Christmas Dishes with a Spanish Flourish
Every nation has its favourite festive drinks, snacks, and desserts, but Spanish exports can often make all the difference when it comes to the season’s most special ingredients.
Spain has its own Christmas customs, reaching right through the holiday season to the Feast of the Kings. The Roscón del Reyes cake eaten that day might be the single best-known festive food in this country, where various regions have their own ideas about what to cook for Christmas dinner – from racks of roast suckling lamb in Castile-León to Catalonia’s beloved galets, a soup of minced meat and pasta. Across Europe and beyond, other nations hold to other culinary traditions, following their own recipes for dishes without which Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas.
Many of these dishes, however, could rely on exported Spanish ingredients. Some are integral to the recipe, others are more like a splash of additional flavour. But it’s fair to say that Christmas almost everywhere can be improved with a little taste of Spain.
English Sherry trifle
The term “trifle” first appeared in a Medieval English cookbook by Thomas Dawson called The Good Huswifes Jewell, published in 1585. It referred to a cream-based dessert with sugar and ginger, which had evolved from a similar dish called “fool”, but later developed into something else, using calves feet to add gelatin to the mix, along with layers of sponge and custard.
By the mid-19th century, the Victorians had established the now-classic version as a Christmas treat with a fruit and jelly layer soaked in a sweet wine. Sometimes Port, or Madeira, but more commonly Sherry. Which means this quintessential British dish draws on Andalusian vino de Jerez for its full effect. A light, sweet, pale cream sherry blend from the oloroso variety works well (a prime example being Matusalem Oloroso Dulce VORS, from González Byass), though darker, richer trifles can withstand a heavier, fruitier Pedro Ximénez (the raisin-and-plum notes of Bodegas Yuste NV Aurora, to pick just one out of Santa’s sack, add the right festive aroma).
The Brits also love their Christmas puddings – a heavy-duty boiled mixture of dried fruits, nuts, and spices that also evolved over centuries, and is customarily doused with brandy to be set alight when served. Spanish brandies are perfect for this purpose. A splash of, say, Carlos I Imperial brings the proper flame and flavour.
Israeli Latke with Spanish olive oil
The Jewish midwinter festival of Hanukkah is built on a compound of history and legend, and the story of the sacred olive oil that kept the menorah burning for eight nights in the Second Temple of Jerusalem during the Maccabee rebellion. Eating oil-based foods has since been a vital element of the holiday, and the most popular of these is probably latke – that crisp, golden-brown pancake of grated, fried potato. Many households have their own slight variations, and most will tend to use safflower or peanut oil, because olive oil has a relatively low smoke point and a reputation as less-than-ideal for frying. But the fact is that high-heat cooking with olive oil has a history as long as Hanukkah itself, and some of the world’s best is made in Spain. It might be considered a waste to use a premium-grade, award-winning Spanish extra virgin olive oil for this purpose, but broadly speaking the purest of these, with the least free fatty acids, have the highest smoke points. The bold flavour of something like Mueloliva’s award-winning Venta del Barón EVOO will come through in the finished latkes, adding an extra level of deliciousness and keeping olive oil at the core of the traditional recipe.
German Glühwein with Spanish wines
From the Czech Republic to the UK, and Northern Finland to coastal Portugal, Europe shares a winter habit of heating red wine to drink on the coldest, darkest nights, and especially at Christmas markets. Germany usually takes the credit as the historical source of “glow-wine”, adding lemon, orange, cloves and cinnamon to a good-quality red warmed in a saucepan. The wine itself need not be German, however, and even the most stout-hearted Bavarian might be tempted to use a Spanish Tempranillo or light and fruity young Rioja. In Spain, of course, a midwinter vino caliente is often further enhanced with a splash of Brandy de Jerez from a leading bodega like Barbadillo.
Swedish Lussekatter with Spanish saffron
The Swedes bake sweetened yeasty breads all year round as a matter of course, but as Christmas comes closer they prepare special batches to celebrate Saint Lucia’s Day on December 13. The attendant festival of light honours one of the earliest Christian martyrs with processions led by girls wearing white gowns and wreathes of candles, and with S-shaped rolls turned a golden colour by the addition of saffron. A reddish tinge suggests that spice was grown in the fabled fields of Castile-La Mancha, which produce the only saffron in the world with a coveted DO status. Try a premium exported brand like Princesa de Minaya to pay Saint Lucia the maximum respect.
Swiss Fondue with Spanish cheese
Christmas Eve in Switzerland demands a bubbling cauldron of cheese to dip meat and vegetables in, but that nation’s long tradition of neutrality allows any number of European neighbours to add their own delicacies to the pot. Spain could happily supply every single ingredient for a robust midwinter fondue. Nutty Manchego and salty, buttery Mahón-Menorca are great cheeses for melting, especially with Spanish cured meats dipped into them – try a Rodríguez spicy chorizo from León for a little extra heat. The taste and shape of white cojonudo asparagus spears, grown in Navarra and canned by El Navarrico, also make for ideal fondue fare.
Text: Stephen Phelan