It’s beginning to smell a lot like Christmas in the Bilton household. Today is the last Sunday before Advent, the day on which tradition dictates you should make your Christmas puddings and cakes. The cake (this year I’ve opted to make Jane Grigson’s Orange & Ginger Cake) was made in October and is getting tipsier by the week as I give it a regular dose of Grand Marnier. The pudding is gently steaming on the hob, wafting comforting fruit and spice aromas throughout the house. So all in all I feel pretty organised on the food front for the forthcoming festivities.
Now for confession time. This year I did have a bit of help with the pudding. On Thursday I went to the Spread Eagle Hotel in Midhurst for a Christmas Pudding Demonstration given by the Group Executive Head Chef, Martin Hadden. There was plenty of audience participation but those wonderful kitchen fairies which only seem to exist on TV cookery programmes had measured out all the ingredients for us in advance so all we had to do was stir. If you are not familiar with it, the hotel is wonderfully quirky with undulating wooden floors, ancient oak beams and a few resident ghosts to boot. It’s an apt venue in which to explore the history of this festive dessert which can trace it’s origins back to 1430 when the oldest part of the hotel was built.
Martin is exceedingly knowledgeable on the subject of the Christmas pud. What he doesn’t know about this very British festive tradition probably isn’t worth knowing. It started life in Medieval times as plum pottage a soupy concoction including dried fruits, spices and beef (which is the forerunner to our mince pies). Over the centuries the pottage became thicker and more puddingy and the savoury elements were abandoned. (Many people wrinkle their noses up at the thought of eating the sweet and savoury Medieval mince pies. Clarissa Dickson Wright has a recipe in The Game Cookbook for a Cumberland Boar Pie which is very close to the Medieval pies and pottages combining dried fruit, wild boar, sugar, spices and rum. I’ve not tried it myself but I think it sounds quite nice.) The pudding as we know it today probably dates from the late 17th century although there is no written reference to it until Eliza Acton published her book Modern Cookery for Private Families in 1845.
The Victorians, with their love of ostentation, took the Christmas pudding to another level. Puddings came in all shapes and sizes but would always be delivered to the table ablaze with brandy or rum and were served with ‘hard sauce’ (or brandy butter as we call it today). They also began the tradition of hiding trinkets in the pudding which were said to predict the recipients fate. If you were an unmarried woman and received a silver thimble you were likely to remain a spinster for the rest of your lift where as a ring meant a forthcoming marriage. What everyone really wanted to get was the silver sixpence as that meant you would be rich. As fun as this seems, I’ve always thought it rather fool hardy to hide anything in a pudding just in case someone chokes on it.
There are, of course, lots of superstitions surround the making of the Christmas pudding. Some say there should be 13 ingredients to symbolise the apostles. Others that you should only stir West to East (or is it the other way round?) as a nod to the journey the three wise men made. Then of course there is the Christmas wish which you make just before you finish stirring. This year I wished for…(well obviously I can’t say or it won’t come true, although it may have had something to do with those kitchen fairies).
One of the great things about Christmas pudding is it’s longevity in terms of how long you can keep it once it has been cooked. The sugar and alcohol in each recipe (which are quite often closely guarded family secrets) help to preserve the puddings. My grandmother produced a pudding for my 16th Christmas which she claimed I had helped her make when I was five years old. At the Spread Eagle they make their Christmas puddings in January for the following December. This allows the rich flavours to develop. But they have puddings which are far more mature than 12 months old. Each year people who stay over the Christmas period are given a pudding to take home. Alternatively, they can leave their puddings at the hotel where they will be hung up in front of the log fire in the dining room until their owner claims them. This custom has continued for around two hundred years (the oldest labelled pudding dates from 1954). The newer additions are still in their pristine white bowls. However, the basins of the older puddings have a sepia hue from years of exposure to wood smoke.
It seems the Brits are alone in their love for this pudding. The French just don’t get it (Agatha Christie published an Hercule Poirot story called The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding in The Sketch in 1923. I haven’t read it myself so I don’t know what M. Poirot’s opinion is of the Christmas pudding but I suspect it features a certain amount of disdain). Most American’s I have met recoil in horror when I explain what suet is (a vital component to a good Christmas pudding and a throw back to it’s Medieval origins). But for me Christmas wouldn’t be the same without it and I always make sure I leave room for a slither of this decadently rich dessert no matter how full I am. How about you?