You know it's the festive season when you start seeing images of Christmas puddings and mince pies everywhere in London. This year Heston Blumenthal of the three Michelin starred The Fat Duck in Bray produced an extra special Christmas pudding with a whole Valencia orange inside for Waitrose (an upmarket supermarket) but it sold out instantly. Now you can find it at extortionate prices on Ebay. So much for the Christmas spirit.
So I turned to my favourite supermarket Marks & Spencer's (purveyors of quality food products) to get my Christmas goods. Marks & Spencers is an institution that is as British as you get. It's not as classy or expensive as Fortnum & Mason's but it's high end and if you mention Marks & Spencers to any British expat you are guaranteed a nostalgic and home-sick sigh. Everything you buy there is delicious and we always get our Christmas turkey and trimmings from there every year.
I first came across the Christmas or plum pudding as a child through British children's books such as The Famous Five and The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton. I was living in Thailand at the time but how I longed to join in the ritual stirring of the Christmas pudding filled with flour, nuts, brandy-soaked fruit and peel and small hidden tokens such as a ring, a bachelor's button and a sixpence (you can date my reading as there's no such thing as a sixpence now) and make a wish before it was steamed.
And one of the tokens turns out to be a stolen jewel in Agatha Christie's The Adventures of the Christmas Pudding. And what better way to liven up Christmas than a touch of murder! No? Well then, we'll leave it to Hercule Poirot, Christie's slightly uptight and fastidious sleuth with the famous 'tache, who is sent to an English country house to investigate the theft of a beautiful ruby. He's also there to experience a proper English Christmas. As soon as he arrives, Poirot receives a mysterious message: don't eat none of the plum pudding. And so the fun begins, with a Christmas feast:
Oyster soup had been consumed, two enormous turkeys had come and gone, mere carcasses of their former selves. Now, the supreme moment, the Christmas pudding was brought in, in state! ... On a silver dish the Christmas pudding reposed in its glory. A large football of a pudding, a piece of holy stuck in it like a triumphant flag and glorious flames of blue and red rising round it.
The ruby is discovered as one of the guests takes a bite of the pudding, and Poirot must find out who put it there.
Whatever anyone says about how sweet, stodgy and heavy the Christmas pudding is and how they won't eat it, it's just tradition to have at least one bite of the rich steamed pudding to round off the Christmas meal. It's just not the same otherwise. Most people now buy their Christmas puddings as making one yourself is a fairly laborious process. We had the same Marks & Spencer's pudding (but a bigger version) at my sister-in-law's Christmas do last week. The pudding was doused in booze and set alight but I was gasping in awe at the blue flames and forgot to take a picture and make a wish. Dammit.
Served with brandy sauce (similar to custard but with a boozy kick). Oh yes, Christmas is all about the booze. My personal favourite accompaniment is thick brandy cream. I could just eat a tub of it on its own.
At school we were given Christmas pudding with brandy butter and brandy sauce and we lapped it up like hungry kittens because, you know, we were teenagers and it had alcohol in it. But I wasn't such a fan of the pudding then. But like everything British, it's something that grows on you.
Take the humble mince pie, for example.
It's a shortcrust pastry filled with mince-meat. That's raisins, nuts and candied fruit and peel. Confusing, right? But originally it contained mince of the meat variety (mutton, beef, veal, goose or tongue) mixed with all the candied fruit and peel. Gross. The early recipes traveled with the Crusaders of the 13th century who brought back spices from the Middle-East and it was often called mutton pie, shrid pie and Christmas pie and was in the shape of a coffin. Nice. By the Victorian age, the meat has disappeared leaving just the fruit, nuts and spices and the original coffin-shaped pies shrunk to more pleasing dimensions. And the three spices used, cinnamon, clove and nutmeg are said to symbolise the three magi.
Mince pies are lovely warm with single cream or, in my case, thick brandy cream.
One of the strangest traditions of eating mince pies comes courtesy of my school friend M's husband. His family eats it with melted cheddar cheese. Yes, you heard right. That's MELTED CHEESE. They swear by it and I've been meaning to try it for years.
First you cut the top off the mince pie and add a couple of slices of cheddar cheese. The English love cheddar but any hard cheese would do.
Then slide under a hot grill until the cheese melts.
Then replace the top and tuck in quickly before it cools.
I had this without the brandy butter or cream as I wanted to get a proper taste. And you know what? It was actually rather good. In fact, the salty taste of the cheese provided a nice contrast to the sweet and sour of the mince meat. Reminded me a little of the cheese and pickle sandwich the British are so fond of. I could get used to this.
Happy holidays everyone!