The tastes of Christmas past

If the EU did anything for Britain, the cheap food made possible through the Common Agricultural Policy meant things once luxuries became part of everyday consumption. Christmas was once a time when there were things to eat that might appear only once a year.

Christmas dinner itself was conventional in parts: potatoes and vegetables were a routine part of the diet, except, of course, the Brussels sprouts which seemed an indispensable part of the Christmas menu. There was no reason why turkey might not have been eaten at any time of the year; perhaps its size meant that it would only be contemplated on an annual basis.

Christmas pudding: even its name reflected the frequency with which it appeared. In the 1960s, there was still a custom of putting a sixpence into the pudding. No-one ever explained why this was done, though there would be the annual warning to be careful not to swallow it. Sometimes the pudding came with custard or cream; sometimes with brandy butter, something that would have been made at home rather than purchased in a supermarket.

It was in the bits and pieces that the seasonal tastes really appeared. There would have been tangerines, a fruit which came in net string bags and which was eaten slowly in order to savour each segment. There were wooden boxes of dates; the picture of the camel on the lid gave them an exotic quality. The box always contained a two pronged wooden fork with which to take out the fruit. There were bags of nuts, Brazils, and almonds, and hazelnuts and walnuts. No-one ever explained why Christmas was the time of year for eating nuts, but it was not Christmas unless a bag was bought. Nut crackers made their annual appearance in an attempt to break open shells determined not to give up their contents.

Chocolate was always a significant presence, the massive tins of Quality Street seemed to offer delights that would last forever, though by the New Year the only ones left would be the coffee-flavoured ones that no-one liked. There were Selection Boxes, and stockings filled with bars, but these always promised more than they delivered (did anyone ever play the games sometimes printed on the boxes?)

By teatime on Christmas day, the cakes would come out. Home made Christmas cake topped with marzipan and icing, Dundee cake topped with almonds, mince pies. It was as if for one day in the year we were going to eat as if money was no object.

Wasn’t it the money that made the tastes seasonal? Food used to constitute a major element of weekly household expenditure, now it accounts for less than one-sixth. We can afford to eat what we like when we like. Paradoxically, it has been having money to spare that has made Christmas less special.

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