As I was away over Christmas and New Year I hope it is not too late to wish you all a happy, healthy, peaceful, and prosperous New Year. Perhaps that’s asking a bit too much in these troubled times, but let’s try to make the best of it.

I certainly had a wonderful time. Whilst my eldest daughter and family met up with her husband’s family, my second daughter and I spent the holiday with my youngest daughter and her family in the Netherlands.

Knowing that I was going abroad several friends asked about Christmas traditions in the Netherlands. I told them that Sint Niklaas and his helper Piet had already visited Wolvega town resulting in grand-daughter Effie’s handmade-for-the-purpose bag being filled with sweets. And Oliver, not yet capable of making his own bag, had his jacket hood filled instead.

As far as we were concerned, the main difference between Christmas in the Netherlands and the UK is the food. Especially as my youngest married into a vegetarian family.

It would seem that eating has formed part of celebrations since time immemorial – and that is a very long time ago. I looked it up once: it is a time so long ago that no one has knowledge or memory of it. I suggest that the former is out-dated by modern technology and the recording of oral histories and so forth. I delved into history to check out some of the food we ate over the holiday.

In the Netherlands my son-in-law made a stack of oliebollen. These are small balls of dough which have been fried in a layer of oil – hence ‘‘oily balls’’ as we called them. They contain raisins and chopped apple and are dusted with icing sugar and are eaten particularly at Christmas and the New Year. 

There are various stories about their origin, including one that they were eaten in the Middle Ages at the end of the fast between St Martin’s Day, November 11,  and Christmas Day. In those far off days it was a custom for the poor to go door to door to get something to eat in exchange for a good wish or a song. Just like carol singers, especially those who demand figgy pudding, ominously threatening that “We won’t go until we get some, so bring some out here!”

Speaking of figgy pudding, I took my own Christmas pudding with me. Not because I did not think I would be fed well, but because it had been loitering on the shelf in my larder for several years as no-one else in the family likes Christmas pudding and there were always delicious alternatives on offer. 

So the lonely pud, just a single portion, sat there, Christmas after Christmas and we were surprised to note that it had only gone out of date in May 2023. Out of date or not, it was delicious with a squirt of slagroom aka whipped cream.

There were, of course, lots of vegetables and at one end of the table a mushroom and butternut squash Wellington, whilst at the other end was a beef Wellington. There was also a most delicious pork roulade with mulled wine spices.

We were somewhat surprised when his mother served up chipolata pudding. In a vegetarian household? This required further research later as no one could tell me how it got its name. Evidently it morphed from a much earlier dish of macaroni and onions – cipollla in Italian. Chipolata pudding now contains no cipolla, nor even any macaroni, but I checked the recipe ingredients: eggs, sugar, gelatine, rum, maraschino, chopped fresh fruit and crushed amretti biscuits or bitterkoekjes biscuits which, I am led to understand, are similar to macaroons. The whole dish is garnished with whipped cream and not a sausage was harmed in the making of it. It is, by the way, delicious.

When we offered a mince pie the cautious vegetarian saw the ingredients of the pie were listed as including mince meat. We suggested that the fact the word vegetarian was on the box might mean there was no meat content, so she warily lifted the lid, smelled it, and ate it, happy that no animals were harmed in the making of it. 

How strange that both dishes were originally savory and are now sweet. Certainly way back in England the pies were made with mutton, rabbit and pork with hard boiled eggs, cheese, saffron and sugar and sometimes dried fruits.

So some of the ‘‘mincemeat’’ ingredients have survived but with the addition of suet and candied fruit and spices seeped in rum or brandy – ingredients not always present in the shop-bought mincemeat. 

I wonder why the meat got left out hundreds of years ago? Did it become too expensive? Or did people try the vegetarian diet?

Meanwhile, in England, my eldest daughter and family were also having some unusual food. Her husband is an innovative cook who enjoys cooking and does it well.

He felt it was time for a change from turkey. I have noted that many people feel the same way and have said that it is dry and boring, despite the media being full of recipes to make the bird more palatable. 

How about going back to goose; everyone ate goose at Christmas until turkey stole the march at which point the goose was cooked, so to speak. The blame, or otherwise, is put down to Ebeneezer Scrooge deciding to buy an enormous turkey for Bob Cratchit. It was foreign, exotic, a status symbol despite being possibly one of the most ugly of birds.

Geese are succulent, they were reared in this country often on corn stubble. Goose fat is prized by cooks and I have read that goose fat is much softer than fat from red meat, with a higher proportion of the more desirable mono-unsaturated fatty acids. 

In times gone by gaggles of geese were driven from their breeding grounds in Norfolk to London. Not in a lorry but driven on foot, presumably by goose-herds, their feet dipped in tar and covered with sand to protect their feet. They were considered a treat at Michaelmas as well as Christmas. And geese are better looking than turkeys. Not even a Norfolk goose took the fancy of my English son-in-law. No, he chose ostrich.

Not, he told me, for Christmas Dinner but on Boxing Day, sourced from a local supermarket in the form of steaks and duly cooked as steaks: fried and dipped in hoisin sauce which is used in Cantonese cooking: I said he was inventive. I understand it was enjoyed by all.