The Evolution Of The Pudding

A traditionally cannon ball shaped Christmas Pudding

The origins of the Great British Pudding are of animal guts stuffed with a filling of minced meats, blood, bread, grain, oats, fruits and spices. They were mainly a sweet-savoury concoction that served as a meal in itself. More like sausages, e.g. Black Pudding, Haggis or Clootie Dumpling they were portable and filling and could be taken into the fields by farmhands or on long and arduous journeys from town to town, or farm to market. But intestines, unless one knew a farmer or slaughter-man, were not always readily at hand.

The relatively simple discovery of the pudding cloth – first recorded in the early 17th Century – changed all that.

A sturdy square of coarse linen, soaked in hot water then dipped in flour, revolutionised the whole process. Animal intestines became superfluous.

All kinds of new recipes, both sweet and savoury, began to be developed. The ingredients would be mixed into a batter or suet and tied securely.

The pudding in it’s floured cloth would then be suspended in a cooking pot of boiling water.

The flour would form a ‘crust’ that would prevent any loss of the contents as the whole swelled during cooking. The end result would be a solid ball of sustenance.

The boiling pot would more often than not contain the days meat and vegetables as well.

Containing oats, cereals or wheat flour, puddings soon proved so effective at taking the edge off of hunger that very often they would be served first, before the costlier meats.

Relatively simple to make and inexpensive, ideal country fare in fact, puddings never-the-less began to cross the social boundaries.

The puddings of the field hands began finding their way onto the dinner tables of the gentry and thence onto the menus of the grander establishments.

The simple puddings of flour, milk, raisins, eggs, chopped suet and salt developed in the kitchens of the more well-to-do into ever more creative products.

From humble beginnings, ever more complex flavours were developed and the sweet gradually sundered from the savoury. From this process evolved the steak-and-kidney pudding and the plum (or Christmas) pudding as we know them today.

Simple rules were established by cooks concerning the importance of a clean, well rinsed (soap free) cloth, that bread based puddings were loosely tied, that batter based ones tightly tied, that the water was boiling during cooking and that the pudding was to be moved around occasionally to prevent it from sticking to the sides of the pot.

A standard cooking time of around three hours was applied to all, apart from the egg or milk based puddings.

From the early seventeenth, through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the British pudding could be found, boiling away in its pot on the back of the stove, swelling wholesomely in its floured muslin, to await the cold and the hungry.

In the latter half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries forms and moulds began to replace the floured cloth, though the whole would still be wrapped in muslin before boiling.

The pudding basin replaced the ‘ball’ shape with the ‘dome’ shape most commonly seen nowadays.

The basin itself was to become so common and multi-purpose in the kitchen that no self respecting cook does not have at least one in the cupboard even now.

The recipes, reproduced here from the cookbook, are the result of centuries of refining and improvement, but are all directly descended from what has turned out to have been ‘a damned good idea’

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