Preceding many of our Victorian yuletide traditions, the Christmas pudding has its origins in pottage – and now is the time to get stirring, says Ettie Neil-Gallacher
With Advent fast approaching, we must first wield the wood spoon and gather the troops to stir. Homemade Christmas puddings can be a fiercely protected family tradition, but their popularity is dying out. Ettie Neil-Gallacher prepares for Stir-Up Sunday.
This figgy pudding has come a long way since its medieval origins. Read Christmas puddings: pudding on the Ritz to discover the vast array of Christmas puds available today.
The last Sunday before Advent, 26 November, is Stir-Up Sunday. So forget the roast and push the papers to one side, for there is nothing to get you in the festive spirit as quickly as making your own Christmas pudding. And there are few things for which the cook will be more grateful than an element of the feast that requires such little thought on the day itself.
But this is a dying art (I use the term loosely because there’s little artistry involved). Even friends whose culinary wizardry far exceeds my own don’t bother to make a Christmas pudding. That may be because supermarket offerings have rather improved (news that Morrisons is to sell a Pedro Ximenez-soaked version this year has prompted me to revert to rum in a fit of snobbish pique) but also it is because the appeal of Christmas pudding itself has dwindled. According to market research firm YouGov, it’s most popular among elderly right-wingers and only a measly third of our millennials like it.
But, politics aside, this decline is hugely sad, for the Christmas pudding is a very British dish – the appeal of which mystifies foreigners and the young alike – and one with a history richer than a Nigella Lawson festive feast. Myths and uncertainties surround its origins but while the Victorians are largely responsible for the way we celebrate all things Yule-related today, the story of Prince Albert introducing plum pudding is apocryphal. Similarly, the idea of “the pudding king”, George I, demanding a Christmas pudding on 25 December, four months after his coronation in 1714, is unsubstantiated.
According to Alan Davidson’s peerless Oxford Companion to Food, Christmas pudding’s origins are further back in the early 15th century, in plum pottage. This was really more of a thickened soup comprised of beef or mutton, dried fruit (the “plum” being a prune), root vegetables and flavoured with wine, herbs and spices. Over the course of the following century, variations occurred with chicken or veal replacing the red meat and then supplanted altogether by the introduction of suet. Gradually, the use of root vegetables died out, though some recipes (such as those by Gary Rhodes and Mary Berry) still call for grated carrot.
Like the Crown Jewels, festive trappings such as mince pies, holly and plum pottage fared poorly under Oliver Cromwell’s mirthless Commonwealth; however, come the Restoration, it enjoyed something of a resurrection. Indeed, up until the 1670s, this confection wasn’t confined to Christmas Day but, rather, was boiled up for other feast days, too, including All Saints’ Day (1 November) and the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God (New Year’s Day). Thereafter, it came to be associated with 25 December, as Christmas pottage, but both that and plum pottage were served as a rich and filling first course, rather than to herald the end of the feast.
SUET TO FRUIT RATIO
Christmas pudding, as we know it today, took recognisable form during the 19th century. The first recipe for “Christmas pudding” is to be found in Eliza Acton’s 1845 Private Cooking for Modern Families. Food writer Xanthe Clay has described this pudding as “a revelation”, involving a suet:fruit ratio of 1:2, the latter being steeped in Cognac or brandy.
So, for 400 years there was no published recipe for Christmas pudding itself. Such fluidity has allowed for much private experimentation and there are still families out there following their own recipes handed down through generations. Traditions include that there should be 13 ingredients (one for Christ and each of the apostles), and that everyone in the family should stir the pudding, east to west (as the Magi travelled to visit the infant Jesus), while making a wish. It is also customary to put one or several small coins in (a silver threepence or sixpence) to bring fortune in the coming year.
Darina Allen, founder of Ballymaloe Cookery School in Cork, food writer and television presenter, remembers her own family traditions well. “Making the Christmas cake and plum pudding with our mother was a big deal when the nine of us were growing up. Everyone stirred and made a wish to Santa Claus, and we put the same charms in every year.” She is also a great advocate of the importance of involving children in the process because “you’re inadvertently passing on skills”, and thereby fostering an interest in cookery. Moreover, by including them, they learn that it’s not hard. “When children see how easy it is, there’s no
mystery.” Indeed, her pudding is so popular with her family that they will not brook variation. “Christmas pudding is funny, because it’s so much about tradition that no-one wants anything changed.”
While her own mother used rum to soak the fruit, her mother-in-law, Myrtle Allen, a Michelin star-winning chef and co-owner of The Yeats Room restaurant at Ballymaloe House, uses Irish whiskey. Both Myrtle and Darina stipulate little flour and the latter also likes the addition of chopped almonds.
Because there was no formal recipe for Christmas pudding until the middle of the 19th century, family traditions varied and there are still people up and down the country maintaining them. While her own mother used to make her pudding well before Stir-Up Sunday, Frances O’Malley, from Somerset, is flexible about when she makes it (indeed, Darina Allen warns that while the puddings become richer and firmer with age, one loses the lightness of the fruit if left for a longer period); her eldest daughter has now adopted the recipe, too. O’Malley, who may have as many as six children and 16 grandchildren to feed on Christmas Day, uses a recipe that includes no flour and she has exchanged beef suet for vegetarian suet as one of her daughters-in-law doesn’t eat meat. In a fit of traditionalism, her husband has sourced some silver threepenny bits for this year’s pudding.
By contrast, Dr Frances Hobbs, a retired doctor living in Cheshire, looks to her Northern Irish heritage for her recipe. In the spirit of festive ecumenism, her Protestant Aunt Maureen made puddings for both the Catholic and Protestant sides of the family. This pudding shunned breadcrumbs and soaked the fruit in porter – stout is still popular, as the recipes suggested by Felicity Cloake and Gary Rhodes show. She included fresh as well as candied peel, walnuts and almonds. The fruit was soaked in Bushmills whiskey and tradition was followed in the stirring of the pudding and in the number of ingredients; she also added as many “thrupenny bits” as there were young children in the family, the youngest of whom added the silver coins. The pudding was topped up, using a skewer, at regular intervals and stored on a high shelf in a cold pantry. But come the day itself, she would take down one of the aged puddings from the previous year for cooking and eating with clotted cream.
But one doesn’t need an old family recipe. London-based Anouska Spiers, partner and group general counsel at literary agency the Blair Partnership, has been making her own “bastardised”, diabetic-friendly Christmas pudding for 25 years (she had to find one that could accommodate her sister’s food intolerances). Using a variety of fruit soaked in Guinness, as well as carrot, she uses gluten-free flour and breadcrumbs; the product has passed many a sceptical taste test.
With such history, I am forced to admit that I’m something of a pretender when it comes to Christmas pudding, as I’ve only been at it for the past 12 years. But I can testify to the fact that it’s neither hard nor unduly time consuming. Moreover, the levels of appreciation and wonder that greet a homemade Christmas pudding far exceed the effort expended, which is surely a recipe in itself for seasonal satisfaction.