Long live the British pudding!Roman invaders brought the first samples to this
Sceptred Isle but since then the locals have been perfecting an endlessly
satisfying variety of rich, hearty puddings - the ultimate comfort food.
Purists may suggest that the phrase 'British cuisine' is a contradiction in terms and that Britain has added little to the world's recipe file.That sentiment is many thousands of calories away from the truth.Especially when it comes to the creation of puddings.The British absolutely excel at puddings.Sweet, savory, hot or cold, the selection is mouth-wateringly endless and deliciously tempting - especially in winter and during the holidays.
These are not frothy confections of whisked egg white and fresh air, however.They're solid, hearty dishes designed to stick to the ribs and insulate from the inside out with scant regard for calorie counting or cholesterol levels.
Puddings are the ultimate comfort food, conjuring up cosy images of Grandma's parlour, snug winter evenings and school lunches - great steaming bowls of sweetness served with lashings of hot, creamy custard and eaten until one is fit to burst.
The British have had a sweet tooth since earliest times, thanks to the Romans, who invaded in AD43 and introduced the simple population to a sophisticated style of cookery and unknown ingredients.The Romans loved flower and fruit tarts such as elderflower and rose, and were able to establish apricots, figs and cherries in Southern England.Fillings were flavoured with wine, honey and syrups, sometimes blending sweet and savoury ingredients in a display of culinary finesse.
When Roman influence diminished in the 3rd and 4th Centuries, subsequent English country cooking was somewhat less refined.Rural poverty changed the pudding from a post-dinner treat to an essential part of the diet that provided much needed calories and carbohydrates.Few families had access to ovens so cooking took place in one pot above an open fire.These early puddings were therefore steamed or boiled rather than oven-baked and were consequently plump, moist and filling.
As social conditions improved, families could afford to add eggs, sugar and other more expensive ingredients to their puddings so they became increasingly sweet, delicious and irresistible.Different regions developed their own individual variations such as Bakewell Tart and Sussex Pond Pudding.The latter encloses a lemon, butter and sugar in a suet crust; the melted butter and sugar forming a pond of sweet, lemon flavoured syrup as the pastry is breached.
Today's typical pudding pastry blends suet (processed beef fat) lard or butter with flour.In olden days, included a filling of easily obtainable, seasonal ingredients such as blackberries and apples.In the winter dried and preserved fruits were used.The pudding was either steamed in a basin above the pot containing the main meal or wrapped in a 'pudding cloth' and boiled.
One such boiled pudding is still served today, the absurdly named 'Spotted Dick' (dick said to derive from the word 'dough').Raisins are combined with the rolled out pastry, which is then rolled again into a sausage shape and wrapped in a floured cloth before boiling for an hour or more.The resultant pudding is a pale, doughy tube as thick as your forearm and freckled with raisins.
The more bizarre the better it seems when it comes to naming puddings.Strangers to British shores might balk at being offered a slice of Granny’s Leg, Brown Betty or Boiled Baby.They may tremble at the offer of Cabinet Pudding, Figgy Duff or Apple Charlotte, uncertain as to whether they've fallen prey to some grotesque ancient rite that will get them locked in the Tower of London.But the only thing at risk is the waistline.
British Literature is replete with these oddly named, aromatic puddings.You’ll find plenty of puddings popping up in Patrick O'Brian's Napoleonic-era nautical adventure novels.And Charles Dickens wrote of Mrs Cratchit's pudding in A Christmas Carol: 'A smell like an eating-house, and a pastry cook's next door to each other with a laundress's next door to that!' - perfectly conveying the aroma of boiling suet and dried fruit.Another Dickensian hero, the ravenous young David Copperfield, staved off hunger pangs with 'a stout pale pudding, heavy and flabby, and with great flat raisins in it.'
Regrettably, 'heavy and flabby' are still very much the operative words when it comes to dedicated pudding consumption.In the 1970s, when we were encouraged to 'go for the burn', these staple foods fell out of favour as we reached for low fat yoghurt and fruit salad.But classic British puddings are now enjoying something of a renaissance in even the best restaurants.
Gary Rhodes, one of Britain's top chefs, has an infectious enthusiasm for British food and bemoaned the abandonment of its culinary heritage beginning back in the 1970s era of nouvelle cuisine.In the mid 1980s he became head chef at the Greenhouse in London's Mayfair where he spearheaded the revival of classic British recipes.His latest venture is the Rhodes Twenty Four restaurant in the heart of the City where traditional puddings are on the menu, including Bread and Butter Pudding and Jam Roly-Poly with custard.
Rules RestaurantCovent Garden, London
At Rules Restaurant in Covent Garden, the tradition never waned.In the heart of London's theatre land, Rules opened its doors many years earlier.Established in 1798 it is London’s oldest restaurant and became the haunt of writers, artists, actors and princes.Its elegant panelled walls are adorned with two centuries of memorabilia including playbills taken to the restaurant by Charles Dickens.It is not surprising therefore that the spirit of traditional British food is very much alive here, with fresh game supplied by Rules' own country estate, Lartington, in the High Pennines.
Simply reading Rules' pudding menu triggers a Pavlovian response.Treacle Sponge, Sticky Toffee and Date Pudding and Blackberry and Apple Crumble make one wish for the courage to abandon all other courses and order three puddings instead.
That kind of bravado is displayed by members of The Pudding Club.The club encourages complete indulgence; in fact, it's almost a prerequisite.Formed in the aerobic-obsessed '80s by a group of enthusiasts dedicated to preserving the British pudding, the Pudding Club now boasts members around the world.It meets twice a month at Three Ways House Hotel, Mickleton, in the picturesque Cotswolds, not far south of Stratford Upon Avon.Jill and Simon Coombe own and manage the hotel with their partner Peter Henderson.Jill describes the Pudding Club meetings as light-hearted affairs but Peter's depiction of them as 'mediaeval banquets with custard' probably comes somewhat closer to the mark.
Guests gather in the bar at for a pre-dinner drink during which either Simon or Peter gives a brief talk on the history of the club and explains the rules for the evening.There's no starter or bread served with the meal, only a light main course before the serious business of the evening begins.Seven huge puddings are announced and borne aloft into the restaurant together with seven gallons of steaming custard, their arrival greeted by enthusiastic cheers.Syrup Sponge and Lord Randall’s Pudding seep calories into the atmosphere.
In pursuit of the ultimate pudding, the diners selflessly sample them all.Only one at a time can be tasted but members are free to take as many helpings as they want.The hotel record stands at 18!There can have been no greater sacrifice in the field of pudding consumption.At the end of dinner, diners vote for the pudding of the night before retiring to their pudding-themed bedrooms to rest.
The British justifiably have a great affection for their puddings since they evoke happy thoughts of childhood meals and security.Mention Jam Roly-Poly or Spotted Dick to anyone over 50 and they’re guaranteed to turn misty-eyed at the memory of indulgences past.These dishes are not treats solely reserved for high days and holidays but form part of the regular bill of fare.They're a taste of home.
These national treasures took Brits through the Blitz in World War II and still keep them warm in an unpredictable climate.They're pure nostalgia on a plate - coupled with neuralgia on the teeth and dyspepsia in the night.A dollop of childhood with custard on the side.What more could anyone want?
Rules Restaurant is at 35 Maiden Lane, Covent Garden, WC2E 7LB.It's open to
seven days a week and has a post-theatre menu.For restaurant reservations
Everyone loves an 'Olde Worlde' pub with its oak beams,
horse brasses and roaring log fires. Nevertheless, no
matter how old the pub itself, the name on the sign
outsideis probably the most historic thing about the place
The idea of the pub sign came to Britain at the time of the Roman invasion. Wine bars in ancient Rome hung a bunch of vine leaves outside as trading signs but when the Romans came here they found precious few vines in the inhospitable climate. Instead, they hung up bushes to mark out the inns and the names Bush and Bull & Bush still survive.
What's in a name?
It would be many centuries before the first recognizable pub opened. Religious houses ran the earliest true inns to cater for pilgrims and knights on their way to the Crusades in the Holy Land. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, whose cellars are carved from the rocks beneath NottinghamCastle, is just such an example. Established in 1189, it claims the title of the oldest pub in England and was a stopover point for forces on their way to meet with Richard the Lionheart. Other signs on this theme are The Turk's Head, The Saracen's Head and The Lamb & Flag the lamb representing Christ and the flag being the sign of the crusaders.
Even after the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th Century, some of the names denoting religious connections survived, such as The Mitre, The Ship (symbolizing the Ark) and The Anchor (the Christian faith). However, many of the landlords thought it more politic to show allegiance to the monarch and hastily adopted titles like The King's Head or The Crown. Henry VIII who ordered the Dissolution is, unsurprisingly, the most popularly depicted monarch.
Heraldry has been a recurrent theme. The Black, White, Red and Golden Lions have formed part of royal coats of arms since the time of the Norman Conquest. The Unicorn was in the Scottish arms, The Red Dragon in the Welsh and The White Horse in the Hanoverian. The Rising Sun was the badge of Edward III. Local gentry often had pubs on their land named after them or parts of their cognizance were taken.
Anyone who caught the public imagination was likely to be immortalised such as Lord Nelson or Wellington and even loveable rogues like Dick Turpin get a mention.One of the most affectionate tributes is reserved for the Marquis of Granby, Commander-in-Chief of the British army. After the Battle of Warburg, he bought pubs for all his disabled non-commissioned officers. His generosity ruined him however and he died in 1770 leaving crushing debts of £37,000.
In the days of a largely illiterate population, pictorial signs were an essential way of advertising the inn or the type of entertainment on offer inside. Any pub called The Cock Inn or The Cock-Pit would once have been a venue for cock fighting. Ye Olde Fighting Cocks in St Albans, (which also claims to be the oldest pub in Britain!), was originally the dovecote for St Albans Abbey. After the Dissolution, it was realised that its circular shape made it a perfect venue for cock fighting. Just to confuse things, any pub called The Cock & Bottle has nothing to do with sport. It simply denotes that both bottled and draught beers were available.
As to other entertainments, The Bear denotes bear baiting, The Dog & Duck, hunting, The Bull & Dog, bull baiting and The Bird in The Hand, falconry. Nowadays, the more modern sports are represented by names like The Cricketers' Arms, The Anglers' Rest or The Huntsman.
Often the predominant trade of the area would give the pub its name. The Golden Fleece is a reflection of the local wool trade. The Coopers',
The Golden Fleece – meeting place for local wool traders
Bricklayers', Saddlers' and Masons' Arms are commonplace signs. Legend has it that The Smith's Arms in Dorset was once a blacksmith's forge where Charles II stopped to have his horse shod. Whilst waiting he demanded a beer but was told the smithy was unlicensed. Exercising his royal prerogative he granted one and was duly served.
In the 18th Century the population became more mobile and a need for coaching inns grew with predictable names such as The Coach & Horses and The Horse & Groom. Later the advent of steam gave every town its Railway Inn or Station Arms.
Where good stories come from
There is a story that, in Stony Stratford, the London coach changed horses at The Bull and the Birmingham coach across the road at The Cock Inn. The passengers from the respective coaches would swap news whilst waiting for the change and it is from this that the phrase 'cock and bull story' is said to have originated.
Plenty of cock and bull stories and local legends have found their way onto pub signs. Take, for example, The Drunken Duck at Barngates. The landlady one day found all of her ducks dead in the yard. Unaccustomed to waste, she plucked them ready for cooking. As she finished, the ducks began to revive and a search of the yard revealed a leaking beer barrel surrounded by webbed footprints. She was apparently so contrite that she knitted them all little jackets until their feathers grew back.
Alternatively, there was The Flying Monk of Malmesbury who claimed his faith was so strong it would enable him to fly. He jumped from the top of the local abbey to demonstrate this and....well, the pub was a nice memorial!
It is rare to take time to consider the sign outside the pub in the rush to get inside but few pubs were named by accident. Almost every name has a story behind it and, together, they illustrate the social history of England. With names enduring for centuries it is possible that the sign above the door is as old as the pleasure of drinking itself.
If you're interested in finding out more about Britain's pub names, a fascinating new e-book is now available to order online
A Book About Pub Names by Elaine Saunders
charts the history of Britain as told through its pub signs. Lavishly illustrated, meticulously researched and with hundreds of links to related websites, A Book About Pub Names traces the origins of over 200 of Britain's most familiar pub names. Also included are sections on drinking expressions, pub measures and old pub-related occupations. For a free extract and details of how to order follow this link to e-books.
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