How many of us can say that our Christmas dinner is truly a homegrown affair? Even the Kings and Queens of England were once at the mercy of what could be grown for the festive season, but their gardeners would have been expected to supply the kitchen with some fresh ingredients for the royal Christmas feast.
Royal roots and shoots
Food historians at Hampton Court Palace have tracked down some of the royal menus for the festive period, and in among the extravagant dishes of squabs, larks and partridge are some intriguing insights of what vegetables would have been around and possibly even grown in the kitchen garden at Hampton Court Palace.
In 1736, Queen Caroline, wife of George II, hosted a Christmas party at Kensington Palace. For dinner on the 23rd, the menu featured vegetable side dishes of parsley root and broccoli ‘fiered’ (roasted perhaps?). These vegetables are still mainstays of the winter garden, sown in the summer and able to sit through the worst of the weather for harvest when required. The broccoli needs no further explanation, but parsley root is more unusual, and in 1736 would probably have been a recent addition to these shores. Though eaten widely in Germany and Eastern Europe, the first mention of it in a UK gardening book is in 1745, so perhaps the German Queen Caroline brought this over as a taste of her homeland. It is more generally known today as Hamburg parsley, with a root that looks just like a parsnip and grows just like a parsnip but has the more delicate taste of parsley. There’s no denying it’s an ugly beast to look at, but it was clearly thought fit for the royal table.
Tricks of the trade
The Christmas Eve vegetable offerings were fried asparagus and cardoon. Neither of these are in season in December, so by the gardener’s art they would have been forced to grow out of season. Asparagus crowns would have been laid over hot, fermenting dung beds and covered in cloches to trick them into sending up their shoots four months early. Cardoons look like giant globe artichokes and they are grown for their stems, which are edible when blanched and are said to taste like asparagus, though I confess that after having once spent a miserable day trying to remove one of these plants and their humongous roots from a garden, I was never tempted to plant one in the kitchen garden when I was at Hampton Court. To get blanched stems in time for Christmas, the plants were likely to have been lifted whole in autumn and put in a cool, dry store-room to slowly blanch.
Queen Caroline’s Christmas day meal was a feast of mince pies (made with actual meat), larks, veal and turkey, but in among these is mention of watercress and celery; both crops that grow into autumn and with a bit of protection could be extended to be available fresh for late December.
Watercress will grow surprisingly well out of water as long as it is kept moist. Seed sown in September rarely has to spend too long in dry soil in our climate anyway. Both crops will survive light frosts, but if the weather looks like is it set for an extended freeze, the celery can be wrapped in straw or cardboard for extra protection. This also blanches the crop, making it sweeter and more tender.
In amongst the quails, snipes, oysters, turkey, goose, lobster and veal, the vegetable fare seems quite humble. However it is far easier to get the satisfaction of a homegrown Christmas meal from a broccoli than a quail so if you’ve set your heart on a royal feast on the 25th, then look to the veg patch.