The Best Christmas Pudding Award – An Historic Fight

Lifting a pudding from a steaming vat of water

Bring us some figgy pudding! In the red corner is a Medieval mash-up, in the holly bedecked corner a Regency favourite! Are you ready for the contest of the season? Which pudding will stay the course?! 

In Britain, the Christmas pudding is falling out of favour. People say it is too stodgy, too heavy, too much.

A traditional Tale

I could tell you a simple tale of the Christmas pudding’s long history.

It would start with a porridge made with meat, dried fruit, thickened with breadcrumbs and flavoured with some exotic spices.

Then I’d tell you about the discovery of the pudding cloth. The pudding cloth meant that puddings didn’t have to be cooked in intestines or skins anymore.

I’d then tell you how this sweetened pudding cooked in this pudding cloth was at first savoury, served with beef as a second course but then became a pudding strictly associated with dessert.

If I told you that tale you’d be missing out on a lot of fun.

A richer tale – Pudding Fight!

Because the Christmas pudding rise and then fall doesn’t go in straight lines. Indeed it could be said, that over the centuries, there was a PUDDING FIGHT. So this is a tale of four puddings fighting to the death.

Spoiler. Only one will survive!

1st Contender

Let me take you to medieval England for our first contender: Furmenty

In its simplest form this is made from grains, often wheat, mixed with water or milk cooked in a pot and thickened with breadcrumbs eaten by the poor. It was also eaten in a pimped up version over the extended Christmas period. Yes. All the original 12 days.

To pimp up Furmenty it was sweetened with expensive sugar and flavoured by costly spices like saffron. The poor version is just thickened with breadcrumbs. If you were rich egg yolks, dried fruit and cream were added.

It’s a Christmas recipe known since Richard II’s time. And the rich wouldn’t eat it by itself but serve it alongside expensive meat or fish. Frumenty doesn’t disappear from Christmas tables when Plum Pudding appears. No. It’s eaten in the centuries that follow and right up to 1822 when a newspaper reports:

“The yule candle is lighted, and a supper is served, of which one dish from the lordly Mansion to the humblest shed, is invariably Fumenty”. 

2nd Contender

The next contender is Plum Pottage.

Plum Pottage was in its earlier form, like Frumenty, served at special occasions and Christmas.

It started off as ‘Stewed Beef to potage’ in the early 1400s: bits of beef boiled in a little water and a lot of wine with minced onions and fine herbs. It was thickened with bread. It was seasoned with cloves, cinnamon and mace. Currants were added. To this basic pottage, the Elizabethans added prunes, hence the name.

By the 1600s the herbs were dropped. In Robert May’s Accomplisht Cook this stewed broth appears as a festive dish on All Saints Day, New Year’s Day and most importantly Christmas Day. In 1673 William Rabisha lists it as a Christmas dish and it became later known as Christmas broth or plum pottage.

One of the last recipes for Plum Pottage appears in 1826 and it is said that it lingered longer in Scotland than anywhere else. 

3rd Contender

My third pudding contender is Hackin Pudding.

This is a sweet, haggis-type pudding of minced beef with oats, sugar and fruit, boiled in a large gut bag.

This pudding was eaten at Christmas throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But by 1878 it would seem the custom had almost died out. In that year William Dickinson writes that Hackin pudding is: 

‘A pudding of mincemeat and fruit used till lately for family breakfast on Christmas Day

Final Contender

And now my last pudding contender stands before you, one that’s still standing today. Plum pudding

If you already know Christmas pudding you might be surprised by the one I offer to you now. It’s lighter in colour and less sugary than the black, dark puddings you might be used to. Let me present Eliza Acton’s Christmas Pudding of 1845.

I’m an 1820s Regency cook and I like this lighter plum pudding which would have been popular in the kitchen I work in at The Regency Town House in Hove, though it might have still been served with beef as a second course.

This recipe from Eliza Acton is still my favourite and the one I cook in my online classes.

Cook’s Choice

Four puddings have stood before you. Fumenty, Plum Pottage, Hackin Pudding and Plum Pudding.

But which one wins the contest?

It might surprise you, but I don’t recommend Plum Pottage. It’s quite horrid. Let’s keep that one consigned to history. But I will be tucking into Frumerty, Hackin Pudding and, as always, Eliza Acton’s Plum Pudding.

I, for one, won’t be giving Christmas pudding a miss this year. It’s not too stodgy, it’s not too heavy and it’s NEVER too much.