The Wonderful British Pud

 

The English cuisine has always been laughed at by its European neighbours, but is this necessarily fair? The Italians eat nothing but spaghetti, the gastronomy of Spain is based solely on paella, don’t tell the Germans that a frankfurter tastes like mushy wet paper or the French that frogs legs are nothing to get excited over. Suddenly, the roast beef of old England  doesn’t seem so bad.  But whatever our European neighbours might say about British food, not one of them can measure up to the Great British Pudding. The variety is endless, and even the French were forced to admit British superiority when Misson de Valbourg said, after a visit to England in 1690, “Ah what an excellent thing is an English pudding!” (And despite its French sounding name, crème brulee, the creamy dish with the burnt sugar topping, was actually created in Cambridge in the early 19th century.)

But when is a pudding a pudding – or not, as the case may be? Yorkshire pudding isn’t a pudding, it is a savoury pastry case than can be filled with vegetables or served, full of gravy, with that other English staple, roast beef. And neither is black pudding, that’s a sausage of boiled pig’s blood in a length of intestine, usually bound with cereal and with cubes of fat added, and which sometimes goes under the more realistic name of blood pudding. In the reverse, ask for mince in the UK and you will be served with ground beef, but that Christmas delight, mince pies, are actually filled with a paste of dried fruits. Confusing!

Most British puddings are rich and sweet (‘sweet’ is actually another name for pudding) with the recipes often going back hundreds of years. The quintessential English pudding incorporates the fruits that are grown in England, the apples, the redcurrants and raspberries, bright red rhubarb, a plant that seems to be unknown elsewhere in Europe, (a childhood treat was to be given a long stick of it and a cone made of newspaper into which sugar was poured for you to dip the rhubarb in), or gooseberries, which, apart from being a small green, slightly bitter, hairy fruit, is the name given to someone who goes out with a couple on a date without a partner for the evening himself.

Pies, tarts and trifles, rich with cream, eggs and butter; spices, dried fruit, rum and rich dark brown sugar, first brought into England through the port of Whitehaven in Cumbria, items of such high value that the lord of the house would keep them locked away in his bedroom, portioning them out to the cook on a daily basis. The port had an equally dark history of supplying slaves for the plantations of the West Indies in exchange for the rich harvests of the islands, and was where the last invasion of the English mainland was attempted, in 1772, during the American War of Independence, when John Paul Jones, the father of the American Navy, raided the town but failed in his efforts.

Just the names of some puds cause them to stick in the mind. ‘Spotted Dick’, a hefty steamed pudding with butter, eggs and dried fruit folded into its heavy pastry, had a gigglesome name for generations of schoolboys (‘dick’ being a naughty word for ‘penis’), and so strong is this childhood memory that hospital managers in Gloucestershire, in the west of England, changed the name to ‘Spotted Richard’ when they put it on hospital menus, thinking that patients would be too embarrassed to ask for it by its original name. The truth is that no-one actually has any idea where the name came from, other than that the currants traditionally used gave the pudding a ‘spotted’ appearance. And a gooseberry fool isn’t an idiot whose friends don’t want to have him around, it is a deliciously creamy summer pudding.

An inescapable addition to any British pudding, especially the steamed ones, is custard; rich, golden and runny, which is poured hot over a steamy bowl of treacle pudding, apple crumble, plum duff or any other delicious pud hot from the oven. But another complication; ask for ‘a custard’ in a British bakery and you will be given a small pastry with a thick, creamy filling, which you would eat cold. Pudding custard is a flowing nectar made from egg yolk, milk, sugar and vanilla pods and the thought of licking the bowl after your mum had made it fresh must linger in the top five of every Brit’s favourite childhood memories.

But above all, the Christmas pudding reigns supreme, the highlight of the Christmas dinner when, if you were very lucky, you would be served the portion with the lucky sixpenny piece in it.

Copious quantities of currants, candied fruit, orange peel, lemon peel, eggs and beef suet to bind it all together. Then go in the spices, cloves and cinnamon; brandy if you want it and a good slug of sherry. It’s then steamed for an hour, maybe two hours, it depends on the size of the pudding.

But it isn’t just the wonderfully rich pudding that is important, it’s how it is served. You warm yet more brandy and then light it, pouring it over the hot Christmas pudding moments before it is carried to the table. If served when the room light is low, the blue flames dance and sparkle around the traditional sprig of berried holly stuck into the top of the pudding.

So, you may laugh at our fish ‘n’ chips, make rude comments about our drinking warm beer, or call us a nation of tea drinkers, but you will never, never – even in your wildest gastronomical dreams – be able to match the rich, calorie defying British Pud!

 If you would like to know more about Spain, visit Spain Uncovered. Articles and books can also be found at Digital Paparazzi.

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