Most people don't like Christmas cake, but many enjoy a nice Christmas pudding. I prefer sticky toffee pudding myself, but I doubt that is as traditional.
The molded, steamed pudding that we are familiar with, with a sprinkling of icing sugar and a sprig of holly on top is, like so many Christmas traditions, a Victorian invention. Christmas was not such a big deal in Jane Austen's time. But there were still some traditions, like Christmas porridge.
Autumn was slaughtering time, and there were not so many ways to preserve meat then as there are now. Obviously there were no freezers, and although it gets cold in England, it is not cold enough to keep meat from going off. So what did they do? They couldn't let all that meat go to waste.
Quite early on, people figured out that fruit would act as a preservative, because of the sugar content, though I doubt they knew that was the reason. Therefore, the common practice was to prepare meat with dried fruit to keep it throughout the winter. There were various ways of doing this. One was to pack the meat and fruit together wrapped in pastry like a giant mince pie. Another, the one that probably led to Christmas pudding, was a stew of meat and fruit with vegetables. There were particular days of Advent on which you had to do things to it, like stir it. It was cooked very slowly.Traditionally, every member of the family would stir the porridge, from east to west The porridge was made in huge batches and poured into smaller earthenware pots and stored in the cellar to be re-heated later as needed. The fat from the meat would rise to the top and form a seal, which helped to keep it from spoiling, kind of like duck confit. It also contained a healthy dose of wine, which would also act as a guard against bacteria. It probably still killed some of the people some of the time, but you know, they did what they could.
It was originally more of a savoury dish, and was always eaten in celebration, but used to be made and served at harvest time. That's why I am writing about Christmas pudding in September, because it is more traditional. By Jane Austen's time, however, it would have been associated with Christmas. As they got better at preserving meat, the purpose of the porridge got lost and the meat was no longer part of it. Sugar and flour and eggs started to go into it, and by about 1830, it appeared as we know it today.
You might think meat and fruit cooked together sounds nasty, but what about mince pies? They used to be made with minced beef. My grandmother says her mother always made them with beef, and that there was nothing so delicious.
Maybe I will find a recipe for the old Christmas porridge and serve it at my book launch. That's going to be at harvest time. What do you think?
(Follies Past: A Prequel to Pride and Prejudice, is a novel by Melanie Kerr. Expected publication date is October 31, 2013. Until then, I will be posting things I learned in the course of my research and of my life so far as a geek. Sharing always welcome and encouraged. Follow me on twitter @FolliesPast and on facebook..)