The coronavirus has thrown a gigantic duvet on New Year’s Eve celebrations the world over and tomorrow night there will be no revelling in Palma’s streets and squares and in island towns and villages. Even in homes, with a maximum of six people waiting to hear the chimes of midnight, 2021 will be welcomed with a whimper and not a bang, as T.S. Eliot wrote in reference to the way the world ends.
Except for those who are usually in bed and asleep long before midnight even on New Year’s Eve, tomorrow night’s celebration will be a minor affair with little of the frolicking and rollicking that is usual on the last night of the year.
However, everyone who’s sitting round a table with five other members of the family (or just a group of six friends) will be trying to make the most of it — which is exactly what we have to do when the chips are down.
So although tomorrow night’s festivities won’t be much of a shindig or a knee’s up, there will be some merriment and those six people round the table will get through couple of bottles of wine and perhaps two of cava. They will not be dining on any traditional New Year’s Eve dishes. No European country I know of has traditional dishes for the last night of the year. The French will down a vast amount of oysters and other seafood and in Majorca and other parts of Spain gambas, langostinos and other shellfish will be much in evidence, plus dishes that are family favourites for special occasions at any time of the year.
Even New Year’s Day didn’t seem to inspire our ancestors, and one looks in vain for traditional dishes on a national scale. The Scots come nearest to it with their ubiquitous steak pie for lunch on New Year’s Day.
Hogmanay, as the Scots call the last night of the year, is the year’s biggest party: it’s an open house night with relatives and friends dropping by (sometimes unexpectedly) with new year greetings. In most homes this goes on all night, which means until 5am — or even later.
The first of January is the one day of the year when Scottish housewives don’t want the chore of cooking a festive meal — so everyone eats steak pie which is already made (and possibly bought in) and is popped into the oven and served with boiled or roasted potatoes and peas. It’s an easy-peasy meal to serve and such national favourite that even those with a monumental hangover enjoy it.
Many Mallorcans (especially the younger generation although also a few oldies) prefer to eat out on New Year’s Eve and pay very high prices for gargantuan and ostentatious meals they’d never eat at any other time of the year. That is off the menu for tomorrow night and New Year’s Day.
There’s one New Year’s Eve tradition that will still be very much in place for those sitting round a table of six — the uvas de la suerte, or the grapes of good luck. There are 12 of them and tradition demands that we eat one at each stroke of midnight. If you’ve never done it before, be warned that it’s easier said than done.
Millions of Spaniards will have their 12 lucky grapes in a small bowl long before midnight. The astute buy seedless grapes and some people peel them — this makes for easier and quicker eating. One grape for each stroke of midnight sounds easy, but it’s amazing how quickly those chimes come round when you’re chewing a grape and trying to swallow it as quickly as possible.
It is not known when this custom started but it was at the beginning of the last century and in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol. The precise location is the clock tower of the former Ministry of the Interior building. This clock, shown on national television and heard on the radio, tells Spaniards the new year has started — with the exception of those in the Canary Islands who are one hour behind the mainland.
It was in the late 1850s that Madrid residents started to congregate in the Puerta del Sol on the night of December 31 to celebrate the start of the new year. This was just a central meeting place and there was no clock then to chime in the new year.
The clock, which was made in England in 1868, was first housed in a hospital called the Buen Suceso. At the start of the 20th century it was moved to the tower of what was then the Ministry of the Interior. That was when crowds in the Puerta del Sol were able to time the start of the new year to the exact second.
The clock contains a complicated mechanism by which a brightly lit ball slowly drops inside the tower and sets off the chimes. At some point someone started to eat a grape when the ball dropped and then another grape for each of the 12 chimes.
By the 1920s the gulping down of a grape for each of the 12 strokes of midnight was a well-established custom in Madrid. From there it spread to the surrounding areas of the capital and eventually became a national custom. It is a purely Spanish tradition and no other nation has anything like it.
However, the 12 grapes of luck tradition eventually spread to Italy, especially Milan, and it is becoming a popular event all over the country.
The practice of celebrating the entrance of the new year in the main square under the town’s principal clock, also spread to Palma. Every year more and more people head for the Plaza Cort to drink a toast to the new year under the town hall clock.
But there will be none of that tomorrow night, neither in Madrid nor in Palma nor in any other village, town or city.
If you are eating the 12 grapes round a table at home with five relatives or friends, it really does help if you peel them.
The best way to do so (unless, like Mae West, you have a maid called Beulah) is to dip them into boiling water for a few seconds. In most countries round the world the festive season comes to an end on the first day of the new year but in some nations the festivities continue until Wednesday of next week, the Epiphany.
This day is also known in Spain as ‘los Reyes’, the day of the Three Kings, which is when Spanish children receive their festive season gifts. Adults also exchange gifts on this day. The long festive season will trundle to an end on Wednesday of next week but there is no obligatory meal. Mothers make dishes that are family favourites — but not those that are labour intensive.
The one traditional culinary item on the table will be the ‘roscón de reyes’, a ring-shaped bun made with yeast dough and adorned with glacé fruits. It is usually topped with crown made of gold-coloured paper.
And because it is associated with the Three Kings, the three wise men from the east who took gifts to the baby Jesus, the ‘roscón de reyes’ contains lucky charms. The original charm was a dried bean and the person who got it (mothers made sure it was a child) received the paper crown and became ‘king’ of the family for the rest of the meal. Part of the fun is that the adults have to obey the child king’s comical commands.
It is in Aragón, and especially in the capital of Zaragoza, that the cult of the ‘roscón’ reaches its zenith. For the Aragoneses, the ‘roscón’ is also associated with several saints’ days at the end of January and the beginning of February.
The most important feast day featuring the ‘roscón’ is that of San Valero, the patron of Zaragoza, which falls on January 29. On that day in Zaragoza the ‘roscón de reyes’ becomes the ‘roscón de San Valero’.
The original ‘roscón de San Valero’ was made in the classic way with yeast dough and decorated with glacé fruits.
But an enterprising pastry maker in 1940 sliced the ‘roscón’ through the middle and filled it with whipped cream. This innovation was an immediate hit with the people of Zaragoza and nowadays some 90 per cent of ‘roscones’ eaten on January 29 have whipped cream fillings.
The ‘roscón’ is so popular in Aragón it goes under different names depending on which saint’s day it celebrates.
The ‘roscón de reyes’ was virtually non-existent in Majorca some 55 years ago because it wasn’t a local tradition. A couple of pastry shops in the centre of Palma made a few for their regular customers who had moved here from the mainland.
But about 40 years ago Mallorcans began to take a greater interest in their own seasonal customs as well as those from other parts of the country. More pastry shops started to make ‘roscones’ and they became so popular that supermarket chains got in on the act. The ‘roscón de reyes’ is nowadays a well-established Three Kings tradition here and they go on sale everywhere a couple of weeks before January 6.
In some families, the man of the house goes out first thing on January 6 and buys either a large ‘roscón’ or individual small ones and the family has them for breakfast.
Other families prefer to buy large well decorated ‘roscón’ de reyes’ and have it as a dessert, sometimes with scoop or two of ice cream. If cut into elegant slices, they go down very nicely with an afternoon cup of tea. And if you have a slice or two later in the evening they will be especially good with steaming cup of hot chocolate.