The alternative Christmas dinner

Instead of the usual turkey ‘n’ ham with all the trimmings, Sharon Ní Conchuir meets three households that are busy preparing something different, from lentil tourtiere to a barbecued feast, and carpaccio of kangaroo

What are you having for Christmas dinner this year? Most of you are bound to be startled at such a question because surely everyone knows what’s going to be on your dinner table this year.

It’s the same thing that’s on it every year. The same thing that everyone eats: turkey, ham, stuffing, roasted potatoes and all the trimmings.

You may be surprised to learn that there are people out there who don’t follow convention. People who choose to do things differently or who, because of the diets they follow, have to adapt to traditions of Christmas dinner to suit.

A vegan Christmas

People like Debbie Walsh, who is a passionate vegan cook. Debbie lives in Watergrasshill in Co Cork with her husband Kieran and their son Finn. Kieran and Debbie were both vegetarians when they met and they became fully vegan in 2008. This means that for the past three years, they have not eaten a single bit of meat or animal-derived product such as cheese, eggs or milk.

It also means that turkey and ham are definitely off her Christmas dinner menu. But what exactly is on it?

“We do like to keep some aspects of the traditional Christmas dinner,” says Debbie. “So, we have all of the usual trimmings but we ‘veganise’ them. For example, if a recipe asks for butter, we swap it for dairy-free margarine and we swap milk and cream for their dairy-free counterparts. It’s pretty easy really!”

This year’s main dish is a puy lentil tourtiere. “A tourtiere is a traditional French-Canadian Christmas dish,” explains Debbie.

“It’s usually a meat pie with ground pork and festive spices like nutmeg and cinnamon. We use lentils instead of the pork and it reminds me of home as I’m from Canada.”

As well as the tourtiere, Debbie and her family will also have mushroom and onion gravy, sage and onion stuffing, maple roasted carrots and parsnips, brussel sprouts, peas with a lemon hazelnut ‘butter’ and mashed potatoes made with dairy-free margarine and milk.

Debbie is also looking forward to her dessert. Instead of Christmas pudding, she’s planning a chocolate Grand Marnier mousse dome cake. “I’m planning to decorate it to look like a Christmas pudding though,” she jokes.

Debbie’s unique form of cooking has even managed to win over her family and friends. “Our tradition is to have our big Christmas meal on Christmas Eve when we have my in-laws over for a vegan feast,” she says. “They always love the vegan food. Then we go to their house for Christmas dinner, bringing our leftovers with us to make it easier on my mother-in-law.”

That’s not to say that everyone is so understanding. “People don’t realise how varied a vegan diet actually is,” says Debbie. “I always get asked ‘what on earth do you eat?’ but in reality, there is very little that can’t be veganised and we certainly do not go hungry — especially at Christmas.”

- Read more about Debbie’s vegan food on her blog

Tradition with a twist

Alfie McCaffrey’s take on Christmas dinner could be described as traditional with a twist. For this man suffers from what his wife Margaret jokingly refers to as “Flintstone syndrome”. He barbecues everything, including his Christmas dinner.

“I’ve eaten lots of different things for Christmas dinner over the years,” says Alfie, who has lived in places all over the world. “I’ve eaten everything from sea snake to barracuda but nothing is as good as my home-reared organic turkeys cooked on my Big Egg BBQ.”

Alfie and Margaret run Old Farm in Lorrha near Nenagh, Co Tipperary. There, they raise pigs, which they turn into free-range pork. They raise their own turkeys for Christmas. And Alfie is always busy with the barbecue.

“I barbecue everything from pizzas to chickens,” he says. “I’ll use the barbecue four or five nights a week. Not only does it taste good but there’s no washing up.”

So, how exactly does he barbecue his turkey? “I wouldn’t insult what is a great bird and good quality meat by messing too much with flavourings,” says Alfie. “I melt some butter and add finely chopped rosemary, sage and thyme and use this to baste the bird. I place it on a rack over a drip pan and then close the lid of the BBQ and away it goes.”

He maintains that barbecuing his turkey gives it a much better flavour and, even more importantly, ensures that it doesn’t dry out like many conventionally cooked turkeys do.

“Two and a half hours later, you’ll have a succulent and juicy turkey,” promises Alfie. “Because it’s cooked over a live heat, it cooks faster and more evenly than in an oven.”

And it’s not just the turkey he makes in the BBQ. As soon as the bird comes out, he covers it in foil and layers a few towels over it. Then, he places the potatoes and the vegetables to roast in the BBQ too.

“I’m telling you that you can cook anything you want on the barbecue,” insists Alfie. “Try it once and you won’t believe the flavour it gives.”

- To find out more about Alfie and his farm, visit

A taste of Down Under

Chef Dean Coppard brings an Aussie flavour to his family’s Christmas celebrations in Armagh. He has been living in the North with his wife Sarah and their daughter for the past nine years and in that time he has established his own festive traditions.

Every year, he shares the cooking duties with his Northern Irish mother-in-law. She has traditional tastes and wants to cook turkey and ham but he always insists that there is kangaroo on the menu.

“Last year, we had carpaccio of kangaroo and it was really lovely,” says Dean. “The flavour reminds me of home.”

He and his mother-in-law haven’t fully planned this year’s menu yet but he hopes it will include lobster and kangaroo. “It’s good to have some of the traditions of Ireland alongside the traditions of Australia,” says Dean. “It’s all about trying to bring both sides together.”

His own mother used to try to bring some of her own British Christmas traditions to the table when he was a child, although she didn’t have very much success.

“My mother is from Jersey and when we were growing up in North Queensland, she would try to recreate what her Christmas used to be like back home,” remembers Dean. “We’d be sitting there in 40 degree heat sweating in our Santa hats and eating turkey. It really didn’t work. So, I’ve learned my lesson. I don’t try to recreate an Australian Christmas. Instead, what I try to do is combine the best of both and bring Ireland and Australia together.”

So, is he successful? Has he converted his in-laws to the flavour of kangaroo? Do they prefer it to turkey and ham?

“They thought it was strange at first but they gave it a chance because they knew it was one of my traditions from home,” says Dean. “Now they really like it. We even serve it with cranberry sauce, just as you would turkey.”

However, some of their friends are not quite so understanding. “My father-in-law’s golfing buddies tease him about it,” laughs Dean. “They ask him if he’s eating Skippy for his Christmas dinner.”

- Dean serves his Australian food in Ulhuru, his restaurant in Armagh.

Picture: Australian Dean Coppard doing a trial run on his kangaroo steak option for Christmas dinner. Picture: Justin Kernoghan


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