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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 is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

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