Christmas pudding: a history

Following my post on the history of mince pies, I shall be looking at the rather confused history behind that most iconic of English puddings, the Christmas Pudding. Although it took its final form in Victorian England, the origins of Christmas pudding lie back in the middle ages, in the now-forgotten ‘plum pottage’. Pottage was a general term for a mixture of ingredients, usually meat and vegetables, boiled together in a cauldron for several hours. It was very versatile and was a staple of the English diet for many centuries. Plum pottage, the ancestor of the Christmas pudding, generally contained meat, dried fruits, a little sugar, and mixed spices (cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger). As with mince pies, the meat was included because many livestock were slaughtered in the autumn due to a lack of fodder in the winter, and cooks had to find a good way of both preserving and serving up the meat. Plum pottage didn’t necessarily contain any plums or prunes; it got its name from the fact that in the Elizabethan era, prunes became so popular that they started to be used to refer to a wide variety of dried fruits.

Over the course of the 18th century, pottage and porridge became unfashionable as sophisticated cuisine increasingly took its cues from France. In 1758 Martha Bradley, the author of The British Housewife: or, The Cooke, Housekeeper’s and Gardiner’s Companion said of plum porridge that “the French laugh outrageously at this old English Dish”. Her own recipe for ‘plumb porridge’ sounds very rich; it contains a leg and a shin of beef, white bread, currants, raisins, prunes, mace, cloves, nutmegs, sherry, salt and sugar. As plum pottage died out, the plum pudding rose to take its place. Thanks to cheap sugar from the expanding West Indian slave plantations, plum puddings became sweeter and the savoury element of the dish (meat) became less important. By the Victorian period the only meat product in a Christmas pudding was suet (raw beef or mutton fat). At this point it had really become Christmas pudding as we know it, with the cannonball-shaped pudding of flour, fruits, suet, sugar and spices topped with a sprig of holly, doused in brandy and set alight.

How exactly plum pudding got to be associated with Christmas is the next mystery. The earlier plum pottage was apparently enjoyed at times of celebration, although it was primarily associated with harvest festivities rather than Christmas. There is an unsubstantiated story that in 1714, King George I (sometimes known as the Pudding King) requested that plum pudding be served as part of his first Christmas feast in England. Whether this actually happened or not, was can see that recipe books from the 18th century onwards did start associating plum pudding with Christmas. In 1740, a publication titled Christmas Entertainments included a recipe for plum pudding, which suggests that it was increasingly eaten in a Christmas context. The first known reference to a ‘Christmas pudding’ is, however, not to be found until 1845, in Eliza Acton’s bestselling Modern Cookery for Private Families.

At the time when Acton was composing her cookbook, Christmas puddings were traditionally made four or five weeks before Christmas on ‘Stir-up Sunday’. The name, rather amusingly, comes from the collect in the Book of Common Prayer for that Sunday, which reads “Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people; that they, plenteously bringing forth good works, may by thee be plenteously required; through Jesus Christ our Lord”. Traditionally everyone in the household gave the pudding mixture a stir and made a wish whilst doing so. It was a common practice to include either a threepence or a sixpence in the pudding mixture which could be kept by the person who found it. For children this was a welcome piece of pocket money and for adults it was supposed to bring wealth in the coming year. Other common tokens included a tiny wishbone to bring good luck, a silver thimble for thrift, and an anchor to symbolise safe harbour.
It’s now too late to make your own Christmas pudding in time for the 25th, but for interest, here are two recipes from Eliza Acton’s hugely successful 1845 cookbook Modern Cookery for Private Families. The first, rather quaintly called ‘Cottage Christmas Pudding’, is presumably for the family on a budget; it uses potatoes, doesn’t require brandy and only makes one pudding, whereas the Ingoldsby recipe is richer and makes three puddings.

Further Reading

Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery, for Private Families (1860)
Martha Bradley, The British Housewife: or, The Cooke, Housekeeper’s and Gardiner’s Companion (1758)

A history of mince pies

Mince pies are an inescapable feature of the Christmas period in England. This is great for people like me who are fond of them, though it’s bad news for those who can’t stand the sickly-sweet things. Yet if the modern incarnation of the mincemeat pie divides opinion, how much more would the original version! As the name suggests, mince pies did once contain (a lot of) meat. This might seem strange to us, but particularly in the Elizabethan and Stuart periods, sophisticated cuisine was all about a mixture of sweet and savoury flavours. Not surprisingly then, the pie which came to be identified with Christmas contained meat alongside dried fruit, sugar and exotic spices. Mutton or beef was the most common meat athough goose was apparently used in Yorkshire. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg were frequently used spices. The English antiquary John Timbs (1801-75) thought that these spices were included in the mincemeat pie eaten at Christmastide “in token of the offerings of the Eastern Magi”. I wouldn’t discount his theory entirely, although I am always somewhat sceptical about attempts to explain away old traditions in purely Christian symbolic terms. I would rather say that wealthy people flavoured their Christmas pies with ‘eastern’ spices because they liked the taste, and because the lavish use of exotic ingredients signified that you were rich enough to afford culinary delicacies which had travelled many thousands of miles.

Meanwhile, from the late 16th century onwards mince pies were increasingly frowned upon in Puritan circles, along with other traditional Christmas celebrations. Many Puritans thought that mince pies were self-indulgent and reminiscent of Catholic superstitions (perhaps John Timbs was indeed onto something), and come the Interregnum when the ‘godly’ were in power from 1649-1660, there were many attempts to stamp out such decadent Christmas traditions. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 curbed Puritan influence but didn’t lessen their dissaproval. An essay in the December 1733 issue of The Gentleman’s Magazine  describes how Quakers supposedly inveighed against “Christmas Pye, as an Invention of the Scarlet Whore of Babylon, an Hodge-Podge of Superstition, Popery, the Devil and all his works”.

However, in the main, people could get on with celebrating Christmas in time-honoured fashion now that they no longer had one of Cromwell’s Major-Generals breathing down their necks to check they weren’t doing anything ungodly. For Samuel Pepys, mince pies were a firm Christmas fixture. Although his Christmas dinner in 1662 was generous, consisting of “a mess of brave plum-porridge and a roasted pullet”, he felt that it wasn’t complete without mince pies. Unfortunately his wife was “not well [enough] to make any herself” so, like most of us nowadays, he “sent for a mince pie abroad”. At Christmas 1663 his wife was feeling better and he was pleased to see, on coming home very cold from a long day at work, that she was busy making mince pies. In December 1666 the long-suffering Mrs Pepys was once again slogging away in the kitchen; Pepys’s entry for the 25th December reads “Lay pretty long in bed, and then rose, leaving my wife desirous of sleep, having sat up till four this morning seeing her mayds make mince pies”.

At this point there was still a lot of meat in the mince pie. Pepys doesn’t give us a recipe but we can get a fairly good idea of its contents  from a recipe book written in 1609 by an Oxfordshire aristocrat, Elinor Fettiplace. Her filling was made of equal parts of minced cooked mutton, beef suet, currants and raisins with ginger, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, orange rind, salt and a small quantity of sugar. By the 18th century, mince pies were getting sweeter, due in large part to the increasing availability of cheap sugar from West Indian slave plantations. Although meat was still usual, it was no longer essential. In her 1747 book The Art of Cookery, Hannah Glasse writes “if you chuse meat in your pies, parboil a neat’s tongue [ox tongue], peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible, and mix it with the rest; or two pounds of the inside of a sirloin of beef boiled”.

If you feel like making mince pies this Christmas after a Victorian recipe, here is a recipe for ‘Mince Pies Royal’ from Eliza Acton’s hugely influential 1845 publication, Modern Cookery for Private Families. You could leave out the meat if you want to, but it would be interesting to see what a mince pie tastes like when it really is a mincemeat pie.

Further Reading

Eliza Acton, Modern Cookery, for Private Families (1860)
Hannah Glasse, The Art of Cookery, made Plain and Easy (2nd edition, 1747)
Hilary Spurling, Elinor Fettiplace’s Receipt Book: Elizabethan Country House Cooking (2011)