English cuisine has always been laughed at by its European neighbors as bland, greasy and overcooked. This may or not be true, but one thing is for sure—not one of our European neighbors’ cuisines 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!”
Most British puddings are rich and sweet (a “sweet” is another name for a pudding) with the recipes often going back hundreds of years. The quintessential English pudding incorporates fruits that are grown in England: apples, redcurrants and raspberries, bright red rhubarb, or gooseberries, which apart from being a green, sour, hairy fruit, is the name given to someone who goes out with a couple on a date without a partner for the evening himself.
When is a pudding not a pudding? Yorkshire pudding isn’t a pudding; it is a savory 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 cubes of fat. Ask for mince in the United Kingdom and you will be served ground beef. But that Christmas delight, mince pie, is actually filled with a paste of dried fruits. Confusing!
A pudding may be any variety of cake pie, tart or trifle, and is usually 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, were 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 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 to conquer it.
The names of some puds stick in the mind. “Spotted Dick,” a hefty steamed pudding with butter, eggs and dried fruit folded into a heavy pastry, has been a gigglesome name for generations of schoolboys. Hospital managers in Gloucestershire, in the west of England, changed the name to “Spotted Richard” on hospital menus, thinking patients would be too embarrassed to ask for it by name. No one knows where the name came from, other than that currants traditionally gave the pudding a ‘spotted’ appearance. A gooseberry fool isn’t an idiot whose friends don’t want to have him around; it is a deliciously creamy summer 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.
An inescapable addition to any British pudding, especially the steamed ones, is custard; rich, golden and runny, it is poured hot over a steaming bowl of treacle pudding, apple crumble, plum duff or any other delicious pud hot from the oven. 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.
The Christmas pudding reigns supreme, the highlight of the Christmas dinner, especially if you were served the portion with the lucky sixpenny piece in it.Copious quantities of currants, candied fruit, orange peel, lemon peel, eggs and beef suet bind the Christmas pudding 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 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, even in your wildest gastronomical dreams, match the rich British pud!