Yule log: Yule love this festive treat

One of my first TV jobs before I did Ready,Steady, Cook! and The Food and Drink Programme was to be an expert on The Generation Game.

There were two fabulous fun-filled programmes with Bruce Forsyth and a not-so-pleasant one with Jim Davidson – although, it being the Christmas episode, I did get to rock out with Roy Wood and Wizzard, singing “I wish it could be Christmas everyday”.

My demonstration piece was a Yule log, the icing and assembly all to be done in under two minutes. You can imagine the mess that the contestants made.

The origins of the Yule log – a large, hard log which burned in the hearth as part of traditional Yule or Christmas celebrations in several European cultures – can be traced back to Midwinter festivals, in which the Norsemen indulged in nights filled with feasting, “drinking Yule” and watching the fire leap around a log burning in the home hearth.

The ceremonies and beliefs associated with the Yule log’s sacred origins are closely linked to representations of health, fruitfulness and productivity. In England, the Yule was cut and dragged home by oxen or horses as the people walked alongside and sang merry songs. It was often decorated with evergreens and sometimes sprinkled with grain or cider before it was finally set alight.

In Yugoslavia, the Yule log was cut just before dawn on Christmas Eve and carried into the house at twilight. The wood itself was decorated with flowers, coloured silks and gold, doused with wine and an offering of grain. In France, Provencal families would go together to cut the Yule log, singing as they went along. They called their Yule log the trefoire and, with great ceremony, carried the log around the house three times and christened it with wine before it was set ablaze.

To all European races, the Yule log was believed to bring beneficial magic and was kept burning for at least 12 hours and sometimes as long as 12 days, warming both the house and those who resided within. When the fire of the Yule log was finally quenched, a small fragment of the wood would be saved and used to light the next year’s log. It was also believed that as long as the Yule log burned, the house would be protected from witchcraft.

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The ashes that remained from the sacred Yule log were scattered over fields to bring fertility, or cast into wells to purify and sweeten the water. Sometimes, the ashes were used in the creation of charms – to free cattle from vermin, for example, or to ward off hailstorms.

As with so many traditions, we adopt some and reject others. After the custom fell out of use, the name of the Yule log was transferred to a Christmas dessert.

The Yule log as a culinary manifestation is now one of our most popular Christmas cakes or puddings. As a dessert, my recipe is a sumptuous festive treat: light, tasty sponge, coated in a rich, dark, chocolate ganache. Decorate it however you want, with a plastic robin or a dusting of cocoa powder and some gold leaf. Make my delicious Yule cake part of your family Christmas this year.