Rudolph roasting in an oven fire
Although on Christmas Day we tend to eat a turkey (or a goose, or a chicken), there is another animal that is far more associated with the festive period: Santa’s reindeer. A large, migratory deer that lives around the Arctic Circle, reindeer are probably far more familiar to most people around the world from the image of them flying across the sky pulling Santa Claus’ sleigh that appears in millions of Christmas cards, festive films and TV specials.
In Santa’s supposed native land of Lapland (an area covering the North of Finland as well as parts of Norway, Sweden and Russia) reindeer, along with other subarctic beasts like wolves and bears remain a normal presence, used to pull real sleds along the ground and for herding and hunting. Having found out that you can buy reindeer meat imported from Scandinavia, I had to try and see what it would be like to dine on Rudolph.
Reindeer didn’t really become part of the Christmas story until the era in which the central European figure of Saint Nicholas became reconstituted as the American Santa Claus and it is almost entirely from American sources that we get the image of Santa and his reindeer (albeit the influence of traditional European culture is enough to have them called “reindeer” and not the more common American description: “caribou”). The first mention of reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh comes relatively recently in 1821. A poem printed anonymously by New York printer William Gilley describes how: “Old Santeclaus with much delight, His reindeer drives this frosty night“, including an illustration of a small sleigh pulled by a single reindeer.
Gilley reputedly attributed the idea of flying reindeer to the poem’s anonymous author, saying: “The idea of Santeclaus was not mine nor was the idea of a reindeer. The author of the tale but submitted the piece, with little added information. However, it should be noted that he did mention the reindeer in a subsequent correspondence. He stated that far in the north near the Arctic lands a series of animals exist, these hooven and antlered animals resemble the reindeer and are feared and honored by those around, as you see he claims to have heard they could fly from his mother.“
It was a couple of years later, though, that Santa and his reindeer pulled sleigh really cemented themselves in the public imagination with the publication in the Troy Sentinel of a poem by literature professor and snobby tax avoider Clement Clarke Moore. The poem, Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas, is now far better known by it’s opening lines: “‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house, Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”. Moore took the earlier image of the flying reindeer pulling the sleigh and conjured up a whole team, and gave them names by which they still get referred today:
“When, what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a minature sleigh, and eight tiny rein-deer,
With a little old driver, so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment it must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and call’d them by name:
“Now! Dasher, now! Dancer, now! Prancer and Vixen,
“On! Comet, on! Cupid, on! Dunder and Blixem;
“To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall!
“Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!””
The last two, Dunder and Blixem, were named for the Dutch words for “thunder” and “lightning”, showing the influence of the Dutch figure of Sinterklaas on the poem (despite there not really being any reindeer in Holland). These days they are usually rendered as Donner and Blitzen, the equivalent German terms. There are other differences between Moore’s version of Santa’s sleigh and reindeer and ours. Here the sleigh is miniature and the reindeer tiny. Santa himself is described as more of an elf than the big fat man we get today. As time went on, though, Prancer, Vixen, Donner, Blitzen and the like came to be represented visually by versions of normal size reindeer.
For us it was still the week before Christmas and I had to figure out how to cook my reindeer fillet. It seemed reasonable to assume, as it’s still a deer, that I could treat the reindeer similarly to venison and so I approached the cooking of it accordingly. I began to think of what flavours would work with deer, whilst being suitably festive for a roast Cupid. The obvious thought was chestnuts, something that goes with venison meat, but is a particularly seasonal treat beloved of the singers of Christmas standards.
I’d never cooked with chestnuts before, so it wasn’t only going to be the reindeer that was new to my palate. Roasting of chestnuts is a festive tradition. In the absence of an open fire the oven would have to do. Looking online for advice on how on earth to roast chestnuts and get the bit you can actually eat out, it seemed that the best advice was to cut crosses in the skin and put them in the oven surrounded by water, so you roast and steam them at the same time.
Despite this preparation, peeling the roast chestnuts was not particularly easy. In fact, I found picking at them oddly reminiscent of the rather fiddly time that I roast and shelled cacao beans, only without the delicious smell of chocolate that accompanied them. The chestnuts need to still be warm to make peeling both the hard outer shell and the fluffy inner one off with any ease, but when they’re too hot they are hard to handle. There’s only really a fairly small window in between when shelling them is relatively easy. It was not without a sense of achievement, then, that I arrived at a set of roast and peeled chestnuts and wondered what to do with them. I settled on a chestnut puree as something that is impressively versatile, variants working with both sweet and savoury dishes. For mine, I boiled the chestnuts in some chicken stock until they were soft enough to go in the food professor and then whizzed them up into a smooth creamy texture.
What else could I add to fit this festive reindeer theme? The first thing that came to mind was a little blob of red, something to pay tribute to the most famous reindeer of them all.
It would be over a hundred years after Moore wrote the words “‘Twas the night before Christmas” before another reindeer assumed a position of fame and popularity equivalent to those in his poem. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer was created by Robert L. May in 1939, not, as some have claimed, to comfort his young daughter about his wife dying of cancer (what was it, some kind of horrible nose tumour?), but as a writer for hire for the Montgomery Ward company in Chicago, who were then able to retain the copyright on the character. Essentially nothing more than a festive version of the Ugly Duckling story, May’s Rudolph, like Moore’s reindeer, has a few little differences from the one we know today. In the original story, Rudolph lives with his loving mother and father and has no relation with Santa or his reindeer until Santa notices his glowing nose while delivering presents to his house. This conscientious Rudolph makes a big point of leaving a note for his parents before leaving to run off with a beardy stranger.
May’s bosses took a bit of convincing that a red nosed character wouldn’t just seem like a drunk and he had to get an artist to do a bunch of cute reindeer pictures to win them over. The Rudolph character didn’t really take off, though, until his story was more pithily told in song. May acquired the rights to the character from Montgomery Ward in 1947 and got his brother-in-law Johnny Marks to write a musical version. It’s this version of Rudolph that most of us know today, thanks to it being a big hit in 1949 for singing cowboy Gene Autry (who also wrote “Here Comes Santa Claus” and followed “Rudolph” up with the almost as successful “Frosty the Snowman”).
When thinking of red foods and Christmas, cranberry is the obvious choice. A blob or two of cranberry jelly would be a suitable way, I thought, of suggesting the presence of Rudolph on the plate. So, I boiled up some cranberries, along with juniper berries, cinnamon and cloves for extra Christmas-iness and then took the infused cranberry juice and dissolved in a whole heap of sugar.
Unfortunately, when making jams and jellies it’s always advisable to make large amounts. That makes it much easier to judge when it reaches the setting point. With the tiny amount that I was making it was very hard to stop it going over and turning into rock solid caramelised cranberry jelly. And this is exactly what happened. Fortunately we had a jar of shop bought stuff in the cupboard (presumably left over from last Christmas, showing how often we ever eat it), so I was able to substitute that in instead.
Living as they do in snowy and icy conditions, reindeer diets consist mostly of moss and lichen. Nevertheless, when we are expecting Santa to come down the chimney and give us presents, we present him with mince pies, sherry, and a carrot for the reindeer. After a winter of eating nothing but moss, that carrot is going to either seem pretty heavenly or completely turn Comet’s stomach. Either way, it felt like a carrot would make a suitable vegetable accompaniment for a cooked reindeer so I honey roast a few of those.
The final element I wanted on the plate was potato, not because it’s particularly deer or Christmas related, just because I would be disappointed to dine without it. I decided to do my potato as a rösti, partly to reflect the Germanic history of our festive traditions and partly as it resembles a bed of straw for my reindeer fillet to bed down on. So, I grated a couple of potatoes and rung the moisture out of them, mixed this with some seasoning and fried them in clarified butter.
Although Rudolph is clearly a boy reindeer (despite the claims of having been a character written to appeal to May’s daughter), in reality Santa’s reindeer would almost certainly be female. Male reindeer are the only mammal to shed their antlers and grow a new set every year. This happens around the time of the mating season in early December. Female reindeer, on the other hand, are the only female deer to grow antlers of their own. So if you see a team of impressively antlered reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh, they are almost certainly girls. On top of that, male reindeer lose their fatty stores during that mating season, so have only 5% body fat, where the females have about 50% fat, useful for keeping warm and giving energy to pulling flying sleighs.
My reindeer fillet seemed pretty lean, so I can only assume it came from a Rudolph and not a Ruby. I seasoned the reindeer, seared it in a frying pan on every side and then popped it into the oven for a few minutes to cook and that was all there was to it. I wanted the deer meat to be, if not quite as red as Rudolph’s nose, still pleasingly pink.
As for how it all tasted, well the reindeer itself was definitely the star of the show. If you like venison then this is the sort of meat for you. Lean, juicy and full of flavour, all with the slight illicit pleasure of eating something sacred to Christmas, the reindeer was a pleasure to eat. As for the accompaniments and trimmings, they looked a little sparse on the plate, but I was pleased with my first effort at cooking chestnuts (less so with my failed cranberry jelly), but overall those flavours worked together, while being not terribly remarkable. I would, however, be completely happy if reindeer eating became as much of a part of Christmas as reindeer stories!
Professor Plum in the Dining Room: It was a shame the cranberry jelly didn’t work out, and sheer luck we had some in the cupboard. The fruity flavour worked really well with the deer especially, tart where the meat was rich and sweet where the meat was savoury. The chestnut puree could have been a little smoother, but it definitely enhanced the dish as well. Reindeer is a lot like other venison, though even slightly overcooked it was still very juicy; I suppose reindeer have to carry more fat around to keep warm than your average red or roe deer. Generally, it was pretty enjoyable, and I’d definitely like to have reindeer again.
I probably shouldn’t have shared that sentiment with Father Christmas, though.