How do you celebrate Christmas? What do you eat and drink? It depends on who you ask. In a festive mini-series, we quizzed seven foodie Londoners from various cultural backgrounds about their festive food, drink, customs and traditions. Here’s what they had to say…
A hugely articulate and enthusiastic expert on Spanish regional cuisine, Jerusalen Gunning is a food consultant to the Boqueria restaurant group. She comes from San Sebastian, and now lives in Hampstead.
“Our most important Christmas celebration is nochebuena on 24 December, when we have our main festive meal in the evening. We start with a small selection of tapas consisting of jamon iberico, calamares and gambas a la plancha — grilled shrimps. Then for the starter, we do a very special Catalan soup-stew that’s usually only eaten at Christmas called escudella. It’s a type of thick beef broth made from minced meat, bacon, eggs and vegetables like cabbage and turnips, with pasta shells added at the end.
For the main course, we have a traditional Basque fish dish called merluza en salsa verde: hake with clams in a green herb sauce. There’s also cordero asado, which is roast lamb slowly cooked in the oven for about six hours, similar to how the Greeks do it. It’s melt-in-the-mouth tender, and is eaten with vegetables and roast potatoes. For pudding we have turrón — nougat made from toasted sweet almonds — plus almond cookies known as polvorones, and a sort of Spanish crumble cake called mantecados. The paramount drink is cava from Codorníu: it’s like our champagne, made using the same techniques. We also go to the Mass to hear the ‘Mass of Rooster’: there’s a legend that says that the rooster was the first to see Jesus being born and he’s the one who spread the news.
The 25 December is more important in Catalonia than the rest of Spain. We have a big lunch with similar items to the ones cooked on Christmas Eve — but with extra seafood. I do a big seafood platter with gambas, langoustines and crayfish. More important is 31 December, which we call nochevieja. We have a big evening meal — but in Spain, the special thing is that everyone sits down to watch the big clock in Madrid on TV. As the clock strikes at midnight, we eat 12 grapes correspondingly — it’s said to bring good luck. This is followed by a festive lunch on 1 January.
The most important date that comes next is 6 January to celebrate the Twelfth Night or Epiphany, the arrival of the three kings bearing presents for baby Jesus. Lunch is followed by rosca de reyes: a pastry filled with custard or cream with dried fruit on top. Traditionally a broad bean is hidden inside, and whoever finds it would have to pay for the pastry. Yes, we follow all these traditions in London, too.”
Try it yourself: Spanish eating and drinking in London
For top quality Spanish produce — including cheeses and freshly carved hams — it’s hard to beat Brindisa. Visit its flagship deli in Borough Market, or the newer Brindisa Food Rooms in Brixton.
Popular Barcelona ham chain Enrique Tomas has opened its first international branch in London. Visit it on Wardour Street for excellent jamón ibérico, carved before your eyes.
Take a look at our selection of London’s Best Spanish Restaurants for tip-top tapas and more.
Sip Spanish fizz galore at Blackfriars bar Copa De Cava, set beneath Camino restaurant. Or see our round-up of London’s Best Bars For Affordable Fizz for more inspiration.
Also in the series:
What’s A Russian Christmas In London Like?
What’s A Goan Christmas In London Like?
What’s An Italian Christmas In London Like?
What’s An Ethiopian Christmas In London Like?
What’s A West-African-Greek-British Christmas In London Like?
What’s A German Christmas In London Like?