Often served with mulled wine, they start popping up everywhere, from workplace canteens and coffee corners to the local Starbucks, as soon as the days begin to shorten. Shops advertise late opening hours and fashion shows accompanied by mince pies and mulled wine, Every pre-Christmas gathering, cocktail party and tea party will have a supply. Newspapers even have features rating this year's best supermarket and packaged variations.
It's supposed to be good luck to eat a mince pie every day of December and most people don't turn them down when offered. So, by the time the holiday season is over, most people are well fed-up with mince pies. But whether they like deep or shallow mince pies, Marks and Spencers or Sainsbury's, make their own or simply can't stand them - most Brits know it's Christmas from their first mince pie of the season.
Turkey and All the Trimmings
Years ago, almost everyone ate Christmas dinner in the UK at the same time, to be finished and settled down in time for the Queen's Speech, live on television at 3 pm.
Nowadays, the Queen records her speech, there are more television channels and most of them run the speech a few times during the day. Though that national tradition is a thing of the past, the elements of a traditional Christmas meal are still pretty much the same.
Smoked salmon, served with buttered brown bread and a slice of lemon, or wrapped around some prawns, is a typical festive starter.
Turkey long ago replaced goose as the most popular main course. But it is what the turkey comes to the table with that make it especially British. The accompaniments include:
- chipolatas - small sausages - wrapped in bacon
- roasted root vegetables, especially roasted parsnips which are sweet and moist
- All kinds of potatoes. It seems that a scoop of buttery mash is never enough at Christmas time. The British table almost always includes piles of crispy, golden roasted potatoes - called roasties - best made in goose fat.
- brussels sprouts, often with chestnuts or bacon or both. Even people who never in a million years would eat a brussels sprout will manage a few for Christmas
- bread sauce, a mixture of bread crumbs, milk, cream, onions and seasonings that really has to be something you grew up with - because it's hardly ever a taste that's acquired.
Christmas Pudding - The Flaming Finish
The traditional Christmas pudding in the UK is a bit like a cannonball made of dried fruit, nuts, flour, eggs, shredded suet (a solid beef fat) or a vegetarian version of suet, spices and loads and loads of alcohol. It comes to the table sprigged with holly or winter cherries and flaming with brandy.
Rich and heavy, a little bit of Christmas pudding goes a long way. There is nothing quite like it as a base for the variety of accompaniments presented with it - brandy butter, hard sauce, poured custard, white cornstarch sauce and more recently whipped cream or ice cream.
A good Christmas pudding is started months before Christmas, steamed for several hours, then tightly wrapped and left to age. Whisky or brandy are used to plump up the dried fruit and are "fed" to the cooked pudding from time to time. On the day, the pudding is once again steamed for a few hours. Then hot brandy is poured over it and set alight.
Traditionally, a three-penny (thruppence) or six-penny (sixpence) coin, both long out of circulation, is baked in the pudding. Finding it is considered good luck. In some families, silver or porcelain charms are kept for this purpose.
People rare eat more than a few spoons of Christmas pudding so the dinner usually includes several other desserts and savories. Pies and chocolate desserts may be brought to the table. Cheeses and port or brandy are offered to finish.
Christmas Cake - The Teatime Essential
Christmas cake in the UK is started months before the holiday. The rich fruit and nut cake is "fed" with brandy or whisky - a few spoonfuls at a time, every few days for weeks.
Before Christmas, the cake is enrobed in a rolled layer of marzipan and topped by a thick layer of rolled white icing. Then the whole thing is neatly wrapped in a red ribbon and topped with a holiday picture.
In effect, by wrapping the Christmas cake like a present it is sealed airtight in all that marzipan and icing. That, plus the amount of alcohol it has absorbed, should make it last a very long time. And, kept in a biscuit tin or a plastic food box with a sealable lid, Christmas cakes have been known to be edible for months, even years.
The Christmas cake is not usually part of Christmas dinner but is kept to be offered at tea time and for snacks during the holidays.