Traditions often provide comfort. The holidays are a time where we get back in touch with our roots and relish those customs as well as make new ones. Food is a distinguishing signifier of culture, and a significant means of keeping our heritage alive and thriving. Crafting a holiday meal and breaking bread with the ones we hold dear is one of the most satisfying acts of giving and sharing as it brings us joy. And in Ireland, many traditional recipes help to deliver a divine festivity. Read on to learn about some of Ireland’s best-loved holiday food traditions.
THE MAIN COURSE: GOOSE, TURKEY, OR BEEF
The centerpiece of the any holiday meal is the main course. A goose makes for an aptly traditional Irish choice. In Victorian times of the latter nineteenth century, having a goose for the Christmas feast was a bit of an extravagance. Working class families often created a fund weeks before to save up for this specialty. It was a well-earned indulgence for a year’s end. Free-range geese have become more plentiful at holiday time and again are more in vogue.
Geese are a particularly tender bird, and fattier, which makes them more succulent than some of their other feathered brethren. Whole birds can be roasted simply or with special seasoning and flavors for an alternative to the conventional. Salt, pepper, butter with some herbs, such as sage, along with basting–every half hour is appropriate–provides for an elegant, classic and juicy bird. A fifth generation butcher recommends pouring boiling hot water over the bird to render the fat from the skin. For a luxurious twist, East Ferry Farms in Co. Cork not only provides the meat, but also a recipe that includes port and madeira wine, red current jelly, and orange zest with a side of cabbage cooked with apples, red wine, and bacon. A flight of fancy indeed!
Although free range geese are more in favor nowadays, turkeys gained popularity in the 20th century and have become a prevailing choice. Turkeys grow faster, are easier to farm, and tend to be larger and more plump, as well as more economical. This makes them a favorite for the joyful family feast. In Ireland, the bronze-feathered turkey is most similar to American wild turkeys, though also common is the black-feathered turkey, which was imported from Norfolk England in the 1700s. Turkeys are indigenous to the Americas and, if legend is to be believed, were unheard of in Britain until William Strickland traded with a group of Native Americans for some on his 1526 voyage to the New World and brought them back to England. He kept the trade going and turkeys became a delicacy. As turkeys can get dry in the oven, a salted water brine with some seasoning is recommended; it plumps up the bird infusing moisture and flavor. And of course, for turkeys too, basting is a must!
Additionally popular for a Christmas dinner meal, especially before turkeys became a top choice, is spiced beef. Spiced beef, a type of corned beef, is enriched with robust fall spices such as clove, allspice, coriander and ginger. For a more potent flavor, many Irish households marinate the beef overnight. Some recipes even propose pouring Guinness over when cooking.
Saint Stephen’s Day, the day following Christmas Day (Boxing Day in England), likewise has traditions for food and activities. Spiced beef goes right along with the festivities and long-time ritual of the Wren Boys. Groups of young boys dress up wearing masks for a false face to go out hunting the little birds, who in ancient time became a symbol of treachery. In some local histories the pursuit intertwines with the resistance against Oliver Cromwell and his oppressive rule over Ireland’s religious practices much of which is of course Catholic. The flamboyant and carnivalesque-like festivals are similar to the Mummers. Although nowadays less practiced, many localities still have young boys go out on St. Stephen’s Day.
POTATOES ON THE SIDE
What would a goose or turkey be without the stuffing! Not just a mere side dish, stuffing is an integral part of cooking the bird. Loaded into its cavity, the ingredients for the stuffing enhance the flavor of the bird as it cooks, and vice versa, the stuffing absorbs the juices from the goose or turkey. An Irish holiday comfort food classic is the potato stuffing. Many variations have evolved. The utterly essential combination consists of cooked and whipped potatoes with breadcrumbs, sauteed celery and onions, and seasoning. For the carnivore’s rich palette, ground pork and/or sausage is added and for the sweeter side apples are often a preferred option.
Potatoes have a tumultuous history with Ireland. Another earthly gem from the New World, specifically South America, potatoes first came to Ireland in the 18th century. For tenant farmers, the spuds were easy to grow and thrived in the Irish climate and soil, and thus were cultivated in abundance. Because they are rich in protein, vitamins, and complex carbohydrates, potatoes greatly contributed to the growth in population and the drop in infant mortality. The Irish became stronger and even taller!
But the infamous potato famine known as the Great Hunger (An Gorta Mór in Irish), beginning in 1845, resulted from a fungal infection that flourished in the cool, damp Irish weather disseminating the crops. Already an agricultural and impoverished country, this was disastrous, reducing the population by upwards of 25 percent through death and emigration.
Yet, potatoes persisted, a favorite of the Irish and a cultural phenomena making a prominent showing at the holiday table. Fat from the goose for roasted potatoes produces a richness and depth of flavor. A recipe by the blog Irish American Mom offers a step-by-step method for taters that are crispy on the outside yet still soft on the inside. She recommends boiling them for a few minutes first and roasting them at a higher temperature, 400º F. This can be tricky if you are cooking meat at 300-350º F.
Potatoes, technically a vegetable, provide sustenance in their carby delightfulness, but something of a greener nature can’t be ignored. Brussel sprouts, simply cooked, sauteed or roasted, and perhaps buttery carrots too, round out the savory selections. In America and Britain these are mainstays as well.
AND FOR DESSERT? PUDDING & FRUIT CAKES
Sweets to the sweet I say, and firstly with a pudding. Dense, rich, and a little boozy, the Christmas pudding is a delight that is anticipated all year. This dish is definitely one of childhood memories. Sometimes with pyrotechnics and served with whipped cream, the presentation is sensational. Brandy, or even Irish whiskey, is poured over the pudding and set aflame. The author of Irish American Mom recollects the flambé spectacle from her childhood in Limerick. The plum pudding, their traditional pudding, was piping hot when flaming brandy doused the dessert. It was dazzling. Peter Ward, owner of Country Choice in Nenagh, Ireland, makes an extravagant pudding that incorporates candied fruits and citrus zests, as well as Guinness. Additionally, his whipped cream is spiked for a little extra drunken indulgence. Molasses and coconut are key elements too, present in most puddings.
An Irish staple of the season are round cakes and fruits cakes, which are central to Christmas traditions. The cake baking typically begins in October. A potpourri of sweetness, the cakes are eaten for different occasions and generally contain a mixture of raisins, candied fruits, copious splashes of whiskey, a coating of marzipan, and white icing atop and often is accompanied with cups of teas or sips of whiskey. The tradition goes as such: the first cake was cut on Christmas Eve and marks the Season’s Twelve Joyous Days (The Twelve Days of Christmas), the second on New Year’s Eve, and lastly on Women’s Day (Nollaig na mBan in Irish), otherwise known as The Feast of the Epiphany. It is believed that this is when Mary first brought the baby Jesus out into public and to the temple to be blessed.
Not so sweet are seed cakes another seasonal preference with a long heritage. The essential recipe is centered around caraway seeds, which were one of the most common spices of the medieval era as well as a good helping of whiskey.
A CLASSIC IRISH COFFEE TO TOP IT OFF
With such an abundance of pleasurable treats complimentary beverages are mandatory. A large mug of Irish coffee keeps the heart warm, tingling and extra stimulated. When colder weather sets in, the spiked hot drink hits the spot. Beyond Irish whiskey choices, like Jameson or Bushmills, a little stout is often part of the concoction as well as sugar, and for full effect, should be topped off with heavy whipped cream and properly served in a heat resistant large glass mug or chalice (perhaps like these from ShamrockGift.com). Indeed, it is ideal for brunch, a mid afternoon break, and to close out a gratifying supper.
SETTING THE TABLE
Food makes so much of what we look forward to with the holidays, but presentation is also vital for the sensory experience. Making it special requires transformative decorative touches, especially for the table exalting these magnificent delectables. Finely woven patterned damask tablecloths, linens, or even sateen fabrics adorn the table surfaces and are topped by the fine china or the “good dishes” that come out of the cupboards and display cabinets. Dappling candlelight catches the sheen on glassware and porcelains making for a magical presentation. Many tables include heirlooms handed down, such as platters, pitchers, teapots and such, and combined with new items carefully chosen for a distinct fashioning of the home. What’s old becomes new and is of the moment. Conspicuous consumption and artifice may be a lavish act, but the interior plays a significant role in the way we express ourselves and keep up traditions. Every home is a castle to its owner.
In America, Irish traditions were shaped by immigrants, particularly women, who typically worked in domestic service positions and were stereotypically referred to as Bridget. Not so much astute chefs when they arrived in the U.S., these women were characteristically quite young, single and often worked as cooks. These domestic workers, scholar Margaret Lynch-Brennan notes, enhanced their cooking acumen by fulfilling their employers’ meals, including special occasions. Learning proper serving techniques was also important. If not a cook, perhaps a maid or nanny, these impressionable women observed and spent time in the household kitchens. Their cultural ideas about food became melded with the American middle and upper-middle class cultural lifestyle. Unfortunately, the Irish Bridget, as they came to be called, also became a popular culture cliché and regularly was a butt of cartoonish lampooning. However, these strong women overcame this ethnic bias and Irish heritage became a greatly appreciated part of our melting pot.
As the Christmas and the New Year’s celebrations rapidly approach, remember to savor every special morsel. Many a generation went into each bite, so raise a glass to the extraordinary care taken to craft a joyous day with family and dear friends.
Do you have any special Irish Christmas Dinner traditions? Let us know in the comments! And check out ShamrockGift.com’s selection of authentic Irish food hampers and tableware and linens for a slice of the old country this holiday season.