Thursday, 6th August 2020
COVER FEATURE | Food & Drink Article

This Month's Magazine
Christmas Dinner Mediterranean Style

Christmas Dinner Mediterranean Style

In a very real sense the celebration of Christ's Mass, a feast day celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25 in Western Christian churches, is the quintessential Mediterranean holiday.

Christmas was not observed earlier than 200 A.D. and it became a popular holiday in the Middle Ages. The many customs of Christmas, the Yule log, the decorations of holly and mistletoe, the singing of carols, the giving of gifts,
and the sending of cards are contributionsby English-speaking countries. It is theGermans that introduced the ChristmasTree, while the Dutch in seventeenth century New York are responsible for the American Santa Claus.

And who was Santa Claus? He was a Mediterranean man originally known as St.Nicolas*, a 4th century AD bishop of Myra, the modern Demre, in today's Turkey, atown famous now for its luscious tomatoesand juicy Valencia oranges.

Saint Nicholas was born in the nearby city of Patara about 300 AD and came to Myra as a young man. Myra was a port as well as a farming townand St. Nicholas eventually became a patron saint of sailors.

In the 11th century, pirates stole his remains and deposited them in a new burial place in achurch in Bari, Italy. As tales of St. Nicholastravelled to northern Europe, legends to include the bearing of gifts also started to get about and they formed the basis of the Santa Claus we know today.

Christmas is a festive time in the Christian communities and it has even been adopted by some Muslims, who might buy a tree and decorate, but with no reference to Jesus Christ.

Traditionally, Christmas was a special and a festive time, when foods were made and eaten to celebrate the birth of Christ and in the Mediterranean many sweets are associated with Christmas times.

In the Middle Ages even kings concerned themselves with sugar, as we know from King Philip III (1578-1621), the bigoted Spanish king responsible for the final expulsion of the Moors in 1609, who thought that the Viceroy of Valencia should distribute moremsweets and turrón (similar to an almond nougat) among the poor of the city to
celebrate Christmas.

The Christmas banquets of the rich in Spain were as elegant as those in Venice. Francisco Martínez Montiño, master chef to King Philip III (1578-1621), served in the early seventeenth century a magnificent Christmas
banquet that included:


a first course of ham, olla "podrida" (the stew made famous in Don Quixote), roast turkey from the New World with its gravy, little veal puff pastry pies, roast pigeons and bacon, bird "tartelettes" over whipped cream soup, roast partridges with lemon sauce, "capirotada" (a batter of herbs and eggs) with pork loin, sausages and partridges, roast suckling pig with cheese, sugar and cinnamon soup, leavened puff pastry with pork lard, and roast chickens.

The second course consisted of roast capons, thin, hard-baked cake with quince sauce, chicken with stuffed escarole, roast veal with "arugula" sauce, seed-cake of veal sweetbread and livers of small animals, roast thrush over "sopa dorada" (a highly coloured soup), quince pastries, eggs beaten with sugar, hare empanadas, fried trout with bacon fat, and puff pastry tart.

For a third course banqueters were served chicken stuffed with bacon-fried bread, roast veal udder, minced bird meat with lard, "smothered" or "drowned" (ahogados) pigeons, roast stuffed goat, green citron tarts, turkey empanadas, sea bream stew, rabbit with capers, pig's feet empanadas, ring-dove with black sauce, "manjar blanco"
(a dish made of chicken mixed with sugar and milk), and rice fritters. In Catalonia, Christmas always saw the cook
making "escudella*", which means "bowl," the name of a big stew-soup, properly "escudella i carn d'olla".

This is just an illustration of what is a King’s banquet, but then have things really changed that much?

Christmas is a family event, a reunion of all members of a family, brothers, sisters, in-laws, children, aunts and uncles, all gathering to celebrate together the great feast.

Everyone arriving would bring an additional course to add to the table with the result that the lunch would gradually slow down its pace and drag on to become the evening meal, when all the remaining dishes would be brought back to the table.

Such large family meals often also extend to New Year’s eve with the excuse that they would all see the new year in together at midnight.

All of this makes some traditional Christmas Dinners look like a snack by comparison, but then I think that overeating food produced by today’s modern methods is really not recommended.

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