Published: 17-03-2010, 18:21

Plum Pudding

The traditional Christmas dinner in ENGLAND ends with a dessert called plum pudding. This dish features a blend of dried fruit, spices, and other flavorings, such as lemon and orange peel, sugar, eggs, flour, and butter or suet. In spite of its name, plum pudding may or may not contain prunes or plums. The origins of this English Christmas favorite lie in medieval cooking techniques in which sugars, fruits, and spices were used to preserve and enhance the flavor of meat.

The task of food preservation severely challenged medieval cooks since they did not have access to preservatives or reliable refrigeration. Instead, people employed sugars and spices to preserve meats and fish. Fresh and dried fruits were less expensive and easier to obtain than sugar or honey, so they were often used to flavor dishes. In England medieval cooks prepared large fruit, meat, and butter pies for wealthy families entertaining many guests at Christmas. Some researchers believe that the sweetness of the fruit covered the flavor of the aging meat. Enclosing the ingredients in a tough, airtight crust also helped to preserve them. Cooks achieved the same effect by adding sugars and spices to a common medieval dish known as pottage or porridge. This stew-like dish resulted from simmering all one’s ingredients in a single pot. The well-to-do combined meats, spices, and fruits in their pottages. If a more solid dish was desired, cooks could produce a stiff pottage by adding thickeners such as bread crumbs, egg yolks, and ground almonds.

Although the popularity of most pottage dishes declined by the seventeenth century, one variation continued to thrive. It was known by the somewhat mysterious name of “stewed broth.” Cooks created this pottage dish by boiling together meat, currants (a raisin-like dried fruit), spices, bread crumbs, and sandlewood (for coloring). By the late sixteenth century, cooks were tossing dried plums into the cooking pot. This innovation became so popular that stewed broth acquired the name “plum pottage,” “plum broth,” or “plum porridge.” One old recipe suggested boiling beef or mutton in broth thickened with brown bread. After this combination had cooked for some time raisins, currants, prunes, cloves, mace, and ginger were added and the entire concoction boiled again. Another recipe instructed the cook to boil some beef and veal together with sherry, lemon juice, orange juice, sugar, raisins, currants, prunes, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, brown bread, and cochineal (a red dye). The resulting stew could be made weeks ahead of time. Diners consumed it as a first course rather than as a dessert. It became a Christmas favorite and was sometimes called “Christmas porridge.”
During the seventeenth century the PURITANS spoke out against many traditional English Christmas festivities. Many of them con-demned the eating of plum porridge and MINCEMEAT PIE at Christmas time. Some saw it as a symbol of disgraceful gluttony. For others, the act of eating these foods symbolized allegiance to the pope and to Roman Catholicism, and so smacked of heresy. According to the Puritans, one writer of the day quipped, “Plum-broth was Popish, and mince-pie — O that was flat idolatry!” Catholics and Anglicans defended traditional English Christmas fare against these Puritan attacks. As Catholics and Protestants strove with one another to dominate England’s political life during the seventeenth century, the consumption or avoidance of plum porridge at Christmas time was viewed by some as a sign not only of religious but also of political loyalties. One writer parodied the views of his more extreme Puritan contemporaries in the following lines:

All plums the prophet’s sons deny,
And spice-broths are too hot;
Treason’s in a December pie,
And death within the pot [Chambers, 1990,2: 755].

The English continued to consume plum porridge with relish in spite of the brief period of Puritan rule in the mid-seventeenth century. In 1728 one foreigner who had experienced an English Christmas wrote: “Everyone from the King to the artisan eats soup and Christmas pies. The soup is called Christmas porridge, and is a dish few foreigners find to their taste.”

Plum porridge disappeared from the ranks of English Christmas fare in the early nineteenth century, supplanted by plum pudding. In 1823 another foreign observer of the English at Christmas time wrote that “probably there is not a single table spread on Christmas Day throughout the land — from the King’s to the lowest artizan’s that can scrape together enough to buy him a dinner at all—that is not furnished with roast beef and plum pudding.” The dish proved so popular in the Devon village of Paignton that its citizens concocted a giant, communal pudding in 1819. It contained one hundred twenty pounds of raisins, an equal amount of suet, or beef fat, and four hundredweights of flour. When finished, the enormous pudding weighed nine hundred pounds.
Plum pudding evolved out of plum porridge sometime in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries. Unlike its predecessor, it contained no meat, but did call for beef suet, or fat, as a thickener. Sugar might be added as well, as this commodity had become much less expensive and easier to obtain than in previous times. The sauce designed to accompany the pudding, a syrup made of such ingredients as butter, sugar and brandy, further enhanced the dish’s sweetness. Indeed, unlike plum pottage, plum pudding was conceived of as a dessert.
A mid-eighteenth-century recipe called for currants, raisins, eggs, bread crumbs, nutmeg, and ginger. As this ingredient list reveals, some plum puddings contained neither prunes nor plums. This omission can be explained by the fact that sometime around the seventeenth century the word plum had come to be used as a general term referring to any dried fruit. Other writers point out that the word plum also used to mean “to swell” or “to plump up.” They argue that the “plum” in plum pudding refers to the expansion that the dish undergoes when baked. In some areas of England plum pudding was known as “figgy pudding.” People from these districts called raisins “figs,” hence the raisin-rich plum pudding was called figgy pudding. Finally, plum pudding was thought to improve with age. One custom encouraged housewives to prepare their Christmas pudding by STIR-UP SUNDAY, approximately five weeks before Christmas.
Although the English considered plum pudding a special holiday dish before the nineteenth century, it wasn’t adopted as the most fitting closure to the Christmas feast until that time. By the late nineteenth century fashionable Victorian cooks were referring to plum pudding as Christmas pudding. It is unclear exactly what influenced the English to promote the dish to its new status. Perhaps the Christmas stories of Charles Dickens (1812-1870), which did much to encourage the Victorian revival of Christmas, inspired this change (see also A CHRISTMAS CAROL; CHRISTMAS IN VICTORIAN ENGLAND).
Another change in the nineteenth-century English Christmas was the decline of TWELFTH NIGHT celebrations. These celebrations featured an elaborate cake into which a pea, charm, or coin was baked. As the Twelfth Day cake fell out of favor, these objects found their way into the Christmas pudding. Today some still insert a coin into the Christmas pudding batter. It brings good luck to the diner who receives it in his or her portion of the pudding. One writer reports a more elaborate custom in which the cook adds a coin, ring, and thimble to the pudding batter. The coin represents worldly fortune; the ring, marriage; and the thimble, blessings to whoever receives them.