In praise of the pudding

Puddings have been in the news a bit recently. Apparently there’s a puddings only restaurant opening somewhere in London, and it’s hitting the zeitgeist. I was quite excited by this idea, and then I read this article, which gives more details, and shows that there is one fundamental problem. The restaurant only serves sweet dishes. What? What is this infantile bollocks, quoth I, enraged. This is not pudding!

Puddings are not sweets, or desserts. Desserts – in the modern world – can be puddings, as can sweets, but they can also be not-puddings. They can be cakes, or tarts, or patisserie, or ice cream, or jellies, or blancmanges, or trifles. Puddings are puddings, and, although I fear I might be a rather lonely voice in the wilderness, I think when we conflate the word pudding with sweet stuff after dinner, we lose something very vital in doing so. Puddings, you see, can be sort-of-tarts, and they can be a-bit-like-cake, and you can certainly get some stunning iced puddings which head down the ice cream route – oh and blancmanges started life as kind-of-puddings…but puddings are so, so much more. Most importantly, they don’t have to be sweet. Indeed, my favourite puddings aren’t sweet at all. Sausage roly poly pudding, steak and kidney pudding, chicken and ham pudding… I mean, treacle pudding and that 1890s chocolate pudding I really like are all very well, but nothing – really, nothing – can truly beat a good suet crust (especially when baked, in my view: all that crispy exterior and gooey interior and sense of wellbeing).

So what is a pudding? Well, it’s hard to define, it’s anything you want it to be, really. Puddings probably started life as sort-of-sausages, and the word may or may not be related to the French boudin. Haggis is pudding (sheep’s pluck pudding, an early modern favourite was cooked all over the place, and not just in Scotland where it would find its eventual apogee). Black pudding is pudding, as is white pudding (sometimes savoury, sometimes custard-based and sweet). Batter pudding, originally cooked under the roast on a spit, and, like haggis, eventually associated only with one region (Yorkshire), is pudding. Plum pudding, once eaten with the roast and now a sad reminder of more broad-minded attitudes to food in the past; that’s a pudding. And so is sticky toffee pudding, and sponge cake pudding, and toad-in-the-hole and pigeon-in-the-hole), and Eve’s pudding, and bread and butter pudding (try adding marmalade; oh my word), and dumplings, and rice pudding. Man alive! I hear you cry! What is a pudding? For me, it’s a feeling. And it’s very, very British. (The French, the leaders of cuisine from the 18th century onwards, don’t have a word for pudding. It’s le poudding – a bit like le five o clock, for afternoon tea).

Anyway, definitions are for the faint-hearted. I was recently asked to write the foreword for a brilliant book on puddings, by the photographer, writer, cook and blogger Regula Ysewijn (@missfoodwise on Twitter). It’s an absolutely gorgeous book – I hadn’t realised how fabulous it would be, old master-style photography and all, when I penned my minor contribution. If you are into puddings, it’s definitely worth a look. Regula’s book explains puddings from the point of view of a self-confessed Anglophile (she’s Belgian), and, to me, this outsider’s view of a British culinary staple brings a real richness to the text. We don’t celebrate our food heritage enough, still, in this country. Puddings are a joke: we have ‘pudding stomachs’ (we don’t. Stop it. Grow up), and people are ‘pudding-shaped’. What a shame. Puddings are fab. We should celebrate them, and love them, and treat them like as the endless source of delicious delight that they are.

In typically perverse form, having salivated all over my advance copy of Regula’s tome, I went away and cooked one of my own favourite puddings. It’s not in a published book, but in a handwritten manuscript from Wrest Park in Bedfordshire. It belonged to Jemima, Marchioness Grey (1723-1797), so the recipe probably dates to the mid-18th century. It took me a while to work it out, and there’s no doubt that the result could be called a lemon tart as much as pudding, but it was a pudding to Jemima, so it’s pudding to me.

This is the original recipe:

2016-03-28 13.22.15
Stunningly readable handwriting. Georgians win vs Victorians on that score nearly every time.

Take 2 lemmons, scrape ye inside clean out, boyle ye rinds til they be tender. When they are cold, beat the, to a pulp with 3/4lb of butter, then mix up with 10 yolks of eggs and 3/4lb loaf sugar, finely powdered. Beat them together half an hour. Butter the dish and paste it to set it in ye oven. Half an hour will bake it. You may make orange pudding the same way.

If you want to cook it, it’s both ridiculously easy and fiendishly difficult. For the lemons I use lemons I’ve previously juiced – and I sometimes use 3 if they are the very small ones you get in modern supermarkets. Also, eggs were smaller then, so use pullets’ or bantams’ eggs, or halve the amount stated here. The full amount of mixture will easily fill two standard sized flan tins, so scale accordingly. And yes, a food processor works just fine for the beating part.


Proper pastry. A faff, but its worth it.


Sparkle 100%
Eggs, eggs, eggs…

Through trial and error, I have worked out a method which works for me. You may well choose to do it differently, but for what it’s worth, here’s what I do. I make exceedingly excellent pastry (hand cut in the butter, full-on pâté brisée, all the care and attention in the world), as it deserves it (normally I use a food processor and it’s fine, but not exceedingly excellent); and I blind bake it for about forever. I also make a lid separately and bake that as well. (You can buy a cunning lattice lid cutter if you make it, or other cut-lid tarts, regularly. Or you can leave the lid off.) Once I’ve glooped the mixture into the pastry case, I cook it very slowly – 160 degrees for about 30-40mn until just cooked through. Any faster or hotter and it will crack and separate (mine invariably does this, except this once, but it’s is still bloody lovely, to be honest). It rises, soufflé-like, so I tend to stand a tray under it. Once done, I plonk the lid on immediately, so it fuses to it as it settles.


The final article

Warning: it is very lemony, especially when served chilled, or it should be. As my grandmother used to say, it’ll draw your arse up to your elbows, and that’s the point. There is no room for lemon with meringue in my world.


Gardening for food historians

Growing up, my father had a rhyme he used to quote at the first sniffs of spring:

Spring is sprung, the grass is ris; I wonder where the birdies is.

I can’t get it out of my head now, whenever the first signs of spring occur – and then at the second, third, fourth etc. it’s been going round in circles since the first bulbs started to sprout. And come April, I tend to go into a gardening frenzy. It’s usually a month with work gaps in for me, so I can go and enthusiastically plant seeds and revel in having permanently muddy fingernails. I’m aware, by the way, that much of what I plant will fail miserably, and I’ll end up buying plug plants anyway, but the joy lies partly in the work and partly in the hope. And now I have a bigger garden, I might eventually become a better gardener. I fear my problem is that I garden as I cook, with only the slightest regard for the recipe (planting guidelines), and a sort of gung ho attitude to little things like amounts (e.g. of watering) and conditions (ovens, room temperatures, soil types, amount of sun….). This year I have bought two brilliant and complementary books; Mark Diacono’s The New Kitchen Garden, and James Wong’s Growing for Flavour, and am trying to consult them before I plant stuff, and not after it’s dead and buried in the compost heap. We shall see…

So, if you want to garden with an eye to historic cooking, what kind of things do you plant? My criteria were simple: useful, especially for public demos and/or TV (producers always want unobtainable things out of season); pretty, as the garden isn’t very big; tasty, because life is too short to eat risotto; unobtainable through normal sources (market, supermarket, friends, the web). Oh, and preferably easy to grow and requires little maintenance. I tend to favour perennials as well, not least as they often have a longer period reach and are therefore more versatile.

My eventual list (and it may well yet grow, and will certainly change next year):

Trees: quince, medlar, Norfolk Biffin apple, Pitmarston Pineapple apple. (The latter two are to be trained as espaliers. I now have a hankering after a fruit arch with a pear and another apple, for which I hold the below illustration directly responsible).

Pear arch for a cottage garden, from The New Century Book of Gardening

Soft fruit: entirely unhistorical but practical thornless blackberry. There’s a hedge down the road for the evil attacking type. Red, black and white currant. Gooseberry, barberry, grape and strawberries (these last failing to do anything at the time of writing).

Herbs and green stuff: cardoon, erigno, sea kale, mallow, angelica, English mace, hyssop, clary sage, lemon verbena, lemon balm, lots of types of mint, comfrey, salad burnett, rosemary, oregano, marjoram, thyme, parsley, basil, sage, licorice, hop (still apparently dead), rocket, purslane, chard, rose of edible petal and hip type, good king Henry, tansy, sorrel, wild garlic (boat out on survival), borage, rue, skirret, globe artichoke, and does rhubarb count here?

Veg: Jerusalem and Chinese artichoke, tomatoes (yes, I know they are fruit), squashes of various kinds, aubergine, peas, turnips, salsify, broccoli including the epic looking walking stick broccoli (couldn’t resist), Brussels sprouts (post 1830, but hey, I still like them), runner beans, chilli.

It looks like loads (and I want to put a morello cherry on the front of the house as well, not to mention a damson up a fence), but I only have one of each, or a small patch of each, in some cases. And I’m hoping it’ll fuel many a happy historic cooking bender later in the year. Oh, and there’s not a lot in the whole space which is not edible. With any luck, most or even all of it will grow, and I can report back. Treat this, therefore, as a taster of what’s to come…and if you’ve any suggestions of your own, bring them on!

Sea Kale, before I ate it


Cardoon, in all its sculptural glory – and YES, it grows under leylandii

Adventures in jam-making, part 1

Blackberry season is upon us. I can’t help it: I’m mad for them. Every half-hearted jog from late August to the end of September sees me coming back with purple-stained fingers and scratches up my arms. This year, banned from jogging due to injuring my knee, and with the hedgerow that keeps on giving at the end of the road denuded by the other sods who live in my street, I’ve (re)discovered cycling as a ‘way to keep fit’. It goes like this: put large container in bike panniers; cycle off looking serious (in cycling shorts and hi-vis vest); do at least 10mn of proper cardio style work; find blackberry patch….on Friday I managed 25 whole minutes of actual exercise and an hour of blackberry picking. Calories burnt: some; miles covered: 5ish; all pitiful, but when measured on the blackberry scale…4 litres. Not bad. I was picking thorns out of my fingers for two days afterwards, and my fingernails are still black, but overall, I’d say that was a good morning’s work.

Trouble is, I pick all of these things, and then I have to do something with them. Put together with the blackberries I’d scrumped previously in the week, I had nearly 6lb of gooey black loveliness. Last year I did endless tarts. This year I was up for jam…except I don’t really like jam. Neither I, nor M eat much of it. I have buckets of carrot jam which I use for Victorian and Second World War events (Mrs Beeton published a recipe for it in the English Domesticwoman’s Magazine in 1858 and, unusually for her, didn’t garble it much and it actually works). I also have a few bits and bobs which I tend to use for making sorbet. But jam, as a rule, comes under the heading of ‘why did I make that again?’ Sod it, thought I, I can always use it for something, or give it away. But, in the spirit of common sense, I also found a recipe for blackberry and apple gin (thank you, River Cottage). The jam proved more challenging, as all the historic jam recipes I read were for very basic jam, which didn’t suit my mood at the time. Most of the blackberry recipes in my collection tended more towards ‘shape’, along with fool, pies and a lot of wine. Indeed, so ubiquitous was the use of blackberries for wine, I set aside 3 pints to have a crack at an 18th century version (Elizabeth Raffald, 1769, and of which, more anon). Eventually modernity won out, in the form of Diana Henry’s blackberry and Pinot Noir jam.

All of which leads me to the adventure. I have been banned from making jam in the kitchen. In the house in general, in fact, though the garage remains a grey area. I have form. The Great Quince Cheese Incident of 2013 is writ large in the annals of shame round here, involving, as it did, quince dripping from the ceiling like congealed orange bogeys, and orange jammy stains all over the walls. We had to redecorate. It was not nice. We had moved in a mere 2 months earlier… In fact, I have worse form than that, since only 2 weeks are moving in with M I was steaming Xmas puddings and accidentally let one boil dry. Cue lots of smoke, me running outside with the saucepan, net curtain billowing in the breeze then billowing onto the hot pan….scorched nylon pattern by now on the outside of huge pan, massive panic… Etc etc. I did learn a lot about what boiling a pan dry does to the bottom of a putting basin though, which comes under the heading of experimental archaeology. It helps explain the pattern of cracks on several of the ceramic food moulds in the collection of York Castle Museum, so not all was bad. Oh, and then there was the Flaming Microwave Incident, which also resulted in me melting the wheel of the BBQ as I threw the baked potato which was the cause of the flames out into the garden, where it hit said wheel and caused said melting. Oops. I had to buy a new microwave and mildly redecorate behind it. Liability, much?

I have, therefore, had to expand the jam making arm of my culinary operations into the garden. Banned from the kitchen? A plug in hob, an extension cable, pan and convenient table are the answer. Until…it starts to rain.

I’m not going to continue. Suffice to say, I was eventually allowed back into the house on pain of extreme death if one splatter made its way onto the walls. The jam was superb. And I have discovered that I can now guess set point accurately once the thermometer gets to that annoying one-degree-below-where-it-needs-to-be bubbling point without recourse to saucers or the wrinkle test. It’s at perfect set point just before it explodes onto the ceiling. If only I’d known that last year.


My view. For 45mn.
My view. For 45mn.