St. Valentine’s Day

Once the beginning of February arrives, Saint Valentine is everywhere, and shopping centres encourage us to buy compulsively, and although normally I don’t indulge, this year I have decided to join the celebrations. After all, any excuse is good, don’t you think? Especially when you talk about LOVE! Do you want to come with me for a little while?

St. Valentine’s Day has been celebrated in the UK for many centuries. Finding out that it is actually a British tradition has been a total surprise for me. It was from the UK that these customs spread to the rest of the world: first to the Anglosphere in the 19th century and then to many other countries in the later part of the 20th century. This feast originated from the merger of pagan and Christian rites. The legend and mystery surrounding the celebrations of this day, have brought controversy and doubt around St. Valentine’s, as the motives behind the day’s creation and even St. Valentine himself are not very clear.

There was a Roman festival called Lupercalia on February 15th to mark the start of spring. It consisted of fertility and marriage rites concerning all young people of marriageable age.

As Christianity spread accross the Roman Empire, including much of the UK, this festival became a day of remembrance for St. Valentine. Thus, pagan and Christian celebrations merged into one: Lupercalia was put back a day and celebrated on St. Valentine’s Day, February 14th.

Did you know that there were three St. Valentines? I will just tell you about the most famous one, a Christian priest named Valentine from the 3rd century who lived under the rule of Claudius II and was known for defending love in the Empire. He secretly married couples despite the Emperor’s orders. The Emperor had cancelled all marriages and engagements in Rome as he believed that Roman men would not want to go to war if they had to leave their women and children behind. When Claudius II learned about these secret ceremonies, Valentine was sent to prison where he remained until his death, on February 14th. He was tortured to make him renounce his faith and clubbed to death, then beheaded. It is said that before his execution he performed a miracle by healing Julia, the blind daughter of his jailer (according to a later version, he is said to have fallen in love with her). He would have written the first “valentine” card himself, addressed to Julia, who was no longer blind, signing as “Your Valentine”.

St. Valentine did not have any romantic connotations until Chaucer’s poetry about “Valentines” in the 14th century, which is the first recorded association of Valentine’s Day with romantic love. Geoffrey Chaucer, in his Parlement of Foules (1382) wrote For this was on seynt Volantynys day, Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. [For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.]

Chaucer wrote this poem to honour the first anniversary of the engagement of King Richard II of England to Anne of Bohemia. Readers wrongly assumed that Chaucer was referring to February 14th as Valentine’s Day; however, mid-February is an unlikely time for birds to be pairing up in England as it is still too cold. Chaucer was in fact referring to Valentine of Genoa, whose feast day was on May 2nd (the treaty providing for the royal marriage had been signed on May 2nd, 1381).

The first recorded Valentine’s note to his beloved was written by the Duke of Orleans, while imprisoned in the Tower of London following capture at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415. In the poem the Duke talks of his love for his wife and refers to her as “my very sweet Valentine”. It is still kept at the British Museum.

By 1601 St. Valentine’s Day was already an established part of English tradition, as William Shakespeare makes mention of it in Ophelia’s lament in Hamlet: To-morrow is Saint Valentine’s day, All in the morning betime, And I a maid at your window, To be your Valentine.

The passing of love-notes between sweethearts had become standard practice, as in 1797, The Young Man’s Valentine Writer was first published. This contained sentimental rhymes and ditties for those young gentlemen who were not able to think clearly enough to compose their own verse.

The custom of sending cards, flowers, chocolates and other gifts originated in the UK, and, therefore, Valentine’s Day still remains connected with various regional customs in England. In Norfolk, for example, a character called ‘Jack’ Valentine knocks on the door of houses leaving sweets and presents for children.

The reduction of the postal rates in the 19th century opened the path to the less personal but easier practice of mailing Valentines. It made it possible for the first time to exchange cards anonymously (Valentine notes are, by tradition, anonymous). Valentine cards became so popular that they started to be mass-produced. In Victorian times, the Valentine card took on a much more delicate form as it was often made out of lace paper, velvet and satin ribbons, embossed with the best quality material. These cards often had trick or secret panels in them, hiding secret messages to the girls concerned. This was because Victorian fathers were very strict and would not allow their daughters to receive any correspondence unless they had first read it and decided whether or not it was suitable. By 1872 the Post Office declared that parcels not exceeding 12 ounces in weight could be sent by letter post, so small gifts also started to be sent through the post.

Halfway through the 19th century, Esther Howland of Worcester, Massachusetts, following the English tradition, started to produce cards in the United States, using the newly available and much cheaper paper lace. It was from the United States that Valentine’s Day celebration spread to the rest of the world.

Do you already know how do you want to celebrate St. Valentine’s? You can spend a British evening watching some British movies, such as Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually, Shakespeare in Love, Atonement or Sense and Sensibility, the later based in the homonymous novel by Jane Austen, a true romantic.

Maybe you want to make a special gift but you don’t want to shop for anything and make it yourself. I suggest this Dark Chocolate Truffles recipe. It is from one of my favourite blogs, Pemberley Cup & Cakes, where you will find many British baking recipes.

And last but not least, if you are lucky enough to be in the UK for St. Valentine’s celebrations, would you like to visit… Bath? Oxford? Canterbury? The Lake District? The Cotswolds? York? Or maybe taking a romantic tour around London and enjoy the views from The Shard while having dinner?

 

Burns Night

Burns Night is an institution in Scotland, a celebration of the life and poetry of the great Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796). Robert Burns’ acquaintances held the first Burns suppers on July 21, the anniversary of his death, as a tribute to his memory, but the date was later changed to January 25, which marks his birthday. Eventually, Burns Suppers became part of Scottish culture, and they are now held all over the world, by people and organizations with Scottish origins. Burns is one of Scotland’s important cultural icons. He is also known as “Rabbie Burns”, the “Bard of Ayrshire”, “Scotland’s favourite son”, and in Scotland “The Bard”.

Robert Burns, portrait by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Scotland, on January 25, 1759 and died in Dumfries, Scotland, on July 21, 1796, when he was only 37 years old. He was the eldest of seven children and he spent his youth working his father’s farm. In spite of his poverty he was extremely well read and he started writing in an attempt to find “some kind of counterpoise for his circumstances.” He had already written his first love poems when he was fifteen. He is regarded as a pioneer of the Romantic movement and he soon gained regional notoriety when he published his first collection of poems, known as the Kilmarnock Edition, as that was where it was printed. In a matter of weeks he was transformed from local hero to a national celebrity, praised by the Edinburgh literati of the day. Burns found his true voice in the Scots language, using words from everyday speech. His poems dealt with themes of injustice, hypocrisy, the hard life of the country man, republicanism and radicalism, Scottish patriotism, anticlericalism, class inequalities, gender roles, Scottish cultural identity, poverty, sexuality and man’s inhumanity to his fellow man. One of his most famous poems is “Auld Lang Syne”, which is sung on New Year’s Eve all over Scotland.

Burns Suppers can range from an informal gathering of friends to a huge, formal dinner full of pomp and circumstance. They may be only for men, only for women, or for both genders. Formal events include toasts and readings of poems written by Burns. These ceremonies will vary according to the group organizing the event and the location. At Burns Night events, many men wear kilts and women may wear shawls, skirts or dresses made from their family tartan. A tartan, which is also Scotland’s most famous textile, was originally a woven cloth with colourful threads in traditional patterns. These patterns consist of interwoven vertical and horizontal lines, known as sett. Typically, tartan designs represent certain Scottish clans and families, though it is not always so, as they can also represent towns, corporations, events…

The ritual of Burns Supper is traditionally very well structured, in spite of all the whisky. Formal dinners would follow most of the standard format, but there’s no need to tick all the boxes. These days, hosts often pick what elements they wish to keep, especially at more informal gatherings. It usually starts with the host’s welcoming speech followed by the Selkirk Grace, which is a thanksgiving said before meals in the Scots language. The supper starts with the soup course, which is normally a Scottish soup such as Scotch Broth or Cock-a-Leekie soup (leeks and chicken stock soup).

The evening centres on the entrance of the main course, the haggis, a savoury pudding containing sheep’s pluck (heart, liver and lungs), minced and mixed with onion, oatmeal, suet, stock and spices, and encased in the animal’s stomach. It is usually served on a large platter to the sound of Scottish bagpipes. When the haggis is on the table, the host reads “Address to a Haggis”, an ode that Robert Burns wrote to the Scottish dish. At the end of the reading the haggis is ceremonially cut into two pieces. The recital ends when the audience, promoted by the speaker, joins in the toast to the haggis. The haggis is served with its traditional companions, neeps and tatties. A dessert course may also be part of the meal. Typical desserts are Clootie Dumpling (a pudding prepared in a linen cloth), Cranachan or Tipsy Laird (whisky trifle) followed by a cheeseboard with bannocks (oatcakes) and tea or coffee.

Haggis, neeps and tatties

When the meal reaches the coffee stage various speeches and toasts are given. The order is usually as follows. First of all, one of the guests gives a speech commemorating Burns and a toast to the great man, known as the “Inmortal Memory”. Then, this speech is followed by a more light-hearted one, addressed to the women in the audience. The tone should be witty and humorous, but never offensive. It ends on a positive note with the speaker asking the men to raise their glasses in a toast “to the lassies”. Then, female speakers get their chance to reply to the previous speech. Like the previous toast, it usually includes some good-natured jokes. After the speeches, there may be singing of songs by Burns and more poetry. Burns Suppers traditionally end with the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”. Everyone joins hands in a large circle and sing the words together.

To celebrate Burns Night I decided to prepare one of the typical desserts, Tipsy Laird. If you want to try with haggis, I would recommend this original recipe, or Jamie Oliver’s easy haggis sheperd’s pie style.

Tipsy Laird is the Scottish version of the English trifle, where sherry is replaced by whisky and strawberries by raspberries. Jelly may not always be used but custard is customary. If you buy ready-made custard it will be easier and quicker to prepare. I used a recipe by Elaine Lemm.

Ingredients (serves 6):

  • 300 gms sponge or pound cake, cut into thick slices
  • 300 gms fresh raspberries
  • 6 tbsp whisky or, if you can find it, Drambuie (liqueur made from malt whisky, honey, herbs and spices)
  • 500 ml / 2 cups thick custard sauce (it can be ready made)
  • 500 ml / 2 cups double whipped cream
  • Handful of toasted, flaked almonds

Preparation (30 minutes aprox.):

  • I used individual glasses, but the trifle can be also made in a large glass dish.
  • Line the bottom of the glasses with the cake slices.
  • Reserve a few raspberries for decoration and layer the remaining ones evenly over the cake. Sprinkle with the whisky (omit the whisky if serving to children).
  • Spoon over the custard, again in a thick layer.
  • Finish with a thick layer of whipped cream either spooned or piped using a piping bag.
  • Decorate with raspberries and a few toasted, flaked almonds.

What do you think of the result?

Castle Combe, a fairy-tale town

After Christmas, it has always been quite hard for me to come back to reality. My remedy is thinking about my next holiday and where could I travel to. I’m sure you also fancy a break, don’t you? My proposal for today is… Castle Combe!

Castle Combe is a small village in Wiltshire with only a population of around three hundred and fifty. We decided to go there and savour the peaceful atmosphere of the town, but mainly because we had read that it is considered as the “Prettiest Village in England”. When we arrived there we knew why. Travelling to Castle Combe means travelling to the past as little has changed since the 15th century. The properties in Castle Combe are many hundreds of years old and they are actually listed as ancient monuments. Strict rules apply to preserve the beauty and character of the village: can you see any street lights or TV aerials?

Castle Combe is situated on the southern-most edge of the Cotswolds valley, an area which is also one of the most beautiful in the UK and one of England’s favourite destinations. Castle Combe is famous for its honey-colour limestone buildings: the village houses are all of typical Cotswold type as they are constructed in stone with thick walls and roofs made from natural stone tiles.

Castle Combe is nestled in a valley, hidden behind a wooded hill. All this, turns this village into a place of fairy tales and fantasies. Thus, I’m not surprised Castle Combe has become a location for many filming activities, the most famous of these being “Doctor Doolittle” filmed in and around the village in 1966. More recently the village has had a major role in “War Horse” (2011), “The Wolf Man” (2010) and “Stardust” (2007).

The Market Cross, situated where three main streets converge, is the centre-piece of the village. It is believed to date from the 14th century when the privilege of holding a weekly market was first granted. Another village landmark is St. Andrew’s Church, a medieval church where you can find Sir Walter Dunstanville’s tomb, a 13th century lord who fought in the crusades and was killed in 1270. Of particular interest inside St. Andrew’s is the 15th-century clock which is still used to ring the hours from the tower.

The land above Castle Combe was originally home to a Roman Villa which was vacated in the 5th Century AD. Romans occupied this area because of its proximity to the Fosse Way, an important Roman road linking Exeter and Lincoln. Here, they established a fort which was known as “Castle Hill”. After the Romans, came the Saxons, who took over Castle Hill fort. A peaceful period of 300 years followed until the Norman Conquest. During this time Saxon farmers created the village of “Cumbe” or Combe meaning valley.

After the Norman Invasion of 1066, William the Conqueror bestowed the “Manor of Combe” to his follower Humphrey de L’Isle and the village of Combe was later recorded for the first time in the Domesday book in 1086. In the early 12th century the Manor of Combe passed to Reginald de Dusntaville, who later built the Norman Castle on Castle Hill with the village becoming known as Castle Combe from then on.

By the 14th century the Norman castle had fallen into a state beyond repair and a new Manor House was built instead. This house is still on the same site today though little of the original structure remains. Nowadays it is a luxury hotel.

The Middle Ages were a very prosperous time for Castle Combe when much of the village as we see today was built. The reason for this prosperity was the growth of the sheep and wool industry. The weavers lived in the cottages by the river, still known as Bybrook, which provided the power to run the mills. The bridge was originally made of wood, but updated in the 18th century, and it came to hold up to 20 water mills.

Can you see in this picture the flowers by the house on the right? In this house there was a small stall selling cakes and flapjacks. I couldn’t resist the temptation to try the flapjacks and they were absolutely delicious. I loved the way all these products were being sold: it depended on trust. I am not used to this way of selling and I would love to see it more often.

When we were planning our trip around the Cotswolds we decided to stay for a few days in Castle Combe as we needed lots of peace and tranquillity. It is also very handy as it is approximately 12 miles from Bath, and also relatively close to Bradford-on-Avon, Malmesbury, Cirencester or Chippenham. Nearby there are also many sites of historical interest such as Avebury, Stonehenge and the Wiltshire White horses.

There are many places to stay in Castle Combe but we decided to go to the White Hart Inn, in Ford, 2 miles away. When it doesn’t rain the walk up to Castle Combe is lovely. We really enjoyed our stay here and this is why:

Castle Combe 28 Castle Combe 31

Castle Combe 32 Castle Combe 37

I found this 19th century poem that suits perfectly to conclude my article on Castle Combe:

And Castle Combe presents this charming scene,

of hill, woods and meadows cloth’d in Green.

Here grand terrestrial scenes, almost celestial nice,

makes Castle Combe, sweet vale, an earthy Paradise.

                                                                                         Edward Dowling

Christmas Pudding

Christmas Pudding is the traditional end to a British Christmas dinner. But how did this cannon-ball shaped pudding came to be one of the symbols of Christmas?

Christmas Pudding originated during the 14th century and at that time it consisted of a porridge called frumenty that was made to preserve meat, poultry or fish. Dried fruits were commonly used to preserve foods, thanks to their high sugar content. Butter, spices and wine were also added. These preserves were a practical made-ahead dish.

Towards the end of the 16th century, this porridge was slowly changing into a plum pudding which was thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and given more flavour with the addition of beer and spirits. By the end of the 17th century Christmas Pudding had become the customary Christmas dessert.

By the 18th century, improved stock-feeding and cheaper sugar made meat preserving less necessary. Cheap sugar also lessened the dependence on spices, and also made possible the division between savoury and sweet dishes. Therefore, these puddings and sweeter “minced” pies gradually lost the meat filling. It is still very common to use suet (raw beef or mutton fat). Vegetarian suet can also be used for a lighter taste. This use of suet made me realise that it might be that the real Christmas food is animal fat! In Spain we use lard (pork fat) to make our traditional Christmas sweets, polvorones and mantecados.

By Victorian times, Christmas Puddings had evolved into something similar to the ones that are eaten today, not only because of the ingredients used, but also for their cannon-ball shape topped with holly. In 1836 Dickens described it as the centrepiece of the Christmas feast.

This heavy pudding is steamed for hours. The spirits and alcohols that saturate this pudding, plus the dark brown sugar used, give it its characteristic dark colour. It has to be made in advance, from a month up to a year. After the pudding has been steamed it is kept in a cool dry place. It will need to be steamed again for a few more hours on the day it is served.

Over the years many superstitions have surrounded Christmas Puddings. One superstition says that the pudding should be made with thirteen ingredients to represent Jesus and his disciples. It is also believed that every member of the family should take turns to stir the pudding, at the time of mixing, with a wooden spoon from East to West, in honour of the Wise Men. On top of that, each member of the family giving the pudding a stir has to make a wish. This “stirring” meeting is traditionally made five weeks before Christmas, on or after the Sunday before Advent. That day is known as “Stir-up Sunday”.

Putting a silver coin in the pudding is another age-old custom that is said to bring luck to the person that finds it. In the UK the coin traditionally used was a silver ‘six pence’. The closest coin to that now is a five pence piece!

Christmas Puddings may be served in different ways. It is quite typical to decorate it with holly as it is believed to bring good luck. It is also very common to pour brandy or some other alcoholic drink and light the pudding at the table to make a spectacular display. Christmas Pudding is usually eaten with brandy butter/sauce, rum butter, thick cream, custard…

Below find the recipe I used. As you will see I replaced suet with butter. I know Christmas are already gone (setting up a blog was harder and more time consuming than I thought), but you can always cook it for next Christmas as it will definitely last until then.

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup raisins
  • 1 cup prunes
  • 1/2 cup dried cherries
  • 1 cup brandy
  • 3/4 flour
  • 2 cups soft fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 1/4 cup butter, plus 1 more tbsp to grease the bowls
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/2 tsp allspice (if you can’t find it just mix ground cinnamon and ground cloves).
  • 1/2 tsp ground ginger
  • 1 cup chopped or laminated almonds
  • 1 peeled and grated apple
  • 2 lemons (zest and juice)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 cup of Guinness or apple juice

Preparation method:

  1. Mix the raisins, prunes (cut into small pieces) and dried cherries in a glass bowl. Pour the brandy over and leave it aside for 12 hours.
  2. Mix the flour, breadcrumbs, brown sugar, butter, salt, nutmeg, allspice and ginger in a bowl. Then, add the almonds, the grated apple and the dried fruits soaked in brandy. Then add the zest and the juice of the lemon. Mix well.
  3. Get a different bowl to beat the eggs. Add the Guinness or apple juice (I had to use Guinness) and mix these with the previous mixture. Stir thoroughly. The mixture is ready when it subsides slightly after each stir. This is the time when you can ask the family to stir too, and get everyone to make a wish.
  4. Generously butter two 15 cms bowls. Pour in the pudding mixture until 2/3rds are filled. Then cover the bowls with a double layer of greaseproof paper or baking parchment, pleating it to alow for expansion. Then tie the paper with string and trim off any excess paper.
  5. Boil or oven steam the puddings for 5 or 6 hours, topping up with water as necessary.
  6. Remove from the pans and leave to cool overnight. When cold, discard the wrappings and re-wrap in new greaseproof or baking parchment, foil and string. Store in a cool, dry place until Christmas.
  7. On Christmas day, steam the pudding again for 3-4 hours. Unwrap and turn out. To flame, warm 3-4 tbsp of brandy in a small pan, pour it over the pudding and set light to it.

This is my Christmas Pudding. It’s so delicious it’s worth the effort.

 

Ginger men biscuits to decorate my Christmas tree

Every year I’m always late to buy my Christmas tree ornaments as I feel that November is too soon for Christmas and once December arrives the best decorations are gone. But this year I was saved with these Ginger Men biscuits with candy hearts. I love the stained glass window effect that reminds me of Gothic cathedrals, and which is improved when the Christmas tree lights are switched on. We can also give them as gifts. This recipe is from the British ex-top model Lorraine Pascale. She made stars in her original recipe, but I opted for my ginger men. So you can give them whatever shape you want: it’s up to you and your imagination. What do you think of the ones I made?

If you keep them in cellophane they will last longer and you can even wait until the end of Christmas to eat them.

Ingredients:

  • 100 g. butter
  • 100 g. soft brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp of golden syrup
  • 1 tbsp ground ginger
  • 1 tbsp of honey
  • 1 tbsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 pinch of ground cloves
  • 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 250 g. plain flour
  • fruit-flavoured sweets in different colours

Preparation Method:

  1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas 4.
  2. For the biscuits, mix the butter, sugar, golden syrup, honey, and spices in a medium pot and heat it at low temperature. Wait until the mixture smooths for three of four minutes while we keep stirring.
  3. Remove the pot from the heat and slowly stir in the bicarbonate of soda and the flour into the mixture. Mix to make a smooth but firm dough, and set it aside for five minutes until it cools up a bit.
  4. Roll the dough out on a floured work surface to about 1-0.5 cm thick. Be quick as the dough dries out easily.
  5. Then cut into shapes using the selection you want of Christmas-themed cookie cutters. Transfer the biscuits to baking sheets lined up with baking paper.
  6. Crush the sweets in their rappers using a rolling pin or a pestle & mortar.
  7. Cut out shapes in the centre of each biscuit, making sure you leave a good edge all around the biscuit. Completely fill the hole in each biscuit with crushed boiled sweets. Use different colours for every biscuit.
  8. Bake the biscuits in the oven for 12-15 minutes, or until golden-brown.
  9. Remove the biscuits from the oven and leave them on the tray until they cool as the sweets need to harden.
  10. You can decorate the biscuits with piped white icing.

White icing preparation method (I used my Thermomix):

  1. We need an egg white and 200 g. icing sugar.
  2. Separate the egg yolk from the White.
  3. Insert Butterfly into the TM bowl.
  4. Place egg white into TM bowl. Add 50 g. of icing sugar and beat for 10 seconds on speed 4. Space down the sides of the bowl.
  5. Weight 130 g. of icing sugar and put speed 4 on the machine. We start incorporating the icing sugar slowly – one tablespoon at a time through the whole of the lid.
  6. We try the consistency we want before the sugar is over. If a stiffer consistency is required then add more sugar. If a thiner consistency is required then add 1-2 tbsps of wáter.
  7. Then we can decorate the cookies with the white icing.

As my ginger men didn’t need lots of icing, I used the leftovers to decorate these biscuits I already had at home. And they also served as Christmas ornaments for our tree.

Merry Christmas!!!

Christmas in the UK is very much like Christmas in Spain, although shorter, as the British are not visited by the Magi, also referred to as the Three Wise Men or the Three Kings (we celebrate the Magi on the day of Epiphany, January 6, the day immediately following the twelve days of Christmas). It is Santa Claus or Father Christmas who receives letters from children all over the UK, and he is the one who brings them gifts on Christmas Eve.

Christmas lights are everywhere and the most famous ones in the UK are switched on at the beginning of November in Oxford Street, London. The picture below is from Regent Street and we took it a few years ago (a while before I ever thought of writing this blog).

The word Christmas comes from the Old English word Cristesmaesse, meaning “Christ’s mass” and is a Christian annual festival commemorating the birth of Jesus, and it is celebrated among billions of people around the world, even by a large number of non-Christian people.

Christmas music and caroling are popular customs of the holiday as long as other traditions as the staging of Nativity Plays. Singing carols in churches was instituted on Christmas Eve 1880 in Truro Cathedral, Cornwall, and it is now seen in churches all over the world. Carol singing in the streets or other public places is one of the most ancient traditions in the UK and it is believed to come from the Middle Ages, when beggars used to sing these songs in exchange of money, food or drink. Nowadays, it is quite common to find people going from home to home singing Christmas carols in order to raise funds for charity. The most famous Christmas song of all times is White Christmas, by Irving Berlin, with estimated sales of 50 million copies worldwide.

Obviously, I cannot forget mentioning Christmas Markets, which I love (as J. says I love anything that includes the word “market” in it). They are street markets that take place during the four weeks of Advent. They originated in Germany and Austria and they became very popular in the UK until Oliver Cromwell banned the celebration of Christmas between 1647 and 1660 (he just wanted it returned to just a religious celebration). During the Victorian era there were of course many markets in Britain selling Christmas related products, but they were not known as Christmas Markets. The first UK Christmas Market to be revived as such was Lincoln Christmas Market, in the East of England, in 1982. Below a picture of Bath’s Christmas Market, set in the streets surrounding Bath Abbey.

The main celebration also lies upon a table full of food, and it is eaten at lunchtime or early afternoon on Christmas day (they do not celebrate Christmas Eve as much as we do). A traditional British dinner includes stuffed turkey or goose, vegetables (brussel sprouts are typical), roasted potatoes and cranberry sauce and gravy.

On December 26th they celebrate Boxing Day, which is a very old custom that started in the UK during the Middle Ages. It was the day when “Christmas Boxes” for the poor were traditionally opened, containing food, money or presents.

Mince pies are sweets that are tipically eaten throughout Christmas. These pies were originally filled with mince meat. Today they are just filled with a dried fruit mix, but many of them are still not suitable for vegetarians as they usually contain suet. The main dessert is the traditional Christmas pudding, which is also composed of dried fruits, spices and lots of alcohol. The pudding is aged for a month or even up to a year. This high alcohol content prevents the pudding from spoiling during that time. This pudding is steamed for many hours and because of that many families prefer to buy their puddings readymade. To serve, the pudding is reheated by steaming once more and dressed with warm brandy which is set alight. It is eaten with a sauce (brandy butter, rum butter, custard cream, lemon cream, double cream…). I made two Christmas puddings myself this year. For the recipe you will have to wait for my next entry.

British Food

One of the things I’ve always missed most from the UK is the food. I know that British food has never had a great reputation, at least in Spain. When I first went to the UK I was mentally ready to eat food I wouldn’t like. It’s true I was only fifteen and my taste was not yet well defined (to tell you the truth I wouldn’t eat many things). But I was so wrong ! What a surprise that was. I was very lucky as the dad in the house where I spent that summer was a cook . All the Spanish at the school were so jealous of me, except for the lunch break sandwich, which was too strange for us as it had too many ingredients to what we were used to.

In Europe the thinking is that the British are not known for their culinary tradition, and they are famous for eating junk food. And they have all the junk food you can imagine. But in fact, you can eat incredible food there as well. What you don’t find in the UK you won’t find it anywhere.

To begin with, the British are great bakers. I’m sure all of you have heard of the popular Afternoon Tea, where the tea is not the best part but the sweet treats that go with it. My mouth waters just thinking about scones, muffins, cookies, biscuits, cakes, cheesecakes, marmalades & jams, shortbread, crumbles, pies, tarts, puddings, and a great many others. Oh, my God !!


Afternoon Tea

Savoury dishes can’t be left behind : I think that the most popular ones are fish & chips, which might be junk food as long as delicious when properly cooked, and Sunday roast. But the list goes on and on : pies, pasties, sausages & mashed potatoes, ploughman’s lunch, the traditional English breakfast, jacket potatoes…

Sunday Roast

And my favourite cheese in the whole world… Cheddar !!! I just love it ! I can’t forget about sauces, chutneys and pickles either. And sandwiches !!! English invented sandwiches and I have never seen such a wide variety of them : I could spend most of the days eating sandwiches from Marks & Spencer or similar.

But what I love most about the Bristish food is that in the UK other foods from all over the world became British as well, as for example, Indian food, another one of my favourites. The great British Empire was very useful after all. Where else can you find a curry dish next to pasta but in an English traditional pub ?

To top it all off, British chefs taught me how to cook. It would have been easier to learn how to cook traditional Mediterranean dishes from my mum, but that wasn’t for me. I had to learn from Jamie Oliver !! I can’t help being a freak of everything British and there was no other possible way for me.