Food traditions of Christmas past in Cork

Salted ling and cod, king cake and beef were once the staple of the Irish palate on Christmas Day. KATE RYAN talks to food historian Regina Sexton to find out more
Food traditions of Christmas past in Cork
A beautiful King Cake. Regina Sexton and the team at Good Day Deli have commissioned a King Cake, based on an example by English food historian, Ivan Day, who creates fantastically accurate reconstructions of food. The King Cake will be revealed on December 21, 4-5pm, during a lecture by Regina at Good Day Deli on Christmas Past and Present.

A TASTE of Christmas past wasn’t always goose, turkey and plum pudding, and I was interested to find out what traditional foods were eaten once upon a time in Cork, but have since been lost.

No better person to ask than Regina Sexton, eminent Food Historian at UCC...

SALTED LING AND COD, POTATOES

AND WHITE SAUCE

“Salted Ling or Cod would have been eaten in Cork on Christmas Eve, the day before a feast day being a fast day, and in this instance fasting meant abstaining from meat.

“There was very much a love/hate relationship with this dish. It was considered a penitential dish, but, maybe perversely, people did like it!

“The fish was heavily salted to preserve it, so it had to be desalinated a few times and ideally soaked overnight.

“The fish would then be poached in milk, and that milk would then go onto make the white sauce, along with onions, milk, butter, flour, salt and pepper.

“Sometimes, the potatoes would be steamed over the fish, or boiled.

“Very simple, but this was the traditional night time Christmas Eve dish eaten in Cork well into the 20th century. Afterwards, a slice of Curnie Cake would have been taken along with either a drop of whiskey of poitín for the men, sherry for the women or a glass of stout.”


BEEF ON CHRISTMAS DAY

“Ireland had two Christmases really: the Irish Christmas and the English Christmas. The Irish one is more or less gone now, and it was more straightforward.

“The big meat eaten for Christmas would

have been beef, and this is significant, because killing an animal like a cow would tax the domestic economy, so it really was special.

“It was something to aspire to, to be able to have fresh beef on Christmas Day — not salted, corned or spiced.

“The first elite aspect of this was that it was beef, the second elite aspect that it was without the taste of salt.

“The beef would have been served very simply with potatoes and garden vegetables.”

A King Cake.
A King Cake.

KING CAKE OR TWELFTH NIGHT CAKE

“Christmas stretches from Christmas Eve to Twelfth Night, or Epiphany on January 6. In the Bible, the Eve of Epiphany was when the Magi visited the Baby Jesus and so it signals the end of the festive season, marked with King Cake, also known as Twelfth Night Cake.

“King Cake became popular from the Georgian period through to the 19th century at a time when people became very preoccupied with lavishly decorated cakes, and as such precedes the ‘invention’ of the Victorian era Christmas Cake.

“It was like marketing for the confectioners really — a way for them to demonstrate their skills, and display their King Cake in the shop window. The level of detail was a signifier of the quality of the cake.

“Epiphany, being at the end of the festive season, is viewed as a transition period and so the cake also takes on other meanings. A bean is hidden inside the King Cake and whoever gets the bean will be King for the day. So there’s this idea of reversing the natural order of things, and of misrule.

“The King Cake has two sugar craft crowns on top: one of the crowns is for the King Cake, and the other is given to whoever finds the bean to keep as a trinket.”

Regina and the team at Good Day Deli have commissioned a King Cake, based on an example by English food historian, Ivan Day, who creates fantastically accurate reconstructions of food. The King Cake will be revealed on December 21, from 4-5pm, during a lecture by Regina at Good Day Deli on Christmas Past and Present.

Follow Regina Sexton on Twitter @culinaryireland

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