A pudding isn't just for Christmas: from simple steamed sponge to fruit-studded festive favourites, Emma Hughes says that traditional British puds are making a comeback
Even Agatha Christie’s most diehard fans would not claim that the title tale of the short-story collection she published in 1960 is her finest mystery. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding does, however, contain her most delightful description of a dessert. Sitting down to Christmas dinner, Hercule Poirot is confronted with “a large football of a pudding, a piece of holly stuck in it like a triumphant flag and glorious flames of blue and red rising around it”.
It isn’t just the note he’s found in his bedroom warning him off the dish that bemuses the Belgian detective. It’s the quintessential, nearly untranslatable Englishness of the scene, complete with the flames blazing in the colours of the Union Flag. Poirot may have been circumspect but puddings are definitely having a moment.
British puddings are having a moment
After years in thrall to sorbets, soufflés and deconstructed desserts, fashionable spots are awash with steamed sponges and pouring cream. The dessert menus at St John and Quo Vadis are gloriously nurseryesque. Upper-crust ready-meal merchant Charlie Bigham’s ‘Proper Puds’ are wildly popular, and the Cartmel Village Shop now ships its award-winning sticky toffee puddings to Selfridges, Harvey Nichols and Fortnum & Mason.
There are places where puddings never fell from favour: clubland kitchens and those on the parliamentary estate are powered by school memories of spotted dick and Sunday lunches. But after a few years of turmoil, is it any wonder that the country as a whole is rediscovering culinary comfort? For the purposes of this piece, a pudding doesn’t mean rice pudding or Yorkshire puddings. I’m talking about capital-p Puddings. Think steamed or boiled sponges or fruitcakes, studded with fruit or chocolate and perhaps laced with booze.
Puddings have had a bad press
These, writes food historian Annie Gray in the foreword to Regula Ysewijn’s Pride and Pudding, have had “a bad press. Someone described as a pudding is overweight. If a substance is pudding-like, it’s solid, unyielding, stodgy.” But what, she asks, is so terrible about stodge? “Pudding fills the stomach. Pudding salves the soul. Pudding’s very solidity grounds us, and its traditional round or oval shape is unflinchingly simple.”
As a concept, she argues, the pudding “cuts right to the heart of Britishness”. The proof of a pudding, of course, is in the eating. To know if something is good or not, you have to try it. The saying in its modern form first crops up in herald William Camden’s Remaines of a Greater Worke. This was a commonplace book of 1605 that attempted to map the national character. But the earliest known version of the saying was a medieval proverb (read it aloud): “Hit is y-writein, Every thyng, Himseolf sheweth in tastyng.” No puddings here.
So when – and how – did they come to be? And what were the earliest puddings actually like? Etymology holds a clue. One theory holds that the Latin botellus for sausage, which leads to the French boudin, is the root ‘pudding’. There are also several possible German routes to the end result, including the old Westphalian word puddek. As these suggest, the earliest things to be called puddings were savoury, much more like the puddings that grace our breakfast plates on Sunday mornings.
Early puddings were primarily savoury
Minced meat, suet, grains and oats were seasoned with spices then stuffed into a cow, sheep or pig’s intestines or stomach lining, before being boiled, baked or roasted. This was true nose-to-tail eating, but it did mean that puddings weren’t an everyday dish. You could only make, and eat, them when an animal had just been slaughtered. Sixteenth-century cookery books feature recipes for stuffing-like puddings, rather richer thanks to the addition of dried fruits, spices and peels.
Gradually, these sweeter puddings began to dominate. One theory is that Elizabeth I’s fondness for sugar (evidenced by her loss of teeth) caused the whole nation’s tastes to change. But it wasn’t until the 17th century, and the introduction of the pudding cloth, that puddings as we know them now came into being.
Being able to cook them in reusable vessels meant that puddings could be enjoyed every day of the week. A 1617 recipe for ‘College pudding’ – sometimes called Cambridge pudding – calls for breadcrumbs, rosewater, cream and eggs to be boiled in linen not unlike the sort that would have been used for bedsheets.
Reusable vessels were a game-changer for puddings
The self-saucing and timelessly delicious Sussex pond pudding, which has a whole lemon steamed within it, dates from 1672. Twenty years later the British pudding boom was in full swing. French writer Monsieur Misson de Valbourg marvelled at the “fifty several ways” the English made them. He exclaimed: “Ah, what an excellent thing is an English pudding!”
Towards the end of the 17th century, the kinds of Christmas puddings we might recognise started appearing on tables, although they were spherical and boiled in cloths. It was the tradition-loving Victorians who gave them their distinctive look and made them an indispensable part of the Christmas festivities. They invented Stir-Up Sunday and started the trend of steaming plum puddings in basins or ornate pudding moulds to create a centrepiece.
Of course, Christmas pudding doesn’t have to look fancy to be special. In 1902, during his failed attempt on the South Pole with Scott, Ernest Shackleton hid a small plum pudding in his socks. This was then divvied up among his frostbitten and scurvy-afflicted party on 25 December, to their immense delight.
A cultural delight
Puddings have enjoyed a parallel history in art and literature. They were regularly deployed as a symbol of the British Empire. In 1927 the Empire Marketing Board made a film in which a schoolboy imagines visiting Buckingham Palace and cooking up a pudding using ingredients from all over the Empire. This dream dessert had a real-life counterpart. A 1924 recipe from the British Women’s Patriotic League includes Australian dried fruit, Canadian apples, Irish eggs, Jamaican rum, Ceylonese cinnamon and a ‘pudding spice’ blend from India.
Puddings later cropped up in wartime sketches, not infrequently being carved into by a voracious Hitler. In this context, puddings’ innate goodness and value needed no explanation. That brings us on to Winston Churchill, who is said to have once demanded: “Take this pudding away, it has no theme.”
On 14 October 1940, the Luftwaffe bombed the old Treasury building in Whitehall. Churchill was in 10 Downing Street at the time, pleading with his cook, Mrs Landemare, to join him in the basement shelter. She didn’t want to leave the pudding she was making, but Churchill persuaded her. It was lucky he did, as minutes later a blast flattened the room.
Churchill: great British pudding lover
This brush with death led Churchill to make use of the protection of the Cabinet War Rooms. It didn’t, however, seem to have affected his fondness for puddings. According to Churchill’s Cookbook, he enjoyed a steamed one with two layers sandwiched by raspberry jam called Princess pudding. During the war, the Churchills were fortunate in terms of food. Their Chartwell estate supplied them with eggs, milk and cream off the ration. Elsewhere, the effects of austerity on puddings were obvious; proper custard was something ordinary Britons could only dream of.
By the time rationing finally came to an end, novelty and convenience foods had started making inroads into the UK. Suddenly the prospect of spending several hours stirring and steaming on a Sunday didn’t seem quite so tempting to many people. What if you fancy having a go at making pudding the old-fashioned way? Georgiana Hill’s A Year of Victorian Puddings is a fascinating reissue of the 1862 Everybody’s Pudding Book.
The one for Shrewsbury pudding calls for 1/2lb of beetroot to be pounded with butter, sugar, lemon juice and rind, two ‘penny sponge cakes’, brandy and three eggs. This is then poured into a buttered and breadcrumb-dusted mould before being baked or boiled. There’s also the misleadingly named ‘Impromptu pudding’. This involves soaking sponge cakes in sherry before beating them into an almond- and peel-enriched custard mixture and baking it.
The majority of the puddings in Hill’s book have faded from view. Recipes such as St Helena pudding (like a modern-day summer pudding, but with custard instead of fruit) to Malvern pudding (apples and raisins) conjure a lost world of regional delicacies. In some cases – take Rochdale pudding made with minced beef, eggs, almonds, brandy and sugar – it’s not hard to see why they are no longer staples.
But there are plenty of forgotten puddings that are surely due a revival. Think of Cabinet pudding, a kind of deconstructed then reconstructed rum baba, made with kirsch and glacé fruits. Then there’s Newmarket pudding. This involves an eggy custard with citrus, cinnamon and bay-infused milk poured over bread layered up with currants.
Classic British puddings
Another classic from the other side of the country is Devon white-pot. The recipe’s pint of cream feels extravagant until you consider the plenitude provided by West Country dairy herds in the 17th and 18th centuries. Lusciously rich, it knocks the spots off modern bread-and-butter puddings made with semi-skimmed milk and curly Hovis. Anyone for seconds?