The Englishman's Plum Pudding

Maggie Black completes her history of the year in food, with a look at the history of a festive favourite

How did the glossy, currant-speckled cannon-ball on Victorian-style Christmas cards come to be the centrepiece of the Englishman's Christmas dinner – and of no one else's? Decked with a holly sprig, blue flames licking round it, a plum pudding with brandy butter symbolises our Christmas. But why?

The British Christmas pudding has two sources, both dating back to 1430 or earlier. First, there were standing 'pyes' or 'cof fyns' of tough flour paste, containing meat or fish, fat and dried fruit from Spain or the Levant. Rich men's fare, they were popular for two reasons. First, meat, poultry and fish which went off quickly could be preserved for some time in a case which contained plenty of sugary dried fruit and was filled with butter. Second, the dried fruit replaced to some extent the sweetness of costly honey and sugar.

Meat, poultry and fish were slaughtered and preserved in quantity in Autumn for two reasons. First, except for breeding stock, neither ox in stall nor pike in stewpond could be fed through winter. Geese, which could, were still young and fat from stubble feeding, and at their best, but later would gobble man's precious stored winter grain; so they too had to die and, being fatty, were an obvious flesh food to preserve for winter use. The second reason was that the great twelve-daylong Christmas feast, the annual binge for rich and poor alike, had to be prepared weeks ahead. The great butter-filled 'minced' pies (in effect, preserves not unlike French 'confits') could be used both as a festival treat and as a practical made-ahead dish to feed a number of unoccupied workers and hangers-on for nearly a fortnight.

By the eighteenth century, improved stock-feeding and cheaper sugar had made meat preserving and spicing less necessary; so wholly savoury meat pies were coming into fashion, and sweeter 'minced' pies with very little meat. Both kinds lost their butter filling, being served with butter scraped over them instead, or with a separate 'hard' butter, sugar and wine 'sauce'. Both had become, like their sweetened-meat original, traditional Christmas foods.

The second source of our Christmas Pudding, was the Christmas pottage. Thick sweet-sour meat or vegetable pottages had come down from Roman times. They were particularly popular with the British because widespread forests supplied plentiful wood fuel until the seventeenth century, the 'boiled dinner' in a single cauldron was the outstanding feature of medieval British cooking. Pottages were particularly suitable for this, being simmered long and slowly over the flames. They were often as thick as muesli; and for rich tables, they included elaborately spiced meat and fish stews containing dried fruits and sugar. We have many of the recipes: white porray, joutes, charlet, cawdel fery, bukkenade, mortrews or mawmeny and the gold-and-white 'blanc desore'. For special occasions, some of these were served with a wine sauce reinforced with brandy which was set alight so that the pottage was served 'flambeed'.

Some of these were *standing' (stiff) pottages, thickened with breadcrumbs and egg yolks, coloured red or bright yellow, flavoured with sugar and dried fruits. Mawmeny royal, for instance, contained teased (minced) game or poultry, spices, ground almonds, breadcrumbs and sugar.

Like meat-and-sweet 'minced pyes', both running and standing sweetened pottages continued in use until the seventeenth century. Then most of them went rapidly out of fashion because much closer ties with the Continent brought in many foreign made-up dishes, especially after the Restoration. Two pottages however survived. One was the Scots Cock-a-Leekie, a running 'plum' pottage made with chicken and plums (prunes). The other was called, rather unfairly, just Stewed Broth.

Stewed Broth was, as near as possible, the direct forerunner of Christmas Pudding. We first hear of it in about 1420, as a standing pottage made with veal, mutton or' chicken, thickened with bread, reddened with sanders (sandelwood) and rich with currants. By the time of Elizabeth I, it had prunes added, an important novelty in boiled food although known in pies for some time past. These dried plums had now become so popular that their name became a portmanteau label for all dried fruits, so that goods containing any of them, eg currant cakes, now became called 'plum' cakes. Stewed broth thus became 'Plum Pottage'.

Cheap sugar altered the whole pattern of our feeding. In particular, it made bland foods sweet, harsh and bitter meats and fruit palatable; it therefore lessened the dependence on spices, and so made a division into savoury and sweet dishes possible. Thus, like pies, pottage turned into two kinds of porridgy pudding, a plain one for savoury dishes, and a sweet one.

At first, and for a long time, humble people would make and boil a plain pudding in their cauldron with any bit of meat they had, and served it to take the edge off the appetite before the meat was offered. Richer people ate these (usually suet) puddings before meat as well; but as a rule theirs contained a filling of poultry, pork or sweet stuff, or were enriched in other ways. They were well spiced, for instance, and mixed with a lot of fat, with ground almonds and – almost always – with dried fruits. Fat, in the form of a butter sauce, was often served with them too; the eighteenth century was a 'golden age' of butter cooking. In other words, these English puddings contained in their boiled suet-pastry crusts the same ingredients which the old meat-and-sweet 'pyes' had used in baked ones; and they, too, were 'treat' foods as well as being practical fare.

Their ingredients, though with more thickening, were the same as those in the old 'plum pottage' or 'porridge', so naturally the new 'puddings' were called 'plum puddings'.

The plum pudding was definitely festival fare although it was at first associated mainly with Harvest Festival, not with Christmas like the older plum porridge. One of the last recipes for Christmas plum porridge was given by cook-book writer Mrs Hannah Glass in 1747. By 1806, Mrs Maria Rundell had dropped Hannah's porridge, in favour of her 'common plum-pudding' with fruit and wine in it (but no meat) put in among her meat puddings. However, she did not call it a 'Christmas' pudding.

Plum pudding lasted just as a general 'party dish' for some time. Thus we find William IV giving a feast to 3000 poor people on his birthday in 1830, offering boiled and roast beef and 'plum pudding'.

By 1836, the familiar round cannon-ball of a plum pudding topped with holly is shown on prints of the period depicting Christmas dinners, and Dickens, in that same year, described it as the centrepiece of the Christmas feast. By the time, Eliza Acton was making her own plum-pudding in 1845, she actually called it Christmas Pudding.

Not long after, in 1861, Isabella Beeton gave a notable recipe for 'Christmas Plum Pudding' distinguished from her other plum-pudding recipes by being boiled in an elaborate mould, of which we have delightful coloured pictures. Her Christmas Pudding looks rather like a solid square-set building – perhaps a chapel or church.

Thus Christmas Pudding reached its peak status. It probably continued to hold its place because of Victoria and Albert's personal cult of family festivals, especially Christmas. They firmly established and ritualised Christmas Pudding as part of the royal Christmas Day dinner. We have, for instance, chef Tschumi's recipes for Queen Victoria in detail, and the later Edwardian royal recipes follow the pattern faithfully, complete with the old 'hard' butter-sugar sauce. We still follow it. We have given up Isabella's moulded puddings which is rather a pity, but, to make up for it, we have added charms or coins to our puddings (a take-over from the now defunct Twelfth Night Cake and the older Christmas Pye.) Otherwise, the pudding itself is unchanged.

Prince Albert's Plum Pudding

For 8 helpings: 1 Ib prunes; 1 pt water; 1 lemon; 1 oz Barbados sugar; butter for greasing; 2 large eggs; 4 oz butter; 4 oz soft light brown sugar; pinch of salt; 4 oz soft wholemeal breadcrumbs; 1 oz semolina; brandy butter (Guard Sauce) made with 3 oz butter; 4 oz icing sugar and 1 oz ground almonds.

Steep the prunes in the water overnight. Grate the rind of half the lemon and pare the rest. Squeeze the juice. Simmer the prunes with the water, pared rind, juice, and Barbados sugar until soft. Drain. Cut the fruit in half and remove the stones. Crease the inside of a 2 pint pudding basin thickly with butter. Press enough prunes into the fat, cut side down, to line the basin completely. Shred any prunes left over. Separate the eggs.

Beat the 4 oz fat and soft brown sugar until creamy, and beat in the egg yolks and salt. Mix in the grated rind, breadcrumbs, semolina and any shredded prunes. Whisk the egg whites until they hold firm peaks and fold them into the mixture. Turn into the basin, cover tightly with greased foil and steam for 2 1/2-3 hours.

Firm in the basin for 6 minutes, then turn on to a warmed serving dish. Serve with chilled brandy butter and whipped cream. Note: If you wish, make the steeping liquid of the prunes into a sauce with 1 teaspoon arrowroot and 1 tablespoon brandy to each 1/2 pt liquid.