Christmas is coming and I have noticed that my local fishmonger is already displaying some whole carp on his fish counter.
Traditionally, carp are grown in Europe during the summer months when they benefit from warmer temperatures and faster growth. As winter approaches, they are left to hibernate or are harvested for the festive season.
The traditions vary around Europe, but my involvement with carp farming was through the efforts of a war-time refugee from Latvia who wanted to grow some of the taste of home in the English countryside. He told me that it was traditional to take the larger scales from the farmed mirror carp and put them in your wallet to ensure continued wealth in the coming year.
During the 1980s, there was still a large Eastern European population living in the north of England who still wanted to eat fresh carp at Christmas and New Year, especially those from Poland. Carp remains the most popular fish in Poland, yet the only time it is eaten is at Christmas.
The Polish Christmas meal typically consists of 12 dishes in reference to the 12 apostles. Every dish should be at least tried as it brings good luck for the coming 12 months. Most interestingly, the meal doesn’t contain any meat except that of cold-blooded fish.
The focus on fish is certainly connected to the Catholic Church and the observance of fast days, during which the eating of meat was forbidden, but fish was allowed.
Christmas Eve was traditionally part of the advent fast period, a tradition that continued long after the Reformation.
Another Catholic tradition relates to the Feast of the Seven Fishes, which appears to have originated in Italy but has been adopted widely with the Italian migration, especially to the US. As elsewhere, the consumption of fish is encouraged on Christmas Eve as it is considered an important fast day. The idea of eating seven different fish dishes may come from the seven sacraments, but the true origin is unknown. Today, a fish pie may be the simplest way to eat a variety of fish in one go. Fish on Christmas Eve may also be seen as a way of eating a lighter dish before the big splurge on Christmas Day.
‘Tis the season – for salmon
In more recent times, the widespread availability of salmon from aquaculture has meant Christmas has become a period of high demand, especially for smoked salmon, which is bought either for home consumption of to give as a gift to friends and
relations. One of the most popular ways to eat smoked salmon is with scrambled eggs on Christmas morning.
Some years ago, Kantar conducted a survey of Christmas shopping habits and found that more than two million extra shoppers buy smoked salmon in the run-up to Christmas. However, I suspect that British demand for smoked salmon pales into insignificance compared with that of the French.
Prior to the pandemic, I used to do a sweep around French supermarkets to record their offerings. Extra open-top chillers were brought into stores and lined up along the widest aisles and almost exclusively displayed a massive range of smoked salmon products.
Most packs of smoked salmon in the UK are sized at 100–120g with a 300g pack available at Christmas. In France, packs ranged in size up to 800g with branded and own label offering a choice of origins including Scotland, Norway, Ireland, the Faroes and Chile. Packs of Label Rouge smoked salmon are also displayed.
How shoppers are able to decide which smoked salmon to buy is baffling because the choice is so wide. Although fresh salmon is widely available, the focus at Christmas in France is very much on the smoked salmon variety.
In the UK, the Christmas market for salmon is much more diverse. Alongside fresh and smoked salmon, there is an extensive range of added-value dishes in most retailers. Many of these take the form of hors d’oeuvres or starters such as salmon terrine with prawns, smoked salmon canapes and salmon pate. In addition, there are uncooked salmon sides with a range of flavourings such as clementine and
Christmas is also the time when whole salmon starts to reappear on fish counters in ever large numbers. They are typically on price
promotion, making salmon at Christmas even more attractive to consumers.
At the time of writing, at the end of November, Morrisons have just launched this year’s offer on salmon at £5.99/kg. However, it will be interesting to see how other retailers promote their salmon offerings. Many supermarket fish counters no longer exist as supermarkets respond to changing consumer demand. Christmas is very different with continued strong demand as shoppers splash out for the Christmas festivities. This year, with the pandemic on our minds, perhaps it may be even more so.