“In half a minute Mrs. Cratchit entered: flushed, but smiling proudly: with the pudding, like a speckled cannon-ball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.”
Charles Dickens A Christmas Carol 1843
It’s how we imagine the Great British Christmas Pudding must always have been – ‘a speckled cannon-ball’, a great, round, deep-brown duff, full of fruit and flamed with blue-burning brandy.
|Bringing In the Pudding|
And yet, it wasn’t always so. Before Christmas Pudding there was Plum Porridge, and before that was Plum Pottage. This was made from boiled beef or mutton, thickened with grated breadcrumbs, and when half-boiled, raisins currants, prunes, mace, cloves, and ginger were added. Plum pottage was served at the beginning of the meal and was in a long tradition of cooking meat with fruit (it sounds odd, but it’s worth trying – put dried apricots in lamb stew for a real treat, or add raisins to suet dumplings served with beef stew. Delicious.).
|Plum Pudding - from Mrs Beeton|
Joseph Addison writes of plum-pudding and plum-porridge in The Tatler of November 25th 1710,
“No man of the most rigid virtue gives offence by any excesses in plum-pudding or plum-porridge, and that because they are the first parts of the dinner.”
The Chevalier d’Arvieux made a voyage of an English forty-gun ship in 1658 and was served a plum pudding made from biscuit crumb, suet, currants, salt and pepper, wrapped in a cloth and boiled in a pot of broth. He described it as ‘detestable’. Plum broth is mentioned in Poor Robin’s Almanac of 1750, and a recipe appears in Mrs Frazer’s Cookery Book of 1791.
|Plum Pudding - Mr's Frazer's Cookery book 1791 (ed. 1820)|
Lord Byron mentions plum-pudding in a letter dated 1821, and there is a story that he intended to serve his dinner guests a plum pudding at his birthday feast in Italy. He gave his cook precise instructions but when the pudding was brought to the table, in spite of all the pains he had taken, a misunderstanding meant that it was the consistency of a thick soup and was served in a tureen. Plum pudding and mince pies came under attack from the Puritans and, later, the Quakers, who viewed its consumption as gluttonous and a Popish excess, and eating pudding was seen not only a religious but also a display of political loyalty.
“All plums the prophet’s sons deny,And spice-broths are too hot;Treason’s in a December pie,And death within the pot.”
During the eighteenth century, plum broth became plum pudding, with the meat left out (although beef suet was an ingredient of the pudding), and was thickened with eggs, slowly transforming from starter to pudding, sweet and served with a sauce, maybe brandy butter or cream. It was usual to use proper plums in the pudding, fresh and whole or dried as prunes, which is remembered in the nursery rhyme Little Jack Horner,
“Little Jack Horner,Sat in the corner,Eating his Christmas pie;He put in his thumb,And pulled out a plum,And said, “What a good boy am I.”
|Little Jack Horner|
There is a little confusion as large raisins were also called ‘plums’, and raisins have replaced actual plums in modern pudding – the same is true of Figgy Pudding, as ‘figs’ is also an alternative name for raisins, (I have no truck with the idea that the word ‘plump’ has become ‘plum’, as plump fruits are used in the pudding). There are lots of traditions surrounding making the pudding. One says that the pudding should be made using eggs laid on Good Friday, which, if kept carefully, will miraculously remain fresh. When the pudding is made varies from district to district; some even make the pudding on Christmas Eve for the following Christmas meal, but it is more usual to make it about five or six weeks before Christmas. Stir Up Sunday was a popular choice and gets its name from the Collect read at the service on the last Sunday before the start of Advent, which commences, “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord”, and was taken as sign that the pudding should also be stirred up on that day.
|Mrs Beeton - Book of Household Management|
Every member of the household had to take a turn stirring the pudding mixture, and anyone was absent, the mix was put aside until they returned. Mothers began the stirring, followed by fathers, then the children in order of age, followed by any servants who lived in the house. The pudding had to be stirred clockwise, from east to west, following the sun and echoing the coming of the Magi, and a silent wish had to be made by each individual who stirred it.
|Silver Threepenny B|
It was usual to add things to the mixture, a silver three-penny bit or a silver sixpence were most common, but some also added a ring, a button and a thimble; the person who received the ring in their portion would be married before the year was out (somewhat of a short period!), the button finder would die and old bachelor, the recipient of the thimble would die an old maid and the finder of the sixpence would have good luck for the nest year.
|The Bean King Drinks|
This practice follows the custom of the Bean King, a much older tradition that was originally performed on Twelfth Night, the end of the Christmas celebrations, also called the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th. To mark the feast, a much older practice than Christmas itself, a special cake was baked into which a dried bean or some other token was added. Whoever received the portion of cake containing the bean became the King of the Bean, and presided over that night’s revels. They would give out humorous commands to their ‘subjects’ who would follow every cue of the King, so if he coughed, for example, the cry of ‘The King coughs’ would go up and all present would then also cough.
In his Diary entry for January 6th 1669, Samuel Pepys records the new custom of putting the names of all present into a hat and lots were drawn for the various roles at the court of the King of the Bean (Pepys was made Queen at his party), ensuing that everyone could participate.
|The King of the Bean|
As Twelfth Night celebrations fell from favour and were replaced by Christmas, the practice transferred over to the Christmas pudding, although the tradition of naming a King was lost in England (it continues in Germany). The French have a saying, “Il a trouvé la fève au gateau,” meaning, “He has found a bean in the cake,” which means, “He has got some good luck”.