John Kemp’s Kitchen: Christmas — European Style

 cr: John Kemp

cr: John Kemp

Hello again, everyone! I hope you’re all faring well with the semester wrapping up and exams on the horizon. I know it can be a busy time of year and believe me — I’ve been feeling the pressure here in Switzerland, too. What’s been getting me through the most arduous of assignments however, has been that wave of relief after the whirlwind of first semester — Christmas break. I was excited when I heard this was the last issue of Pro Tem before the break, not because I don’t like writing my column, but because that meant I could write the article I’ve been waiting to write since I got here: Christmas — European Style.
Europe has been around for a long time, giving it a chance to develop some pretty fantastic Christmas traditions including innumerable Christmas delicacies. To give a quick snapshot of what traditional Christmas fare looks like in Europe, I thought I’d take us through five European countries to see how they do it up over here.
SPAIN : The Spanish start their feasting late on Christmas Eve, eating either before or after midnight mass. The party continues late into the night, sometimes as late as 6:00 AM the next day. Christmas dinner, the next day, usually consists of a bounty of seafood dishes such as Mariscos y Pescado. Turkey has also made its way into Spanish Christmas cuisine in the form of the bird with truffles and serrano ham known as Pavo Trufado de Navidad. To follow is a selection of desserts such as different iterations of marzipan, polvorones (dense nut-flavoured shortbreads), and turrón which comes in both a brittle-like variety (Alicante) and a nougat-like variety (Jijona).
The fun doesn’t stop there, though. The alimentary indulgence continues on the 6th of January, when Spaniards will cut into a cake known as Rosca de Reyes. This cake is eaten to commemorate the search of the wise men for Jesus back in the day. Within the cake there is a trinket of sorts, whether it be a tiny figure of Jesus or a small toy, as well as a dried bean. Whatever person finds the trinket in their slice is considered the king or queen of the celebration. Whatever poor soul finds the bean, however, is expected to pay for the next year’s celebrations.
GERMANY : For Catholic Germany, fasting during the day of Christmas Eve is traditional. That’s why having fish such as salmon or hake as opposed to meat on Christmas Eve is standard. Carnivorous indulgences, however, have managed to establish other customs, usually in the form of sausages over potato salad accompanied by sauerkraut and Kartoffelpuffer, a sort of potato fritter. The struggle of fasting is soon forgotten the next day when German dining tables are filled with roast goose, turkey, or duck, served alongside Serviettenknödel (a large dumpling made of bread, eggs, and onions), braised red cabbage or stewed kale.
POLAND : Poland, with a strong Catholic tradition, also fasts during the day of Christmas Eve, though the suspense for the Poles is somewhat greater as it is only at the sight of the first star that the meal can begin. The meal, like the Germans’, contains no red meat, but instead fish. What is interesting about the Polish Christmas dining table is that there is usually straw under the tablecloth to represent Jesus’ birthplace as well as an empty place setting in the event that the baby Jesus should make an appearance or that a deceased relative or lonely wanderer who may be in need of food should show up. The meal begins with the breaking of opłatek (a wafer made of water and wheat flour), symbolising each family member’s unity with Christ. To follow, barszcz (a beetroot soup) with uszka (a sort of ravioli) is usually served alongside pierogi and herring dishes. To finish off the meal, kluski z makiem is the traditional dessert, a combination of poppy seeds with egg noodles, nuts, and raisins.
NORWAY : Having visited Norway just a week ago, I couldn’t help but include this fabulous country in my culinary Christmas snapshot. On Christmas Eve, Norwegians enjoy risengrynsgrøt, a type of rice pudding in which a skinned almond is hidden. Whoever finds this almond in their portion becomes the lucky winner of a marzipan pig.
The food of Christmas Day varies greatly in Norway, with meat-based dishes such as pinnenkjøtt (salted mutton ribs, smoked and steamed) in most of Norway and Lutefisk in the South. Lutefisk is made of a variety of aged white fish, soaked in water for five to six days before being soaked in a lye solution which causes it to lose about 50% of its protein, resulting in a gelatinous texture. It is then cooked in the oven, afterwards being served with potatoes, peas, and white sauce. This particular dish has somewhat mysteriously made its way to the U.S. where it’s also quite popular.
Norwegian breweries are also heavily involved in Christmas traditions, as Christmas beer being stronger and darker than standard Norwegian lagers is customary. For the minors, julebrus, a reddish-brown soft drink is the substitute which I had the joy of trying in Oslo.
CROATIA : Being part Croatian myself, I can confirm that the incredible amounts of food eaten at Christmas are a reality. Christmas Eve starts with fasting during the day, leading to a modest meal of bakalar (dried cod) in most of Croatia. To follow is mass, and then a night of celebration in bars and cafés. On Christmas day, the real feasting begins with ambrosiae such as sarma (the greatest cabbage rolls you’ll ever have), peppers stuffed with ground pork, roasted pig (yes, the whole pig), lamb, and turkey. If you don’t put on 20 pounds by december 26th, is it really Christmas?