When we take a look at Christmas fare around the world, the first impression we get is that people everywhere have similar ideas when cooking the main course for the festive table.
Goose appears on many northern tables, suckling pig on others, you will see capons and poulardes in some countries and the traditional turkey puts in an appearance of some kind just about everywhere.
It’s at the tail end of the Christmas dinner that national tastes begin to diverge: desserts and sweetmeats vary considerably, with each country having its own specialities.
But many of the more popular Christmas sweet foods travel well and are available no matter where we live. The greatest traveller of all is the English Christmas pudding which, because of the Commonwealth, has covered the longest distances.
Mincemeat is another English festive delight that knows no frontiers: this seductive melange of spicy flavours conquers people worldwide. I know of several Mallorcan families who tasted mincemeat pies made by English friends and then progressed to buying jars of mincemeat and making their own pies and tarts. I’m all for cross-cultural exchanges like that.
These exchanges also take place in the other direction: everyone seems to love turrón, the nougat-like confection that is an essential part of every Spanish meal during the 12 days of Christmas.
Turrón has a long and venerable history: it was mentioned in 14th century Catalán carols and was known in Italy in the 15th century. You’ll find various kinds of Mallorcan variations on the basic recipe and they are worth trying. Some of them are economically priced but the handmade ones from high class pastry shops are on the dear side. But all connoisseurs agree they are good buys.
Marzipan is another favourite sweetmeat in Mallorca and all over Spain. It is called ‘mazapán’ in Spanish and it is like turrón in that it is made mainly from almonds, but they are quite different in other ways.
Turrón comes in slabs, rounds or cylindrical shapes, but confectioners let their imaginations run wild and give all kinds of fantastic forms to marzipan. Some come with intricate adornments that turn them into mini pastry shop works of art.
The most famous Christmas sweet in France is the ‘büche de Noël’, a chocolate cake in the form of a log. The inspiration for this festive cake comes from the old French tradition putting a large log on the fire during Christmas Eve celebrations.
As family and friends sat round the fire after the Christmas Eve meal, they would keep the flames burning brightly by throwing the dregs from brandy glasses over the burning log.
The cake is made with a roly-poly sponge base filled with cream and chocolate. It is cylindrical in shape and is covered with a soft chocolate that is scraped to make it look like the bark on a log.
Italy’s main contribution to the international sweet side of Christmas is the panetonne, a light sponge cake studded with sultanas or chocolate chips. It comes from Milan and is a good example of what Lombardic pastry cooks can do with flour and butter. Although the panetonne started off as a special treat during the 12 days of Christmas, it became so popular it is now made throughout the year.
They vary in size from small individual ones to those the size of a large cottage loaf. The big ones come in cardboard boxes and are a popular present during the festive season. They have been a huge success in Mallorca and are on sale in most supermarkets.
Some of them are made in Spain but the best ones are imported from Italy. And if they come from Milan, all to the good.
Last year the influx of panetonne in Mallorcan supermarkets, and even neighbourhood grocery shops, had become an avalanche, but this year it is a veritable tsunami.
You’ll find an incredible variety of this Italian spongecake with added flavours of every imaginable kind. I particularly liked one that was made with pistachios and was of a beautiful green colour like…well, pistachios.
The best range of panetonne are at the supermarkets of El Corte Inglés and the Club del Gourmet — on the fifth floor in Jaime III and the second floor in the Avenidas.
Italians eat more desserts and sweets at Christmas than at any other time of the year. Christmas Eve dinner, which is always meatless, has an air of solemn festivity and is never an elaborate affair. Its sweet side is represented by cassata, the famous ice cream tart.
Christmas Day features two or three desserts and sweetmeats, one of which is pignolata, little pastries made with honey and pinenuts.
Another favourite is amaretti, or macaroons. That doesn’t come as a surprise because the Italians invented this crunchy biscuit that is absolutely scrummy.
Gastronomic traditions in Switzerland vary from canton to canton, one of the oldest being tirggel, a flat cake not unlike Scottish shortbread. Tirggel, which originated in the Lake Zurich area and was already popular in the 15th century, is made with flour, sugar and honey. It is pressed into moulds that leave the surface engraved with a variety of biblical scenes. Tirggels are a popular gift during Advent.
The beginning of December sees the arrival of gratima in pastry shops in the German part of Switzerland. This is the figure of a little man made out of dough containing flour, butter, milk, yeast and salt. He wears a jacket, hat and boots.
Germany is very rich in Christmas lore of every kind: so many of our festive season traditions, from Christmas trees to Silent Night, came to us directly from Germany.
One of the oldest Christmas biscuits is ‘lebkuchen’, with origins that can be traced back to 1293 in the town of Schewidinitz in Silesia. At the end of the 14th century Nuremberg copied the recipe and it became more associated with that town.
The ‘lebkuchen’ are in the shape of stars, hearts and rings. They are perfumed with lemon juice, sprinkled with crushed almonds and covered with a thin layer of chocolate.
Another German favourite, and one that has travelled the world, is ‘stöllen’ bread, a fruit loaf from Dresden with currants and nuts and covered with icing sugar.
The traditional shape of ‘stöllen’ — oblong and tapered at each end with a ridge down the middle — represents the newly born Jesus swaddled in a white blanket.
The ‘stöllen’ is made with a sweet yeast dough mixed with milk, eggs, sugar and butter and flavoured with lemon juice. Raisins, sultanas, currants, rum or brandy, candied peel and almonds are mixed into the dough.
Thinly sliced ‘stöllen’ spread with some butter is delicious with a cup of tea or coffee but as it is very rich and almost like a cake, it doesn’t really need the butter. Try it both ways and see which you prefer. Stöllen is widely available in Palma. You can get it at the Bip supermarket chain and I’ve seen it at El Corte Inglés and Carrefour. And Liddl should have it.
The most expensive Christmas sweetmeat you’ll come across is marrons glacés. The price is so astronomically high that I don’t know anyone who eats them outside of the 12 days of Christmas.
The price is so outrageous that I used to think they were a bit of a ripoff. But I changed my mind when I found out how they are made. Marrons glacés are simply chestnuts that have been boiled in sugar. Chestnuts are cheap and so is sugar, and one would expect marrons glacés to be reasonably priced. And that would probably be the case if the process of turning chestnuts into marrons glacés weren’t so laborious and pernickety.
We always think of marrons glacés as being exclusively French, but there is a Spanish company that specialises in them. It is called Cuevas y Cia and, appropriately enough, it is in Galicia where Spain’s best chestnuts come from. When the company takes delivery of some three million kilos of chestnuts at harvest time, only the largest and best are selected for marrons glacés. After that first stage about 2.7 million kilos are rejected as being too small, leaving some 300,000 kilos that go on to the next stage.
A second selection for size and perfect quality eliminates all but 30,000 kilos — one per cent of the original total. But the battle for the survival of the fittest doesn’t end there.
A marron glacé must be perfectly whole, and in the arduous cooking process only half of that final selection of 30,000 kilos makes it to the stage when they are wrapped and put in a box.
That means 3,000,000 kilos of chestnuts enter the plant and only 15,000 kilos leave as marrons glacés packed up in a box — half of one per cent. Those chestnuts selected for the final stage are first boiled. This opens them up and later allows the sugar to penetrate.
As chestnuts break easily, the boiling process has to be handled most carefully. They are not thrown into an enormous industrial cauldron and left to it. They are later laboriously and slowly peeled, wrapped in gauze, flat sides together, and tied with string. They are then carefully boiled. The chestnuts are taken out of the water and a syrup is prepared using the same weight of sugar as the water the chestnuts were boiled in. The syrup is flavoured with vanilla and sometimes lemon juice.
The chestnuts are taken out of their gauze and simmered in the syrup for only five minutes. They then sit in the syrup for 24 hours, after which they are brought to the boil and simmered for another five minutes. This process is repeated for up to five days.
It is during this time of cooking and recooking in the syrup that about half of the chestnut break and are rejected — leaving only 15,000 kilos of saleable marrons glacés.
After the final simmering, the syrup is reduced by a considerable amount and poured over the top of each chestnut. When the coating of syrup dries, the chestnuts have finally become marrons glacés. They are then wrapped and put in boxes.
As chestnuts are great absorbers of aromas and flavours, the women who handle them in the marrons glacés plant are not allowed to wear perfume, make-up or nail varnish.
Some 60 per cent of the production is for the home market and the rest is exported to France, Japan, the United States and Britain. Sending marrons glacés to France is very much like the proverbial sending of coals to Newcastle.
French marrons glacés are universally recognised as being the finest and those on sale at the world famous Fauchon, the finest grocery shop in Paris, have no equals. That the French import Galicia’s marrons glacés is an incredible and magnifique unsolicited testimonial.
Although cooking chestnuts and other fruits in sugar is a way of preserving them, marrons glacés do not have a very long shelf life. They are at their best up to 15 days after they are made.
This means the whole crop of chestnuts suitable for making marrons glacés cannot be made in one gigantic batch. In the best scenario, the vast majority of us can afford marrons glacés only at Christmas, but a few others can buy them all year round for special occasions.
The makers get over this ‘best-by’ problem by freezing those chestnuts that are not being used immediately. This is beneficial for two reasons. It allows the makers to present new batches throughout the year so that those on sale are always at their best.
The freezing of the chestnuts helps to tenderise them so that when they get their initial boiling they are in the water for a shorter time, and therefore absorb less moisture.
Those 2,970,000 kilos of chestnuts that are initially rejected as being unsuitable for making marrons glacés, also end up on shop shelves. Many are put in jars to be sold as a garnish for game, and others are dried for export, mainly to Asia.
I find that most of the sweet side of Christmas, including the occasional marron glacé, are best when eaten between meals.
Mincemeat pies, panetonne and slices of stöllen are delightful for breakfast with coffee or tea. Others are great with an afternoon cup of tea when our tastebuds are fresh and we can appreciate them better.