Whenever there’s call for a celebration, we often think about food - coming together in groups, families or communities, to share meals. Celebrations and food are a perfect combination, with many traditions indicating how, what, why and when we eat. Our culinary traditions link religion and superstition, weather and the seasonal cycle of nature.
While many of us sit down to celebrate Christmas with a large meal, how we do this across Europe varies - some enjoy their meal on Christmas Eve, some on Christmas Day, some on 6 January. Though the celebration is the same, the foods we eat vary: turkey, goose, different kinds of würstel, carp and other roast meats.
In Norway, for example, eating ribbe - a roast pork rib - is a popular tradition on Christmas Eve, with approximately three million kilos of ribs eaten across the country. The culinary tradition dates back to pre-Christian times: in Norse mythology, the pig Særimne was killed and eaten at night, then brought back to life to provide food the following day.
Cooking the rib is easy, but a really good roast pork rib has to have a crisp rind. There are many ways of achieving this but should you find it especially difficult, there is a dedicated phone line you can call for advice. Ribs are served with sweet and sour accompaniments - sauerkraut, red cabbage, sprouts, cranberry sauce, fried apples and a sauce.
Sing for your supper
In Cantabria, in Spain, Las Marzas are songs marking the arrival of spring, sung at the end of February or the beginning of March. Groups of boys and young men go around villages or towns singing the songs which often praise the local homeowners.
The young singers, called marceros, sing songs that request food such as sausages, eggs and pudding in payment or as gifts for their performance.
In Sweden, Vårfrudagen (Our Lady Day - the feast of the Annunciation) is celebrated on 25 March.
This marked the day, according to Christian tradition, when the angel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary about her pregnancy. In pre-industrial Sweden, vårfrudag also marked the transition between winter and spring, when a period of intensive planting began.
However, nowadays, this day has become associated with waffles. The word ‘vårfrudag’ sounds similar to våffeldag (Waffle day) and, over time, the tradition has focused more on a celebration of the waffle than of the Annunication. Though waffles are popular all-year round nowadays, their ingredients (white flour, eggs, butter, cream and jam) were luxuries for Swedish peasant society in pre-industrial times.
Sometimes it isn’t the food itself that is the focus of a culinary custom - it’s what’s hidden inside. Two cakes enjoyed in two different countries at different times of the year illustrate this.
Galette des rois - ‘kings’ cake’ - has been baked in France since the 14th century for Epiphany on 6 January, the 12th day of Christmas. The actual cake varies by region (from a puff-pastry with frangipane or a brioche-style cake with candied fruits).
The tradition that adds to their pleasure is the anticipation of discovering ‘la fève’, a tiny charm - once a fava bean, now a porcelain or plastic figurine - buried inside one of the slices. The person who discovers the fève is declared le roi (the king) or la reine (the queen) and wears the golden paper crown that comes with the cake.
A similar culinary tradition in Ireland takes the idea further and predicts the course of life ahead for those eating a cake.
Barm Brack (or Báirín Breac in Irish), a cake with raisins and sultanas - often soaked in hot tea before baking - is made every Halloween in Ireland. A ring, thimble and a coin are hidden in the cake. According to tradition, whoever finds the ring will get married soon, whoever finds the thimble will never be married and whoever finds the coin will become rich.
Some culinary traditions have come about to take advantage of the natural seasons for food production.
Sweden’s Surströmmingspremiär traditionally marks the starting point for eating fermented herring. Often associated with the north of Sweden, fermented herring is eaten with bread, onions and perhaps schnaps. It has rural origins, as fermenting fish was a cheap method of preservation.
Since the 1940s, the start date has been set to the third Thursday in August. This is when the fermented herring was ready - the fish ferments for several months following the spawning herring being fished in April or May. Fermented herring is often eaten outdoors in the summer, which is a good idea as the smell is very strong.