Christmas pud has come a long way from its medieval origins, says Hattie Ellis, and these days there’s an astonishing array of different versions of the figgy confection to choose from
With Stir Up Sunday this weekend, country cooks are reaching for their wooden spoons to stir the pud and make a wish. But, as Hattie Ellis discovers, Christmas puddings have come a long way from their medieval origins. And the shop shelves are practically groaning with the array on offer this Christmas.
If you want to savour a pud this Christmas without the exertion of stirring, read 6 best Christmas puddings and follow The Field’s advice. No need to loiter undecided in the supermarket aisles.
When you come to think of it, Christmas puddings are a strange kind of food. No wonder, as the origins of the recipe date back to medieval times.
The pud’s distant ancestor was pottage, a thick soup. A Christmas version evolved, filled with expensive ingredients such as dried fruit and spices that had come from lands afar – the culinary equivalent of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
From the 17th century, the mixture was put into a cloth and boiled, and became a round pudding. Charles Dickens, in A Christmas Carol, has Mrs Cratchit bringing “a speckled cannonball” to the table, ablaze with brandy and with a sprig of holly on top. The tradition of figgy pudding was now lodged in our national psyche and continues to have a place on the table, both here and in countries of the former British Empire. They even get the steamer on in Australia, although it’s the middle of summer.
Not everyone has the inclination to make their own pud and there are now some decent ones on sale.
Heston Blumenthal’s version for Waitrose, made with a whole candied orange in the centre, was an instant hit in 2011. Shelves were cleared and touts were selling them at sky-high prices on eBay. This year the pudding is on sale again. Following on from the success of the iconic Hidden Orange Christmas pudding, apricots, pomegranate liqueur, pistachios, caramelised orange and Middle Eastern spices are packed into the Heston from Waitrose Persian Christmas Pudding, oozing with a fragrant honey and rose butter centre and a shimmering copper glitter finish.
THE WILLY WONKA OF CHRISTMAS PUDS
Heston’s pud isn’t, of course, made in his kitchen laboratory at the Fat Duck. It comes from the same place as more than 90% of Britain’s own-label Christmas puddings – Matthew Walker, a dedicated steamed-pudding factory in Derbyshire that turns them out for everyone from Lidl to Harrods. I visited the factory a couple of years ago, expecting a Willy Wonka version of Santa’s grotto. It did not disappoint.
The company has been making puddings since 1899, expanding greatly with the demand for ready-made products from supermarkets and caterers. It produces a staggering 21 million puddings a year. At full steam ahead, in September, there may be as many as 10 bespoke recipes on the go at any one time. You walk into factory rooms full of the evocative scent of warm spices, such as cinnamon and cloves, and the slightly caramelised aroma of dried fruit. The booze room is like a giant version of the Christmas drinks tray, awash with port, brandy, sherry, stout and cider.
Every day is Christmas here. They put down tools only for a staff Christmas dinner – with a pudding, of course – and then start again in January, making the top-end puds that are matured for nearly 12 months. But the Christmas pudding market, while still strong, is in slight decline. Matthew Walker did some market research to work out what to do. “Younger consumers thought Christmas pudding was stodgy and didn’t like the taste, ” says Wayne Greensmith, the company’s marketing manager.
On a completely different scale, there are artisan producers who sell locally or online. Barbara Bayfield of Truffles, in Salisbury, is one such cook. Her recipe comes from the handwritten cookery book of her grandmother, who was born in 1873 as one of 16 children and went into service to work as a cook.
Bayfield was making cakes for teashops when an uncle said the pudding was good enough to sell. From 300 in the first year, she now makes 3,500 at home, all in small batches and acclaimed “best of the best” in the desserts category of Taste of the West. “I was thrilled, because chocolate desserts often win and others get left out,” says Bayfield.
Another small producer with a different take on tradition is Claire Ptak, a Californian who was a pastry chef at the world-famous Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. When she first arrived here with her British husband, plum pudding puzzled her. “I love dark flavours and think tradition in food is fascinating,” she says. “And I love candied fruit, so the idea of Christmas pudding was great. But a lot of the first ones I tried had this muddy, sweet, overwhelming taste.”
Cooking her way through recipes from Eliza Acton to Nigella, Ptak finally developed a pud made with butter instead of suet, giving a slightly more cakey texture. She also uses orange, lemon, clementine and grapefruit citrus peel, which she candies herself using organic Italian fruit. Her limited numbers of puds are sold at her Violet Bakery in Hackney.
Whatever pud you buy or make, remember to have enough to fry up after Christmas. Not only is this delicious but you actually have enough space in your stomach to enjoy the dish properly.