BIRTH OF THE PUDDING
The English have long been maligned for the uninspired stodginess of their cooking, particularly by their gourmet neighbours, the French. Nevertheless, it was a Frenchman, Misson de Valbourg who, upon visiting England in 1690, was moved to exclaim: What an excellent thing is an English Pudding!’ Few would disagree. The sensual pleasures afforded by these wondrous concoctions excuses the culinary deficiencies of an entire nation.
The English pudding was born as a sort of savoury plum porridge containing meat broth, fruit juice, wine, prunes, mace and breadcrumbs. Later it solidified into a sausage, boiled in a length of animal intestine. It actually survives in this form in the North of England, as black or white pudding.
When sweet puddings began to appear in the 16th century, cloth was preferred as a covering. Appropriately, they were known as bag ‘puddings.’
Over the years, cities right across England developed their own recipes. There are countless examples, including Chester, Southport, Exeter, and Ipswich puddings. There are also puddings to celebrate festivals and feast days throughout the year. However, the richest, most famous, best loved ‘bag pudding’ of all, is served on Christmas day.
I love the following rhyme in rich, Wiltshire dialect. It’s by Edward Slow.
THA GIRT BIG FIGGETTY POODEN
A used ta come in steamin hot,
Nearly as big’s a waishen pot.
Wie vigs an currands zich a lot,
In thick ar Crismas pooden.
Lore, ow me young eyes glissen’d at un,
An Fiather he did zay, ‘Odd drat un’,
I do believe, while I war chatten,
Thic bwoy ud ate thic pooden!
The proper time for the making of a Christmas pudding is the Sunday before Advent, at the end of November. It is known as ‘Stir-up Sunday’, both from the Collect of the day which begins: ‘Stir-up we beseech thee O’Lord, the wills of thy faithful people.’, and of course from the stirring of the pud itself.
Pudding stirring should always be performed in a clockwise motion. Traditionally, every member of the family takes a turn, making a wish as they do so.
As a child I could never decide whether to use this wish as a sort of back-up to my letter to Santa, or as an opportunity to add to my requests. Only purists now seed their mixture with coins or silver charms. Not only is the metal used in today’s currency poisonous, but the high cost of dental work makes the risk of breaking a tooth too great.
Listen and watch these delightful sisters from Dartmoor making their Christmas pudding and adding the coins.
Click to watch the segment, which was filmed for BBC SPOTLIGHT.
I consider it most regrettable that during the decorous Victorian era, the English began to restrain their puddings in china basins, and then to hide them away in larders. No wonder Norman Lindsay’s ‘magic pudding’ Albert was so crabby.
2018 marks Albert’s 100th birthday. There is an exhibition in his honour at the State Library. By the way, his advice to children was pure gold;
Eat away, chew away…munch and bolt and guzzle,
Never leave the table till you’re full up to the muzzle!
Fortunately, we in the colonies were blissfully unaware of these trends. Australian housewives continued to allow their puddings to bounce joyfully around saucepans in their calico ‘undies’; as plump and round as ever (apart from poor Albert) . Afterwards, they hung them up proudly in the kitchen to ‘cure’ .
The argument against altering the shape of puddings is strong. To begin with, the very name is said to have originated from the Teutonic base – pud; meaning to swell out. How can puddings swell, if impeded by china ‘corsets’? In 1848 the London Illustrated News stated; ‘A kiss is round, the horizon is round, the earth is round, the sun and the stars and all the host of heaven are round. So is plum Pudding.’
And remember Charles Dickens’ description of Mrs Cratchit bringing in the Christmas pudding? ‘Mrs Cratchit entered – flushed but smiling proudly – with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball…..’ Now a cannon ball simply could not be anything but round. Imagine the disappointment of the good woman’s family if she had brought in a misshapen little ‘sandcastle’.
For many people, Christmas has become a purely secular occasion of feasting and gift giving. The religious significance of its traditions are slowly being forgotten. How many of us stop to wonder why we decorate the plum pudding. with a sprig of holly? It is said that the holly represents the crown of thorns Christ wore on the cross; the red berries, his blood.
Each year, recipes appear in Australian newspapers and magazines for cool climate Christmas puddings – Ice-cream, blended with fruit and nuts, or perhaps a marshmallow and jelly mould. Food editors tell us that these concoctions better suit our summery Christmases. Well, they may suit the Australian climate, but they don’t suit me!
By the way, Charles Dickens was a talented conjurer and one of his tricks that captivated adults and children alike was to cook a plum pudding in a top-hat. His biographer John Forster gave a description of the trick, in which all the normal ingredients were used, including fruit, raw eggs and flour:
The company having agreed among themselves to offer by way of loan, the hat of a gentleman whose head has arrived at maturity of size, the Necromancer, [magician] without removing the hat for an instant from before the eyes of the delighted company, will light a fire in it, make a plum pudding in his magic saucepan, boil it over the said fire [in the hat], produce it in two minutes, thoroughly done, cut it, and dispose of it in portions to the whole company for their consumption then and there; returning the hat, wholly uninjured by fire, to its lawful owner.
This wonderful scene is represented on the cover of a book about Dickens by Ian Keable.
Well, that’s all from me, because it’s simply impossible to top hat….I mean top that!