17 December 2013 10:24

On Christmas Day most of us will be sitting down to a large dinner made of the same kind of food: turkey and stuffing, various trimmings, brussels sprouts, followed by Christmas pudding and mince pies. We take it for granted that this is traditional Christmas food, even if we are aware that turkey replaced goose only in the twentieth century, and that there is a huge variety of other kinds of seasonal foods, including spiced beef and ham.

Europe has a huge variety of Christmas bread and cakes from the Greek christopsomo to the Swedish julbröd, and these days we can find Italian pannetone in our supermarkets. But if we want to eat something typically English and traditional to the Christmas season, nothing but plum pudding will do. How English it really is, however, how old the tradition of eating it at Christmas is and even what it really consists of, are not so simple.

The French cook Alfred Suzanne, who published his La cuisine anglaise in 1894 after having worked as chef to the Duke of Bedford, described in awed tones the Christmas preparations in a typical grand English household, which included ‘hetacombs of turkeys, geese, game of all sorts .. and mountains of plum puddings, ovens full of mince pies.’ His contemporary Philéas Gilbert (1857-1942), denied that the English had invented plum pudding, or even that there was anything particularly English about it. But as he said, the English have so few dishes of their own that they can be allowed to claim this one. Another French food writer, Bourdeau, thought that the prototype for ‘English’ plum pudding was an ancient Greek dish described in Athenaeus’ account of a wedding feast in the late second century AD.

Plum pudding goes back to the late Middle Ages. Originally it would have been very different from the steamed pudding brought to the table with a halo of flames to which we are accustomed. For one thing, it would have been served not at the end of a dinner but at the start. In fact, it is referred to in fifteenth-century sources as ‘pottage’, and it would probably have resembled a thick soup rather than a pudding. These early types of plum pudding or pottage reflected the medieval taste for mixing meat and fruit in the same dish. Typically they contained chopped beef or mutton, onions and sometimes a root vegetable such as turnip, dried fruit, and breadcrumbs, which were usually used to thicken stews in medieval recipes. A fifteenth-century Middle English manuscript in the British Library (Harleian MS 4016) contains a variant in the form of a seasonal Christmas recipe for ‘grete pye’, containing beef, capons, hens, duck, woodcock or other game birds, all chopped into small pieces and mixed with suet, then baked in a ‘coffin’ of pastry with dates and currants, and seasoned with mace, cloves and saffron. ‘Plum pudding’ is a misnomer, because these dishes did not contain plums at all. ‘Plum’ in late medieval usage could mean any kind of dried fruit, and although plums were cultivated in medieval orchards, raisins, currants and dates were usually used instead. At some point in the sixteenth century meat seems to have disappeared from these puddings, though suet remained. It was probably around this time as well that pottage became pudding, partly because more homes began to have ovens where food could be baked, and partly because of the invention of the pudding cloth in the early seventeenth century – before this a steamed pudding was usually made in the lining of a pig’s stomach.

Originally plum puddings were not specifically associated with Christmas, and they were just as likely to be eaten at All Hallows (1st November) or New Year’s. The precise Christmas association seems to date from the 1670s, and may have been a Restoration-period response to the prohibition on special foods at Christmas under Cromwell’s commonwealth (1649-60). But if we are looking for the earliest recipe that conforms to our notion of Christmas pudding, we have to look no farther back than the nineteenth century, the age when so many of our supposedly venerable traditions really began.

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