Unlike many European countries we don’t have a specific dinner or food to celebrate Christmas Eve.
In Italy they have the “Feast of the seven Fishes” where, as the name suggests, seven different dishes from the sea or lakes are served. In Scandinavia they serve a cured salmon, called gradvalax with breads and pickles. From Spain to Eastern Europe it’s a similar story with fish playing the main part at the table.
In Britain our lack of any specific foods on Christmas Eve harks back to the reformation. In Scotland Christ’s Mass was banned, with Presbyterian ministers visiting their flock to make sure they had no excessive food in their houses. The Puritans had a similar influence on the English at this time too but they relaxed a bit after the restoration of the monarchy. It took the Scottish until 1958 before the ban on celebrating Christmas was lifted by the ruling church.
Saint Martin was a soldier in the Roman Army around 300AD who converted to Christianity and was imprisoned because of his refusal to fight. He became a monk and later vehemently tried to avoid being made Bishop of Tours by hiding in a goose pen. The geese squawked loudly and he was discovered. He was forced to take up the appointment and goose is eaten throughout Europe at this time to punish them for what they did to Saint Martin. St Martinmas Day is the 11th of November and in medieval times all the animals were culled on this day and cured meats and blood puddings were made to sustain people throughout the winter. 40 day cured and spiced meat would have been eaten on Christmas Day as a result of the butchery in November in remembrance of St Martin.
In Cork traditional spiced beef, cured with spices, sugar and salt is serve as part of the festive feast. This harks back to centuries ago when the city was a major hub for trade and expense spices were traded for the local butter. With the price of this commodity lately it’s something that could be revived.
As we have no set customs for food on the day before Christmas, it gives us carte blanche to make up our own or adopt the European approach.
My first recipe takes inspiration from the North of Europe and is for salmon cured with beetroot and gin. The fish is infused with spices, salt, sugar, beetroot and gin for 24 hours and the ruby hued, juniper redolent fish is ready to eat. Black bread is often eaten with cured fish and meats in Scandinavian countries and I’ve included a recipe. The main flour used is rye flour and you can pick this up in most supermarkets or Asian or Polish shops. The black reference comes from the dark flour, treacle, coffee, cocoa and dark sugar and is the perfect foil for the sweet, salty fish. The whole dish is given a punchy crunch with a horseradish and chive salad.
Spiced beef is the influence for my other recipe but in this case an already cured ham is first cooked with cider and spices in a pot. It’s then coated with a spice mixture and baked again to crust the ham. Perfect for Christmas Eve served hot with potato salad and pickles or equally as good the next day with turkey.