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Sunday, 22 November 2009

Christmas? Already? Stir up Sunday?

Apparently today, in the UK, is 'Stir up Sunday.' I have to admit that this is a new one on me. I heard this on the local radio and felt I should check it out on the internet asap. On doing so, I have since discovered that ‘Stir up Sunday’ refers to the day that, traditionally, the Christmas pudding is made, usually about five weeks before Christmas itself. From my own childhood, I recall my step mum, Marnie, making a larder (or pantry) full of these unctuous puddings. In my childhood and teens in the 1970s the delicious pudding aromas floated through our house like the Bisto gravy urchins cartoon-like depictions, as they steamed away in the much used pressure cooker on the stove. I think my step mum and my Dad paid a fair amount for that pressure cooker and used it to cook practically everything.

Traditionally, in England, the customs surrounding making the Christmas pudding brought the whole family together as each one took a turn to stir the mixture and make a wish combined with the adding of sixpenny bits or even the reckless extravagance of contributing one shilling coins to the mix. Nowadays this would be two and a half pence or five pence. Back in the 1970s, as young folk, we would have seen these coins as a small prize.

According to my internet research, the tradition (for those who still make their own home-made pudds) is still as essential to a British Christmas as it ever was. Traditionally, the Christmas pudding comes at the end of the largest dinner of the year and demands a huge appetite and a staunch constitution. And an ability to fall asleep in front of a James Bond film or a repeat of The Sound of Music or Ant & Dec ruin Christmas style programme.

Getting serious.

Historically, early Christmas puddings contained some meat, usually mutton or beef as well as onions, wine, spices and dried fruit. The tradition of Christmas pudding did not appear in England until introduced to the Victorians by Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. By this time the pudding looked and tasted much as it does today. Dickens, in the writing of A Christmas Carol made much show of the excitement created in the poor Cratchitt household when the Christmas pudding was brought steaming to the table and flaming with brandy. Enough to make even the crippled Tiny Tim hop around with joy!

Flaming the pudding is another tradition, believed to represent the passion of Christ, and again is an essential part of the theatre of Christmas day. Eating Christmas pudding was banned by Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century because he believed the ritual of flaming the pudding harked back to pagan celebrations of the winter solstice.

The perfect pudding should be dense, moist and oozing with the decadence of rich sugary fruits and brandy. Making one does take time with at least thirteen ingredients (to represent Christ and his disciples) also to weigh; time indeed, to marinate and the actual steaming which takes at least 7 hours. But, once made, and put away in a cool, dry place, needs only a further hour steaming on the day itself.

I recall my step mum using beef suet in her ingredients which makes for a heavier pudding but an altogether more satisfying Crimbo pudd experience.

Step Mum, Marnie, looking suprised in the kitchen.

Myself, my half brother and  step-sisters, were equally passionate about consuming the pudding and had an almost religious fervour in the attaining of the coins buried within the pudding!

A childhood Christmas from the early 1970s

Lastly, it has to be eaten with warm custard on the day – you can add your fancy splashes of brandy or cointreau but English custard is the very best!


Karen said...

Having had a seriously disastrous attempt at steaming 4 Christmas puddings many years ago (the kitchen was like a swamp, as I didn't know you had to put lids on the pans as they steamed), I now buy my puddings, & always heat them in the microwave. They are enjoyable to make though, & very easy. I added grated carrot too, which makes it very moist & sweeter. I tend to just make Christmas cakes & mincemeat these days. Btw, I love the wallpaper in the kitchen photo - brings back memories of when I was small in similarly papered rooms.

Phil Lowe said...

Hi Karen, we certainly seemed to like the overtly patterned effect of wallpaper back then, didn't we?

I have just added an advertising image for the all new, all singing, all dancing, all exploding pressure cookers and my main memory is of the pressure attatchment throbbing and hissing violently on top of the pot when cooking on the stove. It seemed to have a seriously disturbed life of its own!! And it weren't 'appy!

Gail's Man said...

can't say I like Christmas pub and so prefer apple pie. My late mum used to make the most wonderful pies, which of course didn't last very long!
I don't like Christmas cake either, but can demolish a chocolate log in one sitting. Robin and all!

Phil Lowe said...

Christmas pub? Gail'sMan?

Dean said...

One of my guilty pleasures has to be the Christmas pudding i pay way too much for from Rick Stein, I came across it one year and since then i have ordered and enjoyed one every year with the family and even though i always moan at the price it all gets eaten and it is well worth the money.

Karen said...

If you ever have any cooked Christmas pud left over, it's very tasty when rolled into small walnut sized balls, which are then coated in chocolate, preferably good quality plain choc.