Christians are a tiny minority in India, but Christmas Day – known as Bada Din (pronounced ‘bah-rah din’), meaning ‘the big day’ – is a state holiday. It’s celebrated in various ways – in Goa and Kerala, where India’s Christian population is concentrated, families eat celebratory dishes such as layered coconut cake, bebinca, or spicy pork sorpotel. Further north, some Hindu families, particularly the wealthier ones who may have lived in the west, like to recreate a traditional British Christmas complete with tinsel, turkey and mulled wine. ‘Like St Valentine’s Day, it’s become more fashionable,’ says Karam Sethi, Gymkhana’s chef-owner who – when visiting his grandparents in Delhi, as a child – remembers 25 December as a ‘non-event’.
‘There’s no set traditional Indian Christmas meal,’ says Karam, who gets creative designing Anglo-Indian Christmas dishes for Gymkhana, which is styled like a British Raj-era country club. This year, it will serve marinated, tandoor-cooked tikka turkey; goose seekh kebabs; and sharing roasts of suckling pig and game birds, with specially tweaked trimmings. ‘Adding cumin seeds and fresh ginger to roast potatoes or mustard seed and curry leaves to sprouts spices them up,’ he says. This is in addition to Gymkhana’s regular special occasion dishes, such as muntjac biryani.
‘Sharing sweets with your family is a big part of any Indian celebration,’ says Karam, whose dessert truffles will undergo a seasonal overhaul. ‘We’ll change them
up, use heavier spices: clove, nutmeg, cinnamon.’ Also, his famous mince pie samosas will also be making a comeback. Starters from £7, mains from £15; gymkhanalondon.com
Taste of India Kheer, Indian rice pudding seasonally spiced with dried fruits. ‘To me, that’s really Christmassy,’ says Karam.
Karam’s Christmas tipple
Gymkhana’s punch cocktails use Sri Lankan arrack as a base. Try the Christmas orange and clove version.
Dinner on 24 December is traditionally Scandinavia’s big blow-out meal. But, says Paul Rawlinson, who has Norwegian family ties and runs the hip Baltzersen’s café in Harrogate (which, at night, becomes Nordic restaurant Norse), From St Lucia’s Day (13 December) until New Year’s Eve, when children can finally smash up and eat their traditional gingerbread houses, work colleagues, friends and families across Scandinavia repeatedly come together to enjoy smörgåsbord-style spreads of gravadlax, pickled herrings and glazed Christmas hams.
In Norway, slow-cooked lamb ribs, pinnekjøet, are popular on Christmas Eve as is lutefisk, a dried, fermented and boiled fish served in a bland white sauce. ‘I think it’s a tradition to be endured rather than enjoyed,’ says Paul, with a smile. Thankfully, Norse chef Murray Wilson is taking a more modern approach to his menu, serving goose with renderings of its classic Scandi accompaniments; prune, apple and surkal cabbage. There will also be a reworked riskrem on the menu, the Norwegian Christmas rice pudding in which an almond is hidden: ‘whoever finds it wins a marzipan pig, which you can buy at London’s Bageriet Bakery’, says Paul. (bageriet.co.uk)
By day, in Baltzersen’s, the team will be busy with its Christmas baking, inspired by recipes handed down from Paul’s Norwegian great-grandmother. The showstopper will be the kransekake, a large tower of rings that taste like biscotti, traditionally decorated with tiny Norwegian flags. Norse starters from £6.95, mains from £10.95; baltzersens.co.uk
Taste of Norway
Lussekatter: little saffron-dough raisin twists that are baked specially for St Lucia’s Day.
Paul’s Christmas tipple
Glögg is mulled wine made with berry cordial and fortified with aquavit or brandy. Top it with blanched almonds, raisins and a twist of lemon peel.
At 52, having grown-up on a farm in Westmeath, Richard Corrigan is old enough to remember when Christmas was very different. Its approach would be signalled by a glut of pheasant and fried wild salmon for breakfast: ‘I always looked forward to having that with brown bread’. A pig would be slaughtered and a ham or a duck eaten as Christmas dinner’s centrepiece. ‘Someone would make the plum pudding; someone else Christmas cakes,’ he recalls. ‘There was a real neighbourly spirit.’
Today, Christmas in Ireland is unrecognisable. ‘It’s much like Britain; it’s difficult to characterise what is different on the Irish table.’ Richard has come a long way, too. At Corrigan’s, the atmosphere is relaxed, but the food is worlds away from farmhouse cooking. Richard’s star Christmas dishes include turkey wellington with Perigord truffle, salted endive and pickled chicory; or pheasant served with boudin noir, apple and calvados. For dessert, Corrigan’s Christmas-spiced madeleines. Starters from £9, mains from £18; corrigansmayfair.co.uk
Taste of Ireland
A Corrigan’s favourite; vanilla ice cream with Christmas pudding pieces finished with a drop of port. ‘Spices, port, figs,’ says Richard. ‘When the days are short, those are the uplifting smells that keep you alive.’
Richard’s Christmas tipple
I love a drop of Ruinart Blanc de Blancs champagne
Taberna do Mercado, London
‘I haven’t had a proper Portuguese Christmas in years, I miss it,’ says chef Nuno Mendes with a sigh. Little wonder: Christmas in Portugal is a rolling 24-hour feast that makes a British Christmas look positively tame. The main meal, consoada, is served on Christmas Eve.
Families gather from 6pm for a multi-course extravaganza that lasts until midnight, when everyone opens their presents. Then, on Christmas Day it all starts again, with lunch first, then, later, dinner with different friends or family.
Consoada begins with snacks, cheeses and high-grade charcuterie, such as the cured hams from chestnut-fed pigs which Nuno is serving at his casual, all-day diner, Taberna do Mercado. ‘Boiled prawns, clams and percebes (gooseneck barnacles) follow, before the main course, usually a fish or, in certain regions, whole suckling pig or kid (baby goat). A Christmas salt cod is usually slow-cooked in a vegetable and chickpea stew, dressed with parsley, garlic, vinegar and olive oil sauce.
Expect a similar small plate version on Taberna’s Christmas menu, along with takes on Portugal’s many seasonal sweets. There are rabanadas, (Portuguese French toast eaten at breakfast or as dessert), sonhos (fluffy, light doughnuts), and that Christmas essential, bolo rei (a glazed, cakey bread-ring stuffed with fruits, nuts, and a special surprise). ‘There are two things hidden in there,’ Nuno explains, ‘a present, like a silver pendant, and a broad bean. If you get the present it’s good luck, and if you get the bean, it’s bad luck for the next year.’ Dishes, £5 – £13; tabernamercado.co.uk
Taste of Portugal Sonhos: mini doughnuts rolled in cinnamon. According to Nuno, ‘they’re amazing’.
Nuno’s Christmas tipple
Before dinner we drink champagne, neat Martini Bianco or dry white port, such as Nieport.
La Locanda, near Clitheroe, Lancashire
In Italy, every town, village and family has its fiercely guarded food traditions. Naturally, Christmas is far from uniform. On Christmas Eve, most people will eat a fish-based meal of, say, fritto misto, spaghetti alle vongole or, in Naples, huge roast capitone eel. In the south, so-called Cena della Vigilia is the main family Christmas meal, and has been known to run to 13 courses, while, in the north, it tends to be an informal gathering of friends before midnight mass, and Christmas Day is when families gather for Christmas lunch, or ‘il pranzo’.
Chef Maurizio Bocchi grew up near Lake Maggiore and remembers making tortellini en brodo with his mum for Christmas Day. He still serves it at La Locanda, his rural cottage restaurant in Lancashire. The broth must be made with a capon, he insists, and the filled tortellini should be so tiny that 17 can fit on a spoon. His Christmas Eve menu will include white wine-poached sturgeon from Brescia, served on a bed of carrot, celery and onion.
Back in Lombardy, Christmas Day would start with a morning ‘bicicletta’, an aperitif of white wine and Campari, at a local bar, before heading to his parents for a meal that might include, variously, tortellini; Scottish smoked salmon (a surprising delicacy in Italy); lasagne, or a fiddly baked pasta dish; and roast veal stuffed with omelette and spinach. ‘Because they take a long time, or are expensive, these aren’t things you would eat every day,’ explains Maurizio. The whole feast is crowned by one thing that unites all of Italy: panettone. ‘North to south,’ Maurizio says, ‘you cannot miss it.’ Starters from £6.80, mains from £12.95; lalocanda.co.uk
Taste of Italy
Zuppa di inglese, a trifle laced with alchermes, a herb liqueur. ‘This was Dad’s job four days before Christmas – it needs time to set,’ says Maurizio.
Maurizio’s Christmas tipple
A glass or two of spumante is the most common drink over Christmas.
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