-The Cooking Colonel of Madras by David Smith

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the traditional English Christmas Dinner

There never was such a goose. Bob said he didn't believe there ever was such a goose cooked.

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol - describing Bob Cratchit's Christmas dinner

roast turkey        I guess that many people will recognise the above quote from Dickens' A Christmas Carol. But the text continues..."Its tenderness and flavour, size and cheapness were the themes of universal admiration. Eked out by the apple-sauce and mashed potatoes, it was a sufficient dinner for the whole family". This is the meal Scrooge is shown by the Ghost of Christmas Present. To the modern English ear, one part of the description of the goose doesn't sound quite right and that is its "cheapness".

In 1843, when Dickens wrote the book, goose was the Christmas dinner of choice for poorer families like the Cratchits. At the end of the book, when Scrooge redeems himself, he sends off a boy to buy a prize turkey that's been adorning a poulterer's window. Then he dispatches the expensive turkey to Bob Cratchit's house to replace the goose that the ghost had shown them eating for Christmas dinner.

Today, it is the other way round. A goose will cost more than twice as much per kilo as a regular supermarket turkey and feeds less people per kilo. And for every goose cooked there will be 20 turkeys in the Christmas ovens of English families (Daily Telegraph, December 2008). But goose has been making a comeback for some years now and sales were rising by as much as 50% year on year although the economic climate has dampened that down a bit.

In many ways the typical English Christmas dinner is an expanded version of the traditional Sunday roast dinner. There will be more vegetables, more stuffings, more sauces and, well, more of everything.

Each family will have its own preferences and favourites but, judging by supermarket sales, the following would be a typical English Christmas dinner in the 21st century.

If there is a starter it is likely to be either smoked salmon, prawn (equivalent word in American English  shrimp) cocktail or some kind of paté. In the Smith household we dispense with a formal starter and eat smoked salmon as little canapés while the turkey is cooking accompanied by a glass of Champagne. The smoked salmon is likely to be Scottish and the Champagne French but English food does have a habit of drawing in the best things from the rest of the world.

The main part of the Christmas dinner is likely to be roast turkey. The turkey might be stuffed with sausage meat or a herb stuffing (forcemeat) or both. I cook mine completely empty so the heat gets right inside the turkey and cooks it thoroughly without drying out the meat (stuffing the bird increases the cooking time). Then I cook the sausage meat and stuffing separately. The stuffing can be flavoured with whatever you like. I tend to make mine with chopped roasted chestnuts, prunes and herbs mixed with breadcrumbs, onions and turkey stock. It is then shaped into golf ball sized pieces which are roasted in the oven while the turkey is resting. I roll the sausage meat into a long cylinder shape and bake it wrapped in kitchen foil. When the sausage meat is cooked you can slice it into rounds which look much more attractive on the plate than sausage meat that's been scooped out of the turkey cavity.

Vegetables can, again, be whatever you like but Brussels sprouts, roast potatoes and roast parsnips are a must. There's no end to the range of vegetable you can use or the combinations. For example, I'm very fond of baby onions cooked with chestnuts and cubes of smoked bacon. Chestnuts cooked with Brussels sprouts is also a popular combination. Baby carrots glazed with butter and flavoured with thyme are always welcome too for added colour and flavour.

Then there's the accompaniments. Gravy is essential and should preferably be real gravy made in the turkey roasting tin with the turkey juices and turkey stock and thickened with flour. Redcurrant sauce used to be most popular (and, before that in Dickens' day, apple sauce ) but it's pretty much been replaced by cranberry sauce these days. I make my own cranberry relish with fresh cranberries and pears flavoured with cinnamon and port. Finally, Christmas dinner wouldn't be Christmas dinner without bread sauce. Some people hate it - I love it. Bread sauce is breadcrumbs cooked in milk and flavoured with onions, bay leaves, cloves and mace. The bread sauce should be simmered for some time until smooth and very thick; it's not a pouring sauce despite the name.

So that's it. Until the pudding of course.

A traditional English Christmas pudding is made with beef suet, spices, flour, sugar, breadcrumbs, sultanas, raisins, currants, almonds, citrus peel, apple, eggs and alcohol such a beer and rum. At least that is the popular Delia Smith recipe that's been made by tens of thousands of satisfied cooks since Delia first published the recipe in her Cookery Course in 1978. For those outside the UK, Delia Smith is the Mrs Beeton of our age. A down to earth cook who produces tried and tested recipes which can be cooked without fear of failure in a domestic kitchen. Mrs Beeton herself included a recipe for Christmas pudding in her Book of Household Management, published just 18 years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol. The recipe is entitled Christmas Plum-Pudding and subtitled "very good". The ingredients are raisins, currants, mixed peel, breadcrumbs, beef suet, eggs and brandy. So the old and new recipes are not really that far apart. A Christmas pudding also appears as part of the Cratchit family's celebrations. Dickens writes "Mrs Cratchit entered [..] with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball so hard and firm, blazing in half of a half-a-quartern of brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top". That's pretty much what we'd do today. Pour brandy over the top of the pudding, set it alight and wish everyone a Merry Christmas.

Merry Christmas.