instead, in cities such as Paris, the best pâtissiers compete against each other, trying to design the best and nicest-looking logs possible, and, of course, the tastiest. Creations are at times quite wild, but inside there is usually a sponge roll, cream, and sometimes fruit jam or other sweet creams. And it is always covered in chocolate and decorations. Sometimes designs go so far that you can barely recognize it as a Yule Log, with, for example, the Ritz Paris coming up with last year’s white chocolate mountain range, the Mont Ritz Log.
10. Turron De Navidad
Nougat is a Mediterranean specialty — a sweet, often chewy meringue paste mixed with nuts and honey. The origins are believed to lie with the Moorish invaders and the sweet halwa that is so popular across northern Africa and Arabia. In Spain, it is traditionally eaten for Christmas and comes in two varieties: The Alicante variety is hard with lots of whole almonds, whereas the Jijona variety is soft and chewy with almonds made into a paste and a little bit of added oil. But generally, the sweet treat has only three ingredients: egg whites, honey, and almonds, and it is easy to whip up for your Christmas dinner dessert treat.
11. Mulled Wine
Call it mulled wine, spiced wine, vin chaud, Glühwein, glögi, or vino caliente. What’s in your glass or mug at the Christmas Market tends to be pretty similar. Warm red wine, seasoned with spices such as cinnamon and cloves, orange, and other ingredients that vary slightly from country to country. The smell is divine, and the taste equally inviting. On a freezing winter’s day, it warms you from the inside, and it delivers Christmas atmosphere from the first sip. We can thank the Romans for the invention of heating the wine they brought along with them when heading north to colder climes to conquer Europe. They were so cold that they needed hot wine to warm them. Always traditionally a winter drink, it was the Victorians — again — who thought it fashionable to drink at Christmas, and the tradition stayed.
Nowadays you can also get mulled white wine and even beer and cider, but nothing quite comes close to the traditional mulled red wine with plenty of spices.