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A Common Room Christmas Dinner 1773

Maggie Black describes an 18th century festive meal.

Parson Woodforde
Parson Woodforde

We think of James Woodforde, 1740-1803, as an amiable country clergyman, perhaps a trifle greedy because food and drink were matters of moment to record in his long, tranquil tale of days. Yet even Parson Woodforde’s career had patches of change. A scholar and then fellow of New College, Oxford, he returned there in December, 1773, to become sub-warden and thus responsible for Common Room organisation – including the menu planning.

His first social task was to arrange the senior fellows’ Christmas dinner, and he tells about it with an engaging, ingenuous pride.

‘We had…two fine Codds boiled with fryed Souls around them and oyster sauce, a fine sirloin of Beef roasted, some peas soup and an orange Pudding for the first course, for the second we had a lease of Wild Ducks roasted, a fork of Lamb and salad and mince pies.’

This does not sound much like a traditional festive, Christmas meal, even a pre-Dickensian one. No boar’s head. No plum pudding – which we know existed. It may therefore be worth glancing whether it was a Christmas meal of its day and what had happened to the older, traditional fare.

In medieval, agricultural England, Christmas had been a twelve-day feast. The Epiphany Feast on the twelfth day of this annual mid-winter break was however the highlight for annual ceremonial feasting. It was usually then, for instance, that pickled or soused boar-meat was pounded to make brawn, often served, glamorously dressed, as the traditional boar’s head. It was then, too, that the Christmas shred or mince pies filled with poultry, meat and dried fruits, were eaten. Rich, russet-coloured stewed broth, also containing fruit was consumed then, too. Frumenty, the most ancient traditional Christmas food, was eaten at several different festivals, depending – like the many recipes for it – on local custom.

All these dishes were based on preserves practical to use up at this stage of winter. They could almost all be made in advance for the whole holiday. This suggests that, except for various small local cakes, traditional Christmastide foods were seldom if ever associated with the Feast of the Nativity, Christmas Day itself.

Sixteenth-century improvements in cattle-breeding and dairying, the first enclosures, better transport and the increased importation of dried fruit and spices together with new foods were to change the foods eaten at Christmas markedly by the mid-seventeenth century.

The increase in the urban and landless population also affected the observance of festival customs. The town-dweller could buy his vital winter supplies, including Christmas brawn. When he needed them. The break-up of feudal-style dependence diminished for him the significance of the long festival and the final Twelfth Night feast. As a result, he tended to eat his Christmastide foods on a matter-of-fact fashion, usually, but not always, on Christmas Day itself.

By the seventeenth century, the most notable of these was beef. Larger, roasting quality joints were now available. Roast beef therefore became and would remain until this century the chief food for celebrations and patronage meals, at banquets, regimental and tithe dinners, dinner-parties and Harvest Home suppers alike.

Another food which became seventeenth-century festive fare was the medieval stewed broth, now enriched with more dried fruits, and specified from about 1673, as a Christmas dish. By 1700, it was so rich with fruit that it was called a plum pottage. It was popular with housekeepers because it could be made in advance, being – unlike the plum pudding – well laced with alcohol.

A sprinkling of dried fruit and spice had long been the poor man’s way of turning everyday foods like bread dough into treats. With the advent of the pudding cloth about 1600, the old grain, meat and herb or dried fruit mixtures boiled in gut or caul became bag puddings. Richest among them, the plum pudding soon became a standard Christmas treat; but it would only become exclusively a Christmas pudding in Victorian times, having then lost its meat content.

Alongside it, the great Christmas Pye continued popular. The Frenchman, Henri Misson, described this Pate de Noel graphically in 1699. Nonetheless, it was already giving way to smaller mince pyes, made without poultry meat.

There were, however, other developments towards a modern Christmas menu. By the early eighteenth century, the turkey had finally ousted the bustard and other ‘great fowles’ although not smaller game and water birds. Brawn had suffered so much in quality that it disappeared from Christmas and most other menus. Plum pottage lost flavour. Given plentiful dried fruit and better ovens, huge rich plum cakes were now backed instead, as a holiday stand-by.

In the eighteenth century, the townsman’s meals changed more than the countryman’s. Politics, business and industry required it. To demonstrate prosperity, do deals or cadge favours, dinners became showier and dishes fancier, arranged as a decorative, lavish display. In the country, the earlier times and a menu of fewer, more robust dishes survived.

When Sub-Warden Woodforde organised his colleagues’ Christmas dinner, his country background and preferences made him choose a solid, simple, wholly English meal. Noticeably, none of the dishes seem to have been garnished, either for show, or for extra festiveness.

The meal had, however, one special Christmas feature. The standard eighteenth-century sweetmeat and fruit dessert was replaced by ‘A fine plum cake brought to the Sen Table as is usual on this day’. There were also special Christmas drinks. Two ‘grace cups’ for toasts, and afterwards wine ‘on the house’.

Indeed this meal reflects the typical Stuart and Georgian matter-of-fact attitude towards meals, even feasts, when there was no reason to show off. It was a plain, domestic dinner, not a party meal by Georgian standards. When Woodforde dined formally with the Bishop of Norwich and twenty others in September, 1783, the ‘very elegant’ dinner consisted of two courses of twenty dishes each, with a twenty-dish dessert afterwards, the centerpiece of the table being ‘a most beautiful artificial garden’. The dons’ modest dinner was much more like the meals Woodforde chose when a couple of friends, or just his niece Nancy, dined with him at home.

We are easily misled by their party menus into maligning all Georgians as gross feeders all the time. For fifteen men on a cold winter’s night, the dons’ Christmas dinner was not large, since they did not all partake of everything or finish it (a wild duck serves three to four at best and the two roasts almost certainly fed the college staff as well). In fact, this menu could make a practical, modern buffet for fifteen to twenty.

Parson Woodforde’s Mince Pies

The original of the following recipe is dated 1795.

For the mincemeat (2-2 ½ lbs):
¾ lb cooking apples;
8 oz currants;
8 oz raisins;
6 oz shredded suet;
8 oz dark brown muscovado sugar;
4 oz lean beef mince;
grated rind and juice of 1 medium lemon;
1/8 teaspoon ground mace;
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves;
1-2 drops cider vinegar to sharpen (optional);
3-4 dessertspoons brandy, to taste.

Peel and core the apples. Mince them, together with the dried fruit and suet. Then mix in all the other ingredients. Store in airtight, vinegar-proof pots in the refrigerator. Use within three weeks.

For the mince pies (about 20):
Do not use the mincemeat uncooked. Grease bun or patty tins and line with puff pastry. Fill with the mincemeat; the quantity above should fill twenty deep 2½ inch diameter tins. Cover if you wish, but remember that fatty meat may float off a little free during cooking; it can be blotted off open tartlets after cooking. If not covered, top each mince pie with a rosette of brandy butter before serving. 

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