We all want some figgy pudding

by Maggie Chaplin

Thank goodness for microwave ovens! Today we can achieve in minutes what our ancestors took hours if not days to accomplish. Our grandparents and even our parents might have invested an inordinate amount of time and energy in the Christmas pudding ritual, which would often include the whole family in the preparation, and begin weeks before Christmas, not to mention hours of reheating on the day.

Nowadays supermarkets and confectioners vie with each other as to who can produce the trendiest, the most traditional, the celebrity chef inspired, or even the healthiest Christmas pudding to grace our festive table and please our discerning palates. What’s more, there’s no need to fill the kitchen with steam for hours on end getting it ready. You can, of course, if you feel the need to nod in the direction of tradition, simmer your purchased pudding on the hob – a 1lb (454g) pud for four will take an hour. Alternatively 3 minutes in the microwave will do the job. In any case you certainly don’t need to plan months in advance as people once did.

Why did Christmas pudding take so long to make? How did it all start?

Many of the traditions we associate with Christmas have nothing whatever to do with Christ but are modifications of Pagan rituals associated with the winter solstice – decorating our houses with holly, ivy and mistletoe for example, but any celebration though calls for a feast. Christmas is no exception, and customs associated with festive food developed over hundreds of years.

Christmas pudding started out, probably somewhere in the 14th century, as a kind of porridge based on soaked wheat grains. The concoction was called frumenty from the Latin frumentum, meaning corn, and was a staple dish in the Middle Ages at all levels of society, but the additions varied. A common ingredient was eggs, whereas the aristocracy might have had it with venison. We also know from a recipe scroll The Forme of Cury (method of cooking) published in 1390 that the chief master cooks of Richard II sometimes served it with porpoise.

In medieval times ordinary folk did their cooking in a cauldron over a wood fire and didn’t have a facility for making elaborate dishes, so a ‘one pot’ meal was the norm. Wheat that had been simmered, probably in milk, was nutritious, but a bit short on flavour and interest, so in the absence of venison or porpoise, any available scraps of fat and meat would be added. Putting in herbs and spices would not only improve the taste of the pottage, but enhance its keeping qualities. A medieval family couldn’t afford to use precious grain to overwinter animals other than those kept for breeding, so the rest of the livestock was slaughtered at the end of autumn, and it was important to preserve the meat for as long as possible. Boiling for hours not only allowed the flavours of the various ingredients to mingle and make a tasty meal but was also a good way of stopping the food from going off.

For the rich man’s table other additions to the stew that helped with preservation were dried fruit because of its sugar content at a time when sugar itself was rare and expensive, and alcohol. Brandy was often included in the mix – a tradition still followed today.

It was customary for the great houses to give their workers a feast at Christmas. What more suitable as a festive meal than a dish that can be made weeks in advance, in large quantities and yet contain ingredients that would not be available to an ordinary household?

The Christmas pudding was very versatile. It evolved from a mixture whose ingredients could range from basic and economical to sumptuous and truly indulgent to suit the pocket of consumers at all levels of society. It could be varied to make a staple meal into a treat. The boiled pudding had good keeping qualities, was filling and could be cooked by rich and poor alike – you didn’t need an oven.

It’s often referred to in carols and verses as ‘plum’ pudding or ‘figgy’ pudding, because in its early manifestations it often included dried plums or figs. Later any dried fruits tended to be called ‘plums’, even though rarely since Victorian times have prunes been a usual ingredient. As livestock farming practices changed, meat became available all year and was less of a winter luxury and it disappeared from the pudding recipe. Sugar got cheaper but was still an indulgence and was included along with the dried fruit. A pudding much like we know it today was established as Christmas fare.

What about the traditions associated with Christmas pudding? The family ritual of making it weeks before Christmas, the addition of coins and the flaming rum or brandy engulfing it as it’s brought to the table – how did they originate?

Although the origins of the Christmas pudding go back to medieval if not Saxon times it was probably the Victorians who established many of the traditions we associate with the festive season today. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert took great delight in celebrating Christmas and involving friends and family. They were the celebrities of their time and where Queen and Consort led, the nation followed.

The Christmas pudding was originally made at the end of autumn for practical reasons, but if you work on it you can give it a religious significance. Look no further for inspiration than in the Book of Common Prayer to the Sunday before advent (a handy time for preparing the pudding) and you find:

“Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people . . .”

Lo, you have ‘Stir up Sunday’, the day when Christmas pudding should be made.

All the family was involved in preparing the ingredients. A variety of dried fruits had to be picked over to remove stalks and stones, suet that reached the kitchen in lumps straight from the butcher had to be grated, and eggs needed to be whisked. When everything was assembled, including a bottle of brandy, the whole lot was combined together in a very large bowl. It needed a lot of stirring and everyone took a turn. As an incentive you were encouraged to make a wish as you wielded the big wooden spoon. The mixture was boiled in greased basins, wrapped in cloth and tied with string. The process took hours or even days, and there’d be lots of heat and steam.

How the practice of pouring flaming brandy over a Christmas pudding started is obscure, but it was well-established by Charles Dickens’ time. In a Christmas Carol  he describes the arrival of the pudding to the table: “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-quarter of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top.” Holly decoration, although appropriated from a Pagan tradition, was said to symbolise Jesus’ crown of thorns and the flaming spirit his power.

Another custom that became associated with the Christmas pudding probably originated in Ancient Rome. During the festival of Saturnalia, also celebrated in December, it was the ritual to hide a dried bean somewhere in the food and the finder, nobleman or slave, was hailed as ‘master of the revels’. This tradition was modified, and instead of a bean a silver coin was included in the pudding mixture to symbolise good fortune for the finder.  Initially an old three penny piece was used, which was later superceded by a silver sixpence.

The possibility of being the lucky one ensured that everyone ate their pudding slowly and carefully as they searched for the hidden treasure. However, in many households, especially where there were children, the routine was to put in several coins and to divide the pudding very carefully. When silver sixpences stopped being minted all the finds had to be returned for re-use the following year.

If the supermarket shelves at this time of year are anything to go by, the popularity of the Christmas pudding shows no sign of waning. If you think it’s not rich enough with the many luxury varieties on offer, the accompaniments are all available too – with many alcoholic variations on the sauce, cream and custard theme if you really want to pile on the calories.

Nowadays few people observe the stir-up Sunday ritual, and as far as bought puddings are concerned the coin tradition was sacrificed to Health and Safety concerns as well as to the arrival of base metal currency. It is, however, rumoured that some people have a store of silver coins that they surreptitiously insert into bought puddings – after microwaving, of course. If you don’t have a berried holly bush in your garden you can buy some at the garden centre, and if you’re unsure how to flame the pudding, tips abound online.

This Christmas whether your pudding is decorated with candied fruits or holly, boasts a high percentage of brandy, contains a whole Satsuma in the middle or a piggy bank’s worth of coins, is sprinkled with edible gold or comes to the table in a haze of blue flame, the basic pudding has centuries of history behind it. The Christmas pudding was built to last!