Probably the most loved and internationally famed pudding of all is the plum pudding, or Christmas pudding. It has its roots in the ancient Roman and haggis-type puddings, but along the way it lost the meat and became a sweet dish. Originally boiled in skins, then in a cloth and later, when it became the fashion, in moulds, it has changed surprisingly little over the past 300 years.
There are a lot of legends and claims made about the origins of the plum pudding. Some say it evolved from plum porridge, a thick soup with similar ingredients, but I believe these are two separate dishes that coexisted with each other.
According to tradition, plum pudding should be made on ‘Stir-up Sunday’. It is a custom that is believed to date back to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer; where a reading states ‘stir up, we beseech thee’. The words would be read in church on the last Sunday before Advent and so the good people knew it was time to start on their favourite Christmas treat.
It was a family affair: everyone would gather to stir the pudding mixture from east to west, in honour of the Three Kings who came from the east. Sometimes coins or trinkets would be hidden in the dough; finding them on Christmas Day would bring luck and good fortune.
Some say it was King George I who requested plum pudding as a part of the first Christmas feast of his reign, in 1714. George I was christened ‘the Pudding King’ because of this myth but there are no written records prior to the twentieth century to tell us that this king deserved his title.
A Plum-pudding: Shred a Pound and a half of Suet very fine, and sift it; add a Pound and a half of Raisins of the Sun ston’d, six spoonful of Flour, and as many of Sugar, the Yolks of eight Eggs, and the Whites of five, beat the Eggs with a little Salt, tye it up close in a Cloth and boil it for four or five Hours.
There is, however, no suggestion that the pudding is associated with George I, the practice of Stir-up Sunday, or the Christmas feast.
An earlier reference in the diary of Henry Teonge, a British naval chaplain during the reign of Charles II, speaks of a Christmas Day dinner on board a ship in the year 1675. It comprised ‘a rib of beef, plum puddings, mince pies and plenty of good wines’. This is the first time we find a plum pudding associated with Christmas, but at the same time it is not referred to as the Christmas pudding.
Around that same time, another man, on another ship, also writes about the celebration of Christmas, though his circumstances are rather grim compared to Henry Teonge’s. Colonel Norwood’s ship set sail for Virginia in 1649 but became lost and ran out of food and water.
On Christmas the near-empty barrels of flour – and whatever else they had – were scraped clean to make a plum pudding from the last of their store. It is an extraordinary account of a group of people living in fear that they might die on that ship, but still in the midst of all that despair they go to the trouble to create a plum pudding, which the diarist for the first time in history names ‘Christmas Pudding’.
Many sorrowful days and nights we spun out in this manner, tille the blessed feast of Christmas came upon us, which we began with a very melancholy solemnity; and yet, to make some distinction of times, the scrapings of the meal-tubs were all amassed together to compose a pudding. Malaga sack, sea water, with fruit and spice, all well fryed in oyl, were the ingredients of this regale, which raised some envy in the spectators; but allowing some privilege to the captain’s mess, we met no obstruction, but did peaceably enjoy our Christmas pudding. ‘A Voyage to Virginia’, by Colonel Norwood, from A Collection of Voyages and Travels by Awnsham Churchill and John Churchill, Vol 6, 1745
This Christmas pudding must have been savoured by the passengers meant for America, on the quest for a new life after the civil war in England. It might have created a nostalgic moment, when they lingered on the memory of a sweet Christmas feast, safe and warm at home, before they had left on this terrible fatal journey that would kill most of them after Christmas.
In this era, plum puddings were a common companion to beef on festive days; they were eaten before or along with the meat, not after the meal topped with plenty of cream as we know it today. A plum pudding would often be sliced up and arranged under the dripping of a roasting joint of meat in front of the fire.
The ‘Hack’ or ‘Hackin’ pudding, a relative of the haggis and plum pudding from the north of England, was eaten in the same fashion. In 1732 Richard Bradley (The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director) wrote down a letter from a gentleman in Cumberland – now Cumbria: ‘It is a Custom with us every Christmas-Day in the Morning, to have, what we call an Hackin …’. He then gives the recipe and goes on to explain: ‘This is our Custom to have ready, at the opening of the Doors, on Christmas-Day in the Morning. It is esteem’d here; but all that I can say to you of it, is, that it eats somewhat like a Chriftmas-Pye, or is some-what like boil’d.’
It is possible that the tradition of eating a plum pudding with roast beef on festive occasions evolved to it becoming the highlight of the Christmas feast, inspired by customs in the north of England.
The Victorians’ Love of Christmas
By the Victorian era the Christmas pudding was well and truly the symbol of Christmas, although the Christmas tree would soon take its place. Printing methods improved and it became possible to print in various colours so Christmas cards became popular. Many of these depicted puddings as centrepieces on the festive table and cards featured puddings dressed up like little men. The pudding would also continue to grace satirical cards in which political feuds were addressed, as in A Learned Dissertation on Dumpling nearly a century before.
But What About the Pudding King?
It was not George I but his namesake George V who really made a difference in the pudding’s tale. In 1927 he encouraged people to cook a Christmas pudding made from ingredients sourced in the British Empire. This was inspired by an earlier statement made by the British Women’s Patriotic League, on how to show your patriotism. They commanded their followers to always buy British or Empire-made goods, as cheap imports from America were of no support to the Empire.
In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the British Empire had grown vast and during the First World War many of the member countries had suffered great losses. On Empire Day 1917, King George V made a proclamation to emphasise food economy in the British Empire. All over the Empire people were motivated to show patriotism in the way they bought food. In 1925 Australian fruit growers paraded a huge Christmas pudding through the streets of London. The top of the huge cannonball pudding was decorated with the Australian flag and the Union Jack and on the back of the pudding were the words ‘make your pudding of Empire products’.
The Christmas pudding now became the Empire pudding, promoted by the Empire Marketing Board. Posters depicted Britannia holding a flaming plum pudding, sporting a Union Jack flag and the recipe to make the pudding.
In 1926 a propaganda film was made by Reginald Brabazon, 12th Earl of Meath. The film featured the making of the Empire pudding: people from all over the Empire brought a basket with an ingredient showing the name of the country to be stirred into the pudding. Brabazon used the family tradition of Stir-up Sunday as a tool to promote the idea that the Empire was one large family, creating this most iconic pudding together as one.
Plum pudding indeed became the symbol of patriotism as much as eating roast beef and plum pudding had done in the mid-eighteenth century when the French threatened British shores and plum puddings appeared in political cartoons.
During the First World War, women who worked in refugee camps in France and Belgium created the now sought-after ‘WWI Silks’ to show support for the troops fighting for their freedom. These postcards were made by framing the embroideries the women created and the themes were, of course, usually patriotic scenes with Belgian, French and British flags surrounded by garlands of flowers or … a plum pudding bristling with flags.
The recipe for Empire pudding promoted later by George V was created by his head chef, Mr Cédard, and based upon the recipe earlier provided by the Empire Marketing Board. It adds a few more countries to the list. In 1930 a propaganda film called One Family was made to promote the pudding of George V and the Empire trade. Much of it was filmed in Buckingham Palace and tells the story of a boy dreaming he goes to Buckingham Palace and meets the king after finding the recipe for an Empire pudding in his father’s newspaper. He is then sent on a quest to gather each ingredient for the Empire pudding in the producing countries.
Clockwise from top left: WWI Silk postcard; Puddings, by Mrs Leyel; late Georgian Christmas card; Atora shredded suet recipe booklet, 1929; Atmore’s Mince Meat trade cards (early business cards); a Victorian Christmas card; another trade card from Atmore’s; plum pudding illustration from Warne’s Model Cookery, 1868;James Gillray’s 1805 illustration, ‘The Plumb-pudding in danger’ depictsWilliam Pitt, wearing a regimental uniform and hat, sitting at a table withNapoleon; two more Victorian Christmas cards.
Although nothing suggests that the day on which the Empire pudding had to be made was indeed Stir-up Sunday, I think when this tradition became common, this was the moment when preparing the pudding became a family affair and a celebration. To this day, most British families will enjoy their Christmas pudding and prepare it well in advance to soak it in rich booze until Christmas Day.
For this plum pudding, I started with one of the earliest recipes and it has evolved in my kitchen over the past few years. It is a favourite with my friends and family and I will often make several, either to give as gifts or keep for a few months, or even until the next Christmas, as the pudding only gets better and better.