(Image credit: Alamy)
By Zaria Gorvett17th December 2021 For centuries, pickled boar’s head was considered to be the most festive meat. How did this gruesome dish become sidelined in favour of an exotic bird from Mexico?
On 25 December 1406, the Bishop of Salisbury sat down for his Christmas dinner. Now an elderly man, Richard Mitford had led a wild life of dramatic highs and lows – at one point he served as a senior member of Richard II’s royal household, and at another, he was imprisoned in the Tower of London for treason.
But now Mitford was in his twilight years, and having a jolly old time.
The meal was a modest affair by the Bishop’s usual standards – there were only 97 people invited. On the table was a carpet of food so extravagantly carnivorous, it was almost the contents of a whole zoo. This included half a cow, three sheep, 24 rabbits, a pig, half a wild boar, seven piglets, two swans, two woodcocks, four mallard ducks, 20 snipes (long-beaked wading birds that bleat like goats), 10 capons (castrated cockerels), and three teal ducks.
That year, Christmas Day fell on a Saturday – a day of worship when people were technically only supposed to eat fish. So His Excellency ordered in some of this as well. In all, the guests were served 50 white herrings (pickled, a bit like rollmops), 50 red herrings (herring so heavily salted, it turns coppery-red), three vast conga eels, 200 oysters and 100 whelks.ADVERTISEMENT
Back then, there were no forks and people didn’t have individual plates at a meal – the former hadn’t turned up in England yet, and the latter wouldn’t be invented until the 17th Century. With only knives and spoons at their disposal, Mitford and his guests ate everything either sliced or ground up, so that it could be served on flat, rounded pieces of bread called “trenchers”.
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In the medieval era, Christmas wasn’t Christmas without a boar’s head that had been flayed and sewn back together (Credit: Alamy)
“There’s a great deal of ceremony that goes with this,” says Chris Woolgar, an emeritus professor of history and archival studies at the University of Southampton, who has studied Mitford’s culinary habits extensively. “These are prestigious foods to be displayed,” he says, explaining that there would be dedicated carvers there, to pile food onto the guests’ plates.
But there was one meat Mitford’s Christmas menagerie did not contain: a glistening dome of roasted turkey. In fact, the dish wouldn’t appear in England until decades later – and only became a staple in the early 20th Century. With the whole wide world of other meats to choose from, how did these strange birds from Mexico eventually become a festive staple? And which ancient Christmas delicacies did they supplant?
A silver lining
Woolgar first stumbled upon Mitford when he was working as an archivist at the University of Oxford in 1979. At the time, he was cataloguing the domestic accounts of large households – records in which the culinary expenditures of lords, ladies and bishops are outlined in tantalising detail. He quickly realised the rich insights they could provide into medieval life, and wrote up his findings in a book, The Culture of Food in England, 1200-1500.
“They describe, day by day, what people are buying and what they’re consuming,” says Woolgar.
For example, Mitford’s accounts revealed how astonishingly varied his diet was – in just one year, he consumed 42 different kinds of fish, including thornback rays, whitebait, bass, carp, cod, crayfish, eel, gudgeon, haddock, hake, mackerel, lampreys, mullet, perch and pike.
But though lords and ladies had always had it good, in the late 14th Century one aspect of life – including Christmas – had recently been improved for everyone. It was all down to an unexpected side effect of a global tragedy: the Black Death.
Before this, most people would have survived primarily on cereal-based foods such as bread and “frumenty”, a kind of porridge made from boiled cracked wheat with milk or stock.
“There’s very little in the way of protein in the diet in terms of dairy or eating meat,” says Woolgar, pointing out that many people survived on donations from wealthy families or alms houses. The wife of one exchequer official in Norfolk provided food for 13 peasants each day – a number carefully chosen for its Christian symbolism – though this consisted exclusively of bread and herring.
The Victorians pioneered “Goose Clubs”. If you paid sixpence every week for 10-12 weeks, you’d be given a goose and a bottle of spirit on Christmas eve (Credit: Alamy)
But when the Black Death ripped through Europe, Asia and North Africa in the mid-14th Century, it wiped out 30-40% of the population on the entire planet. Those who were left behind found that there was a lot more food to go around. “It’s a pandemic that kills people, not animals. So the balance changes quite markedly from that point onwards,” says Woolgar. Suddenly, meat was back on the menu for the masses – and everyone wanted to eat like a lord or lady at Christmas.
A Frankensteinian creation
One of the most popular meaty centrepieces for Christmas feasts in the Middle Ages is thought to be ancient – a pickled boar’s head. The dish is thought to have been extremely laborious to make, and was usually presented with an apple in its jaws and elaborate herbal decorations. It was so beloved, it even came with a song: the Boar’s Head Carol, which was sung as it was processed into the room on a platter. In wealthy households, the tune would have been performed by minstrels – medieval entertainers – and heralded by trumpets.
“The boar’s head in hands I bring,
with garlands gay & birds singing!
I pray you all to help me sing, who are at this banquet!
The boar’s head I understand,
Is chief service in all this land!
Wheresoever it may be found, it is served with mustard!…”
However, despite the dish’s popularity – it’s widely depicted in Christmas scenes from the era – how it was actually made is less clear. What is certain is that is would have been a grisly process.
One possible method involves slicing off the boar’s face and pickling it in salt over the course of several weeks, along with meat from inside the head, before sewing it back together into a kind of porcine Frankenstein. The cured meat might then be chopped and mixed with bacon and spices to make a kind of layered stuffing, which could be used to re-fill the head. The whole lot would then need to be tightly bound in muslin, to re-create a head-like shape – and then boiled for hours on a bed of carrots, parsnips and onions. To decorate, it’s thought that it might have been covered in black ash to simulate the animal’s fur.
In the 14th Century, a Christmas spread might involve dozens of different types of meat, including obscure birds such as snipe (Credit: Alamy)
The finished dish is said to have tasted like a particularly delectable pork pie, and was often served along with “brawn” – meat from the boar’s shoulders which was preserved in cider, wine or vinegar.
However, though the boar’s head and its carol have long been forgotten by the general public, it lingers on in one institution to this day. Oxford University’s Queen’s College has held the Boar’s Head Gaudy – a feast complete with a pickled boar’s head and the traditional carol sung by a full choir – for centuries. It was originally started as an ordinary Christmas feast for college members who remained during the holidays, and has since evolved into an annual celebration on the Saturday before Christmas.
Another slightly macabre medieval offering was the “gilded peacock”, which involved skinning a peacock but keeping its feathers and head still attached – then roasting its body, and eventually stuffing it back inside. The feathers could then be fanned out at the table and the bird’s comb decorated with gold leaf, to make an impressive Christmas display – though it had a reputation for not tasting very good. (Apparently its flavour was a cross between chicken and pheasant, but meat from older birds could be tough and dry.)
Regardless of the specific meats or dishes served at Christmas banquets in the Middle Ages, Woolgar explains that the sauces they were drenched in were likely to have been relatively constant. Far from the rich, silky gravies preferred today, at the time most were acidic concoctions made from vinegar or wine flavoured with spices.
One such creation was “Cameline sauce”, made from cinnamon – which was wildly popular and surprisingly widely available – boiled in vinegar and bread crumbs. It was the ketchup of the era, so popular it could even be purchased pre-made.
Bishop Mitford celebrated all 12 days of Christmas, and had 137 people over to celebrate the “Twelfth Night” – a festival that was bigger than Christmas Day (Credit: Alamy)
“I think that the taste of many of these foods would strike us as odd because we don’t have the same sort of flavourings that we’re used to,” says Woolgar. “But I think it’s probably a bit like your first pint of beer – you get used to it. You know, all sorts of things become desirable because others are having them.”
A new import
In 1526, a young Yorkshire landowner returned to England from a long trip. William Strickland had sailed to the New World on a voyage of discovery, where he purchased six rather silly-looking birds from Native American traders. They had wobbly flaps of skin that flopped over their beaks like red socks, and liked to strut around with their tails fanned out – they were turkeys, and when his ship eventually docked in Bristol, he sold them to locals for two pence each.
Or at least this is how Strickland later claimed he had introduced the turkey to England, though it has never been verified. Decades later, Edward VI granted him permission to include the bird in his family crest – the first ever depiction in the Western world.
As it happens, recently further evidence for this story emerged.
In 1981, archaeologists excavating Paul Street in Exeter – a central location in the city in southern England – found some turkey bones. At the time, they weren’t thought to be particularly significant. But in 2018, a new analysis revealed something intriguing.
The turkey bones were found surrounded by expensive ceramics and glass in their earthly grave, suggesting that they were consumed as part of an ancient, high-status feast. And these items were found to date back to between 1520 and 1550, a range which is closely in line with an introduction in 1526. These were no ordinary turkeys – they might have been among the first in England.
Though this new kind of fowl took centuries to catch on with the general public, they were an instant hit with the elite. They were highly prized, mostly because they were exotic – just like the colourful peacock, which originated in India, having a turkey on your table was a major status symbol.
Like turkeys, peacocks were prized in the Middle Ages as exotic status symbols (Credit: Getty Images)
The birds were also almost instantly associated with Christmas lunch, possibly because they reach full size in the autumn and are usually killed in midwinter. England’s most famous king, Henry VIII, is thought to have eaten turkey for the occasion soon after their introduction.
For centuries afterwards, the turkey was an important element of an upper-class Christmas feast – though it wasn’t necessarily always the star of the show. Then Charles Dickens turned up.
Dickens was inordinately fond of turkeys, and wrote about them in A Christmas Carol, where the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge (spoiler alert) is shown the error of his ways and has a change of heart, eventually procuring an emergency turkey of prizewinning proportions to send to his underpaid clerk on Christmas Day.
Shortly after the novel’s publication in 1843, Dickens’ good friend and tour manager George Dolby promised to provide the author with a spectacular turkey for his own Christmas lunch – the finest in the whole county of Herefordshire. Then disaster struck.
The 30-pound (13kg) turkey carcass was safely packaged up in a hamper with a number of other delicacies, and sent on its way to London by train. But the next day, Dolby received an urgent letter from Dickens: “WHERE IS THAT TURKEY? IT HAS NOT ARRIVED!!!!!!!!!!!”
Eventually Dolby discovered that the hamper had been transferred to a horse-box along the way, which had caught fire – destroying everything inside. (Dickens later referred to the incident with good humour, especially because the charred remains had been distributed to impoverished local families as a delicious, if slightly burnt, Christmas meal.)
Like many traditions, today Dickens is credited with popularising turkey into a Christmas classic. However, the most widespread choice at the time was roasted goose. Its more exotic competitor still wouldn’t become the obligatory festive lunch for almost another hundred years – it needed one final nudge.
In the 14th Century, freshwater fish were extremely valuable – and an important part of a festive spread – so bishops often had their own vast ponds built (Credit: Alamy)
By the 1920s, advances in food production had led to lower prices across the board. Small farms were absorbed into large ones. Cutting-edge farm machinery arrived. And domestic turkeys, which had once largely resembled their wild cousins, were bred to mature faster and grow to gargantuan proportions – today they often suffer from skeletal problems, because their bones haven’t kept pace with their oversized bodies.
A decade later, turkeys were finally affordable to ordinary people – though they still cost about a week’s wages – and in the 1930s they overtook other forms of meat to become the piece de resistance of a quintessential Christmas roast.
However, there may be one development left. In some parts of the world, there are early signs that turkeys are increasingly not just seen as walking Christmas dinners – but highly sociable, affectionate birds with a penchant for neck massages. (By some accounts, they can be positively needy.) They’re so relatable, they even play football – or at least, they like to chase round objects and peck at them. Now celebrities are encouraging people to adopt them rather than eat them. Others are advocating them as pets.
Who knows, perhaps turkeys won’t be the definitive Christmas lunch forever – but another passing craze, just like Mitford’s meat spectacle and the elaborate boar’s head.
* Zaria Gorvett is a senior journalist for BBC Future and tweets @ZariaGorvett