The Pudding of Christmas Past
From a thick meaty stew for tough medieval winters to the beginnings of the sweet stodgy treat we know today, the Christmas pudding your family knows and loves has had a more interesting past than you might expect...
The humble Christmas pudding has roots that stretch much further back into British history than you might think. No exact date is known, but around the 1420s two types of food emerged which were the ancestors of the modern dish.
The first was the mince pie. These were not the small sweet, sticky treats we eat today, but were large pies filled with meat, spices or herbs, dried fruit and alcohol. This helped to preserve meat in the winter, as livestock would not survive the harsh cold. The other was Plum Pottage, a slow-cooked stew or soup like substance filled with meat, vegetables and dried fruits, which was eaten before the main meal.
But the Christmas pudding as we would recognise it today did not come around until much later. In 1830, Eliza Acton published the first recipe for ‘Christmas pudding’ - and this became the standard for this popular festive dessert.
‘Stir Up Sunday’ also came out of The Victorian Era. This tradition saw families come together to make the pudding five Sundays before Christmas, with every child giving the mixture a stir and making a wish, before leaving it to mature in the run up to Christmas day.
Although this ritual is dying out in the time-pressured modern world, retailers often still leave puddings to develop their flavour for months before they go on sale. Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference fruit-topped Christmas pudding, for example, is matured for six months.
A Modern Marvel
As working lives started to eat into family time, the store-bought pudding started to make its way onto the festive spread. These days, it’s a Christmas table staple - but mixing your own might be making a comeback...
The making of the Christmas pudding remained a family affair into the early decades of the 20th century. In the 1920s, Sainsbury’s began selling its own brand of ingredients and offering recipes and leaflets, showing families how to put it all together and making the whole process easier and more convenient. Sainsbury’s first offered dried fruits in its shops around this time, with one 1929 advert boldly claiming that “Sainsbury’s fruits will make your pudding”.
As people’s lives became busier and techniques for storing food improved, ready-made puddings began to make their way into the festive family shop. In 1938, Sainsbury’s offered its first own brand pudding, which sold for one shilling, one and a half pence (there were 20 shillings in a pound). A price list from this time shows the stores sold "the choicest Vostizza currents" for 8d (pence) per pound and the "finest quality sultanas" for 6d.
Nowadays, it’s common for people to buy their puddings from a shop. With busy modern lives and families living further apart, only reconvening near to Christmas day, it’s no longer practical for the whole family to make the dessert together.
That said, there has been a push in recent years to get people making their own puddings once more. Celebrity chefs like Jamie Oliver and Raymond Blanc have lent their voices to the cause to bring the homemade pudding back, along with traditions like ‘Stir Up Sunday’, which help get young children involved in cooking.
The pudding has come a long way from the messy pottages and boozy pies of medieval times. Shop bought varieties are often as good as those made at home. The proof is in the pudding - in 2012, 1.8 million Christmas puddings were sold in Sainsbury’s stores, a large portion of which were from our range of Taste the Difference Christmas puddings - and countless ingredients made it into baskets up and down the country.