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Advent-urous eaters

Categories: Expert guidance

Clare Finney on how the weeks leading up to Christmas are as rich with culinary traditions as the big day itself

Midday mince pies. Festive lattes. Prosecco-fuelled parties. Christmas sandwiches. Let’s face it: in today’s Britain, Advent celebrations are largely restricted to office parties and the novelty of eating chocolate before breakfast. For some Christians, however, it is the first season of the religious year, in which preparations are made for celebrating the birth of Christ. Candles are lit—one every Sunday prior to Christmas—as communities around the world ready their souls. Yet while much of this preparation is spiritual, the business of the stomach is by no means overlooked.

Or at least, not inadvertently. Around the Market, several traders have spent time in countries where Advent has traditionally involved a period of fasting, in which meat, dairy and alcohol are avoided. David of Ethiopian Flavours describes long fasting periods in his home country, while in Poland, where Ewa of Bianca Mora was brought up, fasts take place on Wednesdays and Fridays, but “the tables are still dominated by gingerbreads, cookies, herring and other fish”.

Abstinence from alcohol, meat dishes and sweets is also waived on saints’ days—St Andrew, St Barbara and, of course, St Nicholas all have their days is December—when dancing and feasting is actively encouraged. “Typical dishes were baked potatoes served with sour milk and fish. Tables were also dominated by various groats—millet, barley, buckwheat—served with sauces, and bread with onion and salt,” continues Ewa.

Revolving around food
Ewa spent 19 years in Italy. There she observed Italians celebrating Christmas throughout December, including the Feast of the Immaculate Conception and St Nicholas Day celebrations. “There are not specific national dishes for Advent,” she explains but, Italy being Italy, there is still a lot that revolves around food. “They have Advent calendars with spicy biscuits instead of chocolate,” she says. You won’t find such novelties in the Market, but you could make your own with the help of biscuits at Karaway Bakery or Konditor and Cook.

Italy’s famed gastronomical obsession even extends as far as their Christmas decorations: there are ice cream shaped Christmas lights, Christmas trees made out of (empty) wine bottles or even charcuterie, something you could recreate using the impressive selection at Bianca Mora. 

No such trees exist in Greece. Indeed, you’d be hard pushed to find a Christmas tree there at all up until the last century or so, when the decidedly northern European tradition made its way to the Aegean. “Before that, a ship would be decorated instead, with lights and colourful elements and treats. Greece is a country surrounded by water,” Lina of Oliveology explains, “and many Greeks worked in boats. This was a way of remembering those who were at sea over Christmas. People still decorate a ship today in some places, but a tree is increasingly common.”

As for food-based traditions, the Greeks have since the time of Persephone invested great symbolism in pomegranates, which they use as decorations and give to each other as good luck charms. “The pink is the heart and love, the seeds symbolise abundance, and the fruit the promise of hope and fertility,” says Lina—something to think about the next time pomegranate seeds make an inevitable appearance on your Instagram feed.

A momentous event
Somewhat surprisingly, the French have very few culinary traditions over Advent. “People go to each other’s houses for an aperitif and some cheese, but that is a tradition most of the year,” says Jean-Hubert of Une Normande a Londres. That said, December does tend to coincide with the breaking of the first raclette cheese of the season, and this, truly, is a momentous event. “Everyone is invited to join in—it is a huge sharing moment. Raclette is a meal that conquered all the territorialism about French food, so it is quite unusual.” Perhaps it’s the Christmas spirit working its magic.

But no country—at least none represented here at Borough Market—offers quite such delicacies as the Spanish. “The most obvious is the turrón, which is consumed pretty much throughout the country at Christmas time,” says James Robinson of Brindisa. “The seasonality is based on the almond harvest, which takes place mostly in October,” so come December, the confection of honey, sugar, egg white, and toasted almonds is ready to be whipped up and sold.

“When we have local festivals in the villages someone always appears selling turróns,” smiles David, James colleague at Brindisa, who grew up on this delicacy at Christmas time. To arrive at someone’s house for a festive do without a turrón in hand is the equivalent of not bringing a bottle in Britain. No one would comment, but you might not be invited again.

Moorish traditions
“One particular product that we sell that is seasonal and regional is the pan de Cádiz, a baked marzipan loaf containing candied orange peel,” continues James. “It draws on Moorish traditions of sweet almond cakes and biscuits. One theory is that it came about at the beginning of the 19th century when a shortage of wheat in the province of Cádiz led enterprising bakers to produce a loaf made with almond flour.” The truth, he concedes, is probably far more pedestrian. “Antonio Valls, in a pasteleria called Viena in the centre of Cádiz, is said to have first baked it as late as the 1960s.” Still, whatever its origins, pan de Cádiz “looks beautiful, and the combination of almond and bitter-sweet orange peel makes a delicious snack or sweet dessert.”  

You’ll find the pan de Cádiz on the stall at Brindisa throughout December, together with turróns of all varieties. You might not want to purchase a whole raclette, but you can get at least a part of one at Une Normande a Londres. Pomegranates you’ll find at Elsey and Bent, together with gleaming oranges for Christingle, and the chocolate advent calendars on the shelves at Rabot 1745. Because for us, Advent wouldn’t be Advent without starting the day with a chocolate.