In our family, Christmas dinner has always been a shared effort where each family group brings a contribution to the traditional lunch. For most of the last two decades, I’ve been making Christmas puddings. It’s something my late husband was very enthusiastic about, and since his untimely passing ten years ago I’ve somehow felt even further obliged to stick to his favourite recipes as a kind of memorial. After boiling up the first of my pair of puddings this week on the stovetop for hours - a less-than-ideal pastime in the ridiculous summer heatwave that is the current state of affairs - it started me thinking about the origins of the Christmas pudding.
The creation of a Christmas pudding is a time consuming one and can be relatively costly, so it is easy to see why it is a dish of celebration. The process is not especially complicated, but given the time invested, it is a labour of love. Essentially it is a batter mixed with large quantities of assorted dried fruits soaked in liberal quantities of alcohol, along with spices (cinnamon, mixed spice, nutmeg), breadcrumbs and sugar. The batter is traditionally suet-based, but my personal recipe doesn't include suet, as my recipes deviate from tradition somewhat and are a little lighter in flavour and texture. The resulting mix is wrapped in floured calico, a basin with a tightly tied-on foil or paper cap or in my case, a purpose made pudding steamer (metal, with a lid) and boiled/steamed for about 6 hours, requiring supervision to ensure it never boils dry. The patient ritual is actually something I look forward too, and as it is done some weeks before the Christmas Day meal, it's certainly one of the full-day events that cements the arrival of the Christmas season for me.
Naturally, we've imported the idea from the British, along with the many other wintery meal traditions, simultaneously much loved and hilariously unsuitable to our summer Christmas.
Although there are claims for several origins of the pudding dating as far back as the 1400s, largely as meat and fruit based concoctions, most of the recipes that show the pudding more as as we know it date from the 17th century. Whilst it was always a dish of celebration, it was more often associated with Harvest Festival, although a widespread (but unsubstantiated) belief attributes King George I with requesting plum pudding to be served as his first Christmas in England in 1714 and the practice spreading widely from there. It wasn’t really until the 1830s when imagery of the pudding became strongly became associated with Christmas - the typical pudding “cannonball” with a sprig of holly on top.
The pudding in Australia came with the British colonists. Military and civil establishments were even issued with raisins and beef suet as Christmas approached to make puddings as an addition to their normal rations.
By 1900, the Australian Christmas pudding was developing more of its own character. An Australian newspaper in 1895 encouraged the use of “a good bottle of hock” (our modern day equivalent of resiling) to douse the pudding in lieu of the traditional higher-alcohol spirits such as brandy. Those spirits had been necessary if you wanted to ignite and “flame” the pudding, but I imagine setting fire to things was not such an inspired an idea (or a particularly attractive one) in the heat of the Aussie summer. Lighter spirits were slightly more of a concession to our climate with their less intense flavours and by the 1950s Australian port and sherry was the liquor of choice for soaking your pudding fruits, and as a result Aussie puddings had more of their own unique taste.
The Murrumbidgee Irrigation Scheme allowed New South Wales farmers in the Riverina to bring water to the desert and produce greater quantities of the essential pudding ingredients right here - citrus fruit which was preserved as candied peel, and grapes for drying as raisins and for wine. The strength of the dried fruit industry in Australia meant that Australia was able to play a part in supporting the Christmas pudding tradition back in the UK following the second world war. With Britain still under rationing, Australians were able to send packages of dried fruit, spices and suet to the UK either privately to their own British relatives or through charitable organisations.
Nowadays, desserts from other countries and new traditions have caused further evolution to the Australian Christmas dessert menu. Italian panettone, trifle, tiramisu, fruit salads and pavlovas laden with cream fresh summer fruit have all found a logical place.
However, despite it’s odd spot there, I still have a soft spot for the Christmas pudding and will be making it for years to come. However, I should sensibly trot it out for the winter “Christmas-in-July” celebrations where it might just taste even better.