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In praise of the traditional Christmas dinner

Rib of beef or baked turbot? Noel way.

Nothing says good times to the British like a spot of self-flagellation. The country rejoiced in the ghastly weather that marked the Jubilee, delighted in the happy chaos of the Olympics security fiasco and was palpably disappointed when the Games came off without a hitch.

Such whinges merely whetted our appetite for the annual highlight of the national calendar of complaint: Christmas. There’s all that awful consumerism to start with and then we’re never allowed to forget how they do things so much better on the Continent – not least, the festive dinner.

Every year, the papers are full of chefs whining that they can’t stand sprouts or turkey, and that panettone makes mincemeat of mince pies. Mark Hix gleefully describes “that sinking feeling of, ‘Oh no, not turkey again’”, while Michel Roux Jr (born in Kent, mind) has the temerity to criticise Christmas pudding for being “really heavy”. Well, duh, as Gregg Wallace might say.

I was even forced to defend the merits of Stilton to Rowley Leigh at Le Café Anglais’s fifth birthday party last month, though we agreed on the beauty of a sherry trifle. Meanwhile, Edinburgh’s Tom Kitchin has been boasting in the Independent that he’ll be serving something called “lamb on hay” this Christmas, adding, somewhat poignantly, “Every year my sister begs the family to have a traditional turkey with all the trimmings but I love to do something a little different.”

Sister Kitchin, I feel your pain. I enjoy a rib of beef or a baked turbot as much as the next glutton, but they’re available all year round for those that can afford them. Have steak on your birthday, or salmon en croûte on Christmas Eve, but please, the 25 December belongs to the birds.

Turkey, goose, guinea fowl, capon – I’m not fussed as long as it comes with herby stuffing, crisp little sausages and fluffy roast potatoes, topped off with creamy bread sauce and a little something sharp and fruity on the side. For dessert, I’m sure Yotam Ottolenghi’s quince poached in pomegranate juice is very nice, but I’d quibble with his assertion that it’s “most definitely superior to Christmas pudding”.

The appeal isn’t solely in the nostalgic perfume of sweetly spiced dried fruit; these dishes are indisputably good food and anyone who claims otherwise can never have had them done properly. I’d hazard a guess that Bruno Loubet’s festive ballotine of goose, or Hugh Fearnley- Whittingstall’s baked gurnard have just as much potential for mediocrity in the hands of a less skilful cook.

Ignored Nordic

If you don’t like currants or poultry, then feel free to flip them the bird, but otherwise, to judge an entire tradition on your mum’s terrible cooking seems unfair. Yes, British food can be done badly, but our traditional menu can more than hold its own against whatever’s riding high in the sleigh of festive fashion.

Trends come and go – a few years ago, it was all about a River Café, Italian-style Christmas, now our sudden mania for Fair Isle jumpers sees us turning northwards for inspiration. Thankfully, the Danish chef Trine Hahnemann has just brought out a book, Scandinavian Christmas, to show us poor Brits “how we, too, can celebrate Christmas the Scandinavian way”.

Very cosy this looks too, with its peppery cookies and spiced roast pork – but, as the Lyon-born, London-based chef Claude Bosi recently pointed out, rather refreshingly, “How do you say in this country? If it’s not broken, don’t fix it. And you know what? The food at Christmas here is fantastic.” To think, it took a Frenchman to point that out. We should be ashamed of ourselves.

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Will Europe ever go to war again?

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SRSLY #13: Take Two

On the pop culture podcast this week, we discuss Michael Fassbender’s Macbeth, the recent BBC adaptations of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie, and reminisce about teen movie Shakespeare retelling She’s the Man.

This is SRSLY, the pop culture podcast from the New Statesman. Here, you can find links to all the things we talk about in the show as well as a bit more detail about who we are and where else you can find us online.

Listen to our new episode now:

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SRSLY is hosted by Caroline Crampton and Anna Leszkiewicz, the NS’s web editor and editorial assistant. We’re on Twitter as @c_crampton and @annaleszkie, where between us we post a heady mixture of Serious Journalism, excellent gifs and regularly ask questions J K Rowling needs to answer.

The podcast is also on Twitter @srslypod if you’d like to @ us with your appreciation. More info and previous episodes on

If you’d like to talk to us about the podcast or make a suggestion for something we should read or cover, you can email srslypod[at]

You can also find us on Twitter @srslypod, or send us your thoughts on tumblr here. If you like the podcast, we'd love you to leave a review on iTunes - this helps other people come across it.

The Links

On Macbeth

Ryan Gilbey’s review of Macbeth.

The trailer for the film.

The details about the 2005 Macbeth from the BBC’s Shakespeare Retold series.


On Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Cider with Rosie

Rachel Cooke’s review of Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Sarah Hughes on Cider with Rosie, and the BBC’s attempt to create “heritage television for the Downton Abbey age”.


On She’s the Man (and other teen movie Shakespeare retellings)

The trailer for She’s the Man.

The 27 best moments from the film.

Bim Adewunmi’s great piece remembering 10 Things I Hate About You.


Next week:

Anna is reading Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner.


Your questions:

We loved talking about your recommendations and feedback this week. If you have thoughts you want to share on anything we've discussed, or questions you want to ask us, please email us on srslypod[at], or @ us on Twitter @srslypod, or get in touch via tumblr here. We also have Facebook now.



The music featured this week, in order of appearance, is:


Our theme music is “Guatemala - Panama March” (by Heftone Banjo Orchestra), licensed under Creative Commons. 



See you next week!

PS If you missed #12, check it out here.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.