23 December 2021
It’s the festive season again! Conversations in our multi-national department invariably turn to colleagues’ national Christmas and New Year traditions, especially what we have to eat in our home countries. In today’s post colleagues share some Christmas Eve cuisine from Central Europe, Ukraine and France
In Central Europe, carp is a popular traditional dish for Christmas. ‘The queen of rivers’, as it was called by the 17th-century English writer Izaak Walton, this fish is quite oily and bony. So the first thing to do is to remove as many bones as possible, so that your Christmas dinner is not spoilt by a call to the ambulance. Choking on carp bones was a typical Christmas accident and is the source of many songs and anecdotes. However, you really should risk it, as carp scales are a symbol of wealth, so don’t forget to place them under plates before dinner, or hold in the palm of your hand, or put them in your wallet.
If you want your taste-buds get excited this Christmas and are seriously concerned about your wealth, why not visit your fishmonger and then indulge in a quality family time removing bones together during dark December evenings? Once the bones are out of the way, you can be creative with rubbing salt, spices, and pepper into the fish. Some recipes suggest using mustard and lemon juice or eggs to mix with flour or breadcrumbs for wrapping. Each household in Czechia or Poland would have their own traditional recipe, but the most important thing is to fry carefully and not overdo it.
Of course, carp is not only for Christmas, it is a really big part of Central European culture all year round. Books have been written about this wonderful and really tasty fish, as for example this one, promoting carp from the southern regions on the Czech Republic in national and foreign cuisines.
Cover of Vilém Vrabec, Jihočeský kapr v naší a zahraniční kuchyni (České Budějovice, 1979) X.629/16113
In fact, in Polish territories neighbouring the Czech lands carp was popularized by Czech Cistercians in 12th century. Although it became one of the staples of Polish cuisine, for a long time it was not considered as an essential part of the Christmas Eve table. Other fish dishes were equally, if not more popular. However, after the Second World War when freshwater fish farming could not come back to its former glory and the Baltic fleet was depleted, the Polish Minister for Industry and Trade, Hilary Minc, came up with an ingenious trade and marketing strategy. First, he decided that the answer for the ‘fish crisis’ was to set up carp breeding ponds which would offer fish-starved Poles a cheap but hefty chunk of protein. The slogan ‘Carp on every Christmas Eve table’ became a reality. Since 1947 almost every Polish child has been able to pet their own carp, held for days in bathtubs, in a run up to Christmas. Live carp were often offered to workers as a festive bonus.
In recent years animal rights activists launched a very successful campaign ‘Uwolnić karpia!’(‘Free the Carp!’) to put a stop to animal suffering which for years has been a part of the festive season. The campaign, which is ongoing, does not aim to fight the Polish Christmas tradition, but to get rid of the part which is unnecessarily cruel to animals. So let us celebrate with a cheerful: Happy Carp – Happy Christmas!
Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator and Olga Topol, Curator, Slavonic and East European Collections
Ukrainian Christmas Dishes
In Ukraine the whole family gathers at the table for the Christmas Eve dinner. Traditionally they wait for the first star to be appear in the sky. It reminds them of the star of Bethlehem which once announced to the Magi the birth of the Son of God. Only after that (and after prayer) can they start dinner.
Since Christmas Eve is the last day of the Advent fast, all meals should be lean. Traditionally it is 12 festive dishes in honour of the 12 apostles.
Chief among these are kutia and uzvar. The dinner starts with kutia – a porridge made from wheat or barley grain which symbolize eternal life and prosperity. Before cooking, the grain is soaked in cold water. Traditionally some people cook it in clay pots. Cooked porridge is placed in a deep, preferably earthenware, bowl or makitra and crushed poppy-seeds, walnuts, raisins and honey are added. Everything is mixed thoroughly.
Recipe for kutia from Ukraine: Food and History, edited by Olena Braichenko (Kyiv, 2020). Awaiting shelfmark.
The traditional Christmas drink Uzvar is made from dried fruits. Uzvar means ‘boil down’ because the fruit is boiled over a low heat. First of all it is apples, pears, plums and cherries which give it an intense and warm colour. It could be also dried apricots and raisins or other fruits depending of the area of Ukraine.
Cover of Igor Stassiouk, Ukrainian Christmas Feast = Ukraïnsʹke Rizdvo (Kyïv, 2010) YK.2012.a.9322
The other 12 dishes are not so prescriptive, and among them could be holubtsi (stuffed cabbage with mushrooms), lean borsch, vinaigrette, deruny (potato pancakes), varenyky (dumplings with cherries or grated poppy seeds), baked apples, etc. Recipes for these and other festive dishes can be found in the British Library’s collections, for example in the works illustrated above and cited below.
For Christmas and Easter: religious holiday dishes = Na Rizdvo i na Velykdenʹ: zakarpatsʹki sviatkovi stravy. Compiled by Valentyna Dzioba English translation by Valentyna Babydorych. (Uzhhorod, 2002) YF.2007.a.29847
Olha Verbenets, Vira Manko, Obriady i stravy sviatoho vechora (Lviv, 2007) YF.2008.a.30595
Lidiia Artiukh, Zvychaï ukraïntsiv u narodnomu kalendari (Kyïv, 2015) LF.31.a.5017
Nadiia Strishenets, British Library Chevening Fellow
A ghost and thirteen desserts
Christmas is associated with many things: seasonal food and drink, dancing, games and a festive generosity of spirit. Since Charles Dickens, maybe, it has also been associated in literature with ghost stories and just supernatural retribution for mistakes, past and present.
French author Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897), who was instrumental in reviving and creating a canon of Provençal folklore, somehow managed to combine food and ghosts in his story of the ‘three low masses’, which was part of his work Lettres de mon moulin (Letters from my Mill; Paris, 1879; 11483.aaa.13).
Published in 1875, Daudet’s short story ‘Les trois basses messes’ imitates the tradition of folk-tale and evokes the delicious food of Christmas with a celestial retribution that sees gourmand Priest Dom Balaguère so impatient for his Christmas réveillon feast of truffled turkeys, pheasant, eels, trout, and wine that he succumbs to the Devil’s tricks and rushes through the required three low masses for Christmas Eve… As a punishment, God decrees that the priest shall not enter heaven until he has celebrated 300 Christmas masses in his chapel, where for centuries his ghost will be heard saying the masses he had first botched because of his gluttony. The British Library has several recordings of readings of excerpts from Lettres de Mon Moulin including some by French actor Fernandel (Sound Archive 1LP0095903), and in English by British actor Stephen Fry (Sound Archive 1CA0029425).
It has been argued that Daudet, following Provencal Poet Frederic Mistral’s success, deliberately exaggerated his links to Provence to further his literary career and social success; but Provence has been, and still is, an acknowledged source of Christmas traditions, be they religious, musical or culinary.
The true Provençal Christmas delicacy, is nowadays considered to be the tradition of the ‘thirteen desserts’ (Occitan: lei tretze dessèrts), the traditional table of delights arranged for the celebration of Christmas in the South of France. In Provence particularly, the ‘Réveillon de Noel’ (Christmas Eve supper) ends with a ritual of thirteen desserts, representing Jesus Christ and the 12 Apostles – you can read a nostalgic and love-filled description of this in Marcel Pagnol’s Le Chateau de ma mère (Paris, 1958; F9/5843).
Definition of the reveillon, from Petit almanach perpétuel de gastronomie (Paris, 1859). Source: Gallica
The food should be presented on Christmas Eve and remains on the table for three days. The precise composition varies in each province, town, or even family. There are only six compulsory items including the four mendiants (‘beggars’), evoking religious orders that had taken a vow of poverty (walnuts or hazelnuts for the Augustinians, dried figs for the Franciscans, almonds for the Carmelites and raisins for the Dominicans), black and white nougat (which counts as one dessert) and the famous pompe à l’huile d’olive, a sweet focaccia-type brioche made with olive oil and flavoured with orange blossom water. Other treats might include calissons (a sweet made of almonds and candied melon), fresh fruits, oreillettes (a type of light doughnut) and all sorts of delicious things.
If only poor Dom Balaguère could have waited for a few hours…
The traditional thirteen desserts served for the celebration of Christmas in the South of France. Photo by Jean-Louis Zimmerman from Wikimedia Commons (CC BY 2.0)
Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections