A Guide to Festive Foods You Need to Try in Europe
When travelling the world, one of the dishes you often miss out on tasting is a local Christmas dinner. Since most of us head back home for family festivities (to stuff ourselves at our own Christmas table), we never get to try an authentic Christmas meal from Europe's cities. Ever wondered what other countries actually eat on Christmas day? Time to find out…
1 Czech Republic
The Czechs usually eat their Christmas dinner on the evening of Christmas eve. A traditional Christmas meal in the Czech Republic would involve a delicious fish soup (Rybí polévka) filled with seasonal vegetables. And it wouldn’t be a Czech Christmas without fried carp (Český kapr). This fried fish is symbolic because the Czechs believe it will bring them good luck and good fortune in the New Year.
The carp is usually bought from the Christmas markets a few days before and served with a potato salad. This recipe was originally attributed to Magdalena Dobromila Rettigova, commonly referred to as the mother of Czech cuisine, and has been served amongst households since before the 19th century.
One of the most popular Christmas traditions in Czech homes is the baking of Christmas cookies that are eaten throughout the festive period. Braided Czech sweet bread is another favourite sweet treat, made with raisins and almonds.
Czech Christmas cookies
2 The Netherlands
Traditionally, the Dutch celebrate their Christmas over a 2-day period, the 25th and 26th of December where one day will be spent with the man’s side of the family, and the other day with the girl’s side.
And what do they eat? On Christmas morning, the family will gather around the table to feast on Almond paste bread (Kerststol), a sweet loaf baked with raisins, nuts, dried fruits and almost paste. There will also be a mix of hams, breads and cheeses to tuck into.
For a special, luxurious dinner, a popular Dutch Christmas starter is a shrimp cocktail. Wild meat is a Dutch Christmas favourite for main course - think pork, duck, venison, hare, beef - turkey is also gaining popularity. Cheese fondues and vegetables are a common sight on the Christmas spread, too.
The Dutch like to cook Christmas dinner with a gourmetten, similar to a raclette or portable grill that sits on the table and people serve themselves.
A traditional sweet treat are Dutch ginger nuts (kruidnoten), tiny rounded cookies spiced with ginger, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and nutmeg.
Dutch ginger nut
In England, the main Christmas meal will usually be eaten around late lunchtime on Christmas day. The star of the show is a succulent Christmas turkey. Similar to what Americans would eat on Thanksgiving, the Brits do it on Christmas instead.
Christmas turkey and vegetables
Pigs in blanket, stuffing, Yorkshire puddings, roast potatoes, brussel sprouts with chestnuts, parsnips, gravy and cranberry sauce are all typical accompaniments for the turkey, most of these roasted in the oven with the meat. The next day, which is the Boxing Day National holiday, the leftovers from the Christmas lunch are often used to make a ‘Bubble N’ Squeak’, a mix of the potatoes, vegetables, seasonings, stuffing (and whatever else is left from the day before). During Christmas dinner, Brits like to pop Christmas crackers one of the fun traditions of the festive season.
Christmas pudding is a traditional dessert-cake served in England containing dried fruit and sweet spices often made with black treacle.
Wieners, fish and potato salad are often eaten on Christmas eve in Germany, a lighter meal before the big feast on Christmas Day. That’s when the more extravagant meal is prepared.
On most Christmas dinner tables you’ll find a rather large roasted goose often stuffed with apples, joined by plump bread dumplings (similar to stuffing) and some vegetables - red cabbage is a very traditional vegetable to go with Christmas dinner in Germany.
German goose leg
Goose fat extracted from the goose is often given away in jars as gifts, as it makes a great marinade for your potatoes and veggies to boost the flavour. Christmas dinner actually ranges depending on where you are in Germany, so your plate may be a little different.
The quintessential Christmas beverage in Germany is Glühwein, hot mulled wine which will be sipped throughout the season. Christmas Stollen is a traditional dessert, considered one of the best Christmas pastries in the world, and Lebkuchen (gingerbread) is another festive treat.
The French dine superbly - even more so on Christmas day. The long, luxurious meals eaten in the evenings before Christmas and in the run up to New Years are known as Réveillon. To start the feast, the French will usually tuck into an apéritif; this can involve an amuse bouche, escargot, lobster and bite sized finger food.
Then it’s time for starters: this is usually foie gras and/or oysters served raw.
French Christmas starters
The most traditional dish for the main course is a seasoned turkey with chestnuts. But guinea fowl or pheasant are often used too. The main will then we followed by a cheese platter and for dessert a chocolate Yule log (Bûche de Noël) is the nation’s favourite. Champagne and wine will also be flowing throughout the evening.
The Danish celebrate Christmas on Christmas eve with a hearty roast. Typically, roast pork belly with crackling will be the showstopper of the meal, served with boiled potatoes, red cabbage and gravy. The meat can vary however; duck is a popular option too.
Danish Christmas pork belly
Let’s not forget the melt-in-your-mouth sweet potato dish present on a lot of Danish tables, consisting of small potatoes fried in sugar and butter.
For dessert, the classic Danish Christmas dish is ris à l’amande; a cold rice pudding topped with whipped cream, vanilla, almonds and hot cherry sauce, or ‘risengrød’, the hot version of rice pudding.
Æbleskiver are delicious sphere shaped pancakes that are also present on a lot of Danish Christmas menus - and they are simply delicious. The Danish eat A LOT throughout December with big Christmas lunches in the run up to the actual day; think pate, salmon and finger food.
The Belgians dine like kings on Christmas. The main meal, eaten on Christmas Eve will usually involve a big turkey or a nice piece of game. Special mash potatoes (pommes duchesse) will accompany the meat; these are elegant swirls of potatoes that have been coated with egg yolk, and placed in the oven.
Potato croquettes are a Belgian Christmas classic, too - and they are simply delicious. A soup or some sort of seafood will make an appearance in one way or another, often as an entree.
Let’s not forget traditional Belgian waffles for dessert, or the chocolate Yule log.
Belgium’s biscuit bakeries are always a hot spot during Europe’s festive season. The scent of spicy, freshly baked biscuits can be smelt all over their cobbled streets. Speculoos, a crunchy biscuit made with cinnamon and brown sugar, though eaten all year round, is particularly linked to Christmas. During December, Brussels’ bakers make one-foot-long Speculoo Christmas trees, set in traditional wooden moulds.
The traditional Spanish Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve, or ‘Noche Buena’ (The Good Night) if you will. During this feast, families pack into overflowing dining rooms that often last longer than a competitive board game!
Ham, cheese and chorizo platters is typically what the Spanish would start with. For the main event, a juicy roast turkey stuffed with truffle mushrooms, or ham will be served with fried potatoes and salad.
Turkey stuffed with truffle
Whilst a mixture of shellfish, bream, lamb, and turkey may be festive staples in Spain, nothing says Christmas quite like the plethora of sugary treats that weigh down tables and stomachs at the end of December. Lemon Olive Oil Cake is the perfect dessert to any Spanish festive feast. Rosca de Reyes is a fabulous Spanish pastry eaten in Catalonia in cities such as Barcelona on Christmas.
Rosca de Reyes
Boas Festas! During the build up to Christmas the Portuguese capital’s list of festive cakes, desserts and fried pastries is extensive, with people queuing around the block with Christmas spirit to get their hands on some from local pastelarias (‘bakeries’).
Our recommendation would definitely be sonhos (‘dreams’) – these light and fluffy fried dough balls are coated with sugar and cinnamon to create a delicious ‘dreamy’ mouthful and served freshly baked! They can either be made with flour and eggs, or with flour and fresh pumpkin.
Don’t worry, the Portuguese do manage to mix in some delicious savory dishes into their holiday meals as well! On the Véspera de Natal (Christmas Eve) they enjoy a very humble and traditional dish of fiel amigo bacalhau (salted cod). Served with potatoes, cabbage, carrots and hard-boiled eggs, then drizzled with Portuguese olive oil, it is in keeping with the Catholic tradition of no meat.
Bolo rei (King Cake) is probably the most popular treat which can be found almost everywhere around this time of the year. Whoever finds the dry broad bean hidden inside has to buy the next round of bolo rei’s! Get munching!
However, come Christmas day their main meal is very similar to that which is typically had in England. Dinner favourites often include the classic roast turkey and stuffing set up - but if you’re looking for more of an authentic experience, cabrito assado (roasted baby goat) is definitely one to try!
Want more? Check out the 10 Christmas Markets in Europe to Get You Feelin' Festive
Article by Shereen Sagoo and Chloe Searle