Growing up and getting married teaches you a few things.
One thing it teaches you is that your family is not as normal as you thought it was and Christmas can highlight the strangeness of family traditions.
An important Christmas ritual in Mrs Albion’s house is the opening of presents, one-by-one. Her grandfather usually plays Santa, reading the cards, and handing the presents to the recipients.
The first Christmas you spend with “the other side of the family” can be a bit daunting. You welcome crowded occasions, like present opening, for the opportunity to melt into the background, to hide in the madness a little. Except when the presents are opened one-by-one, and you find yourself self-consciously picking at the wrapping while seven pairs of eyes analyse your tearing technique, trying to second guess what the present is, and whether you like it. It was unsettling, to say the least.
The one-by-one tradition has carried over to the Albion Christmas. It was a comfort this year, as there were only three of us on Christmas morning — Mrs Albion, Doctor Ben and I — and very few presents because Mum’s boxes hadn’t arrived from Australia yet. (Actually, I suspect they did, but the post office hasn’t carded us.) Opening the presents one-by-one helped to prolong the pleasure, to spin out the excitement, to make it feel like every present was everybody’s, and to fill the gap left my missing people.
My family always cooks its own Christmas dinner, and because Mum isn’t the most confident cook — she’s a good cook, just not a confident one — it can be a stressful time, and the kitchen a place to avoid. The great centrepiece of the Christmas cooking activity is not the ham, or the turkey, but the Christmas Pudding.
The pudding is made days or a week before Christmas, to an old French recipe, handed down over the generations, as these things are, in hand written cookbooks, with annotations added over the years. I remember Mum’s was written on an old piece of cardboard and long after I transcribed it onto decent paper, the cardboard version was always used because it was the only one we could ever find. We discovered its French origins when I translated it to metric and discovered that the complicated imperial measures turned into round numbers in the metric — 1.5kg of this, 500g of that, 250g of the other — indicating origins more Colbert than McDermott, or Chipplin.
The Christmas Pudding recipe was such a part of Christmas that when my parents divorced, Dad wasn’t allowed to take a copy with him. (Mum finally relented a few years ago — after they had both been married to other people for around 10 years and it seemed pointless to deny the man one of his greatest pleasures. He went on to add to the body of knowledge by experimenting with different cooking methods — so he’s actually made it more his own than anyone else’s now, I think. Now back to the story.)
Being an old family recipe, there are a set of rules and superstitions about the pudding:
· Frigate Overproof rum gives the best flavour.
· The fruit must soak in rum for 24 hours and be stirred regularly — it is always placed in a high traffic area and everyone who passes it must stir every time they pass.
· A slug of whisky helps it along too. Dad was always in trouble for adding whisky to the mix. I think he just added it because he was a whisky obsessed dypsomaniac at the time, but after he left I would always slug a measure of whisky over the fruit myself — because magical things happen to whisky when it’s heated. Whisky caramelises into a beautiful smooth flavour and takes the edge off the rum — whisky makes a better pud.
· When the pudding is finally mixed, every person in the house must stir it — for luck. This means that over the years our puddings have been stirred by friends, plumbers and electricians, travelling salesmen, kids from the neighbourhood and people who have popped in to deliver things.
· Any coloured bits should be picked out of the mixed fruit
Of course growing up, getting married and moving overseas can threaten these traditions.
Actually, that’s not right — the removal of the coloured bits fell by the wayside a generation ago, when Mum got married. The recipe clearly says to remove all the coloured bits from the mixed fruit, but Mum could never be bothered, and decided it was better with the bits of peel and glace cherries. So now the handwritten recipes all mention that the coloured bits should be removed, and popular tradition ignores it.
As for the recent breaks with tradition:
Frigate OP rum was the first to go. The English only know about Jamaican rum, which seems to come in two textures — white and dark. One has too little molasses and the other too much. I can buy Bundaberg Rum in the UK. It’s a pretty rough old rum, more orange and sweeter than Frigate, and not overproof. But it does the job well enough.
Second was the whisky slug — because we haven’t had any whisky bottles lying around since we disposed of the stash from my 21st birthday in order to move to the UK. We’ve never replaced the whisky because I don’t drink, Mrs Albion doesn’t really drink spirits, and most of the known universe agrees that whisky tastes like mud. So no whisky.
The stirring rituals are not extinct, but are under threat — Mrs Albion usually responds with an, “Oh for God’s sake,” and a cursory stir before leaving the cooking to me. The clear message is that she does not understand this tradition — and the pudding suffers as a result. The rum does not soak into the fruit as well, and the goodwill from the stirring for luck doesn’t quite get injected as deeply as it should.
But this Christmas my brothers were visiting. Both were in the house while the fruit was soaking. We went about our business, moving furniture, cleaning up, hanging out and doing our thing. And they stirred. One brother made a point of telling me that he’d stirred the pud — as if he needed to share the tradition before disappearing into the non-Christmas of a friend’s wedding in Pakistan. And I noticed Doctor Ben pause to run the spoon through the mix whenever he traversed the kitchen. Twenty four hours later there was a bowl of plump, rich fruit (with extra glace cherries), ready for the butter, flour, eggs, sugar and salt; and not a drop of unabsorbed rum in the bowl. The tradition had served its purpose.
I crumbled the butter through the flour using my hands — it’s the only way, really — because wooden spoons tend to break. I added the brown sugar and some salt to produce a gritty sludge and Doctor Ben cracked the eggs in one-by-one to produce a sweet, dark brown mud. Finally I added the fruit to produce a mixture with the consistency of wet concrete.
I had boiled the cloth — a metre of leftover lining from the lounge room curtains — floured it, put a bowl underneath to give it shape and poured the mix in.
I was about to wrap the string around the top when I realised that nobody had stirred it for luck. I had already licked the spoon I used to get the last of the mix out of the bowl. I mentioned it to Doctor Ben, expecting to feel the tiny pain of broken tradition as he said, “Oh well,” and returned to reading his paper.
But he didn’t.
He put his paper down and walked across the kitchen as I hastily washed the spoon. He reached into the pudding cloth and stirred the pudding right there, in the cloth, about to be tied into a bundle. Then he helped me tie the cloth and I invoked the final ritual. Holding the cloth by the ends — like the head of John The Baptist, held by his hair — I raised both hands above my head, the ball of pudding hanging in front of my face. I took my left hand off the pud, my right holding it high, and I slapped it. It’s not a tradition, but it sounds great. Doctor Ben slapped it too. And I lowered it into the boiling water for its five hours of turmoil.
Late on Christmas Eve we rang Australia, to catch them on Christmas morning. Mum’s first Question:
“Did you make your pud? How did it turn out?”
“It’s upstairs now, cooling on the sideboard — it looks good.”
Early Christmas morning we called Australia to catch them at the end of their Christmas Day. Mum’s first statement:
“My pud turned out really well — I think it was the best I’ve made.”
We might have been a world apart, but for those moments, Mother and two of her sons were united by a recipe — and some tradition, and a couple of stirs for luck.
I could tell you that the pud is made from 1.5kg of fruit, half a cup of rum, 250g of butter, 500g of SR flour, 500g of brown sugar, a pinch of salt and six eggs. I could tell you about boiling and flouring the cloth, muscovado verses brown sugar and cloth verses pudding basin. But over the years I have learned that none of these things matter.
I have seen the pud made with 500g of butter instead of 250g, with 1kg of flour instead of 500g, with peel in, peel out, exotic fruit that included pineapple, extra cherries, no cherries, gas and electric, stainless pots and aluminium, with an enamel plate in the bottom of the pot, with a china plate, or no plate at all. Let’s face it, however you combine the ingredients, if you boil them for five hours you’re bound to get a result of some sort — and you’re going to smother it with custard anyway.
There are only three essential ingredients: love, tradition, and a couple of stirs for luck.
First published on the Our Albion blog on December 28th, 2006. I have included the comments here because some of them are wonderful. Normally I publish these posts on the 13th anniversary of the original but I have moved this one a few days early so that you’ll be reading it on the day I make this year’s Christmas pud. Merry Christmas all.
Comment from Cheerful One
Time: December 28, 2006, 9:31 pm
“He put his paper down and walked across the kitchen as I hastily washed the spoon. He reached into the pudding cloth and stirred the pudding right there, in the cloth, about to be tied into a bundle. Then he helped me tie the cloth and I invoked the final ritual.”
Oh dear, I seem to have something in my eye…
P.S. Comments with bloody maths? I had to use my fingers!!
Comment from Damian
Time: December 29, 2006, 9:19 am
Sorry to make you do maths outside school. Our Albion is now popular enough to attract spammers and as we all know, spammers can’t do maths because they don’t have fingers — just slimy, flappy paddle things that they wave around while screeching their messages to the world.
Comment from Ellie
Time: December 29, 2006, 10:27 am
that was such a lovely story i thought Christmas traditions were dying out like smiling at strangers. i have been redaing your blog for a while now and i must say its very good
Comment from Julia
Time: December 29, 2006, 12:15 pm
You know, I’ve been thinking a lot about christmas pudding lately…
Because, whenever anyone draws a picture of one they do a spherical brown thing with white stuff on top. But in real life CPs are alway semi-spherical and the white stuff goes at the side.
Has there ever been a christmas pudding that looks like a picture of a christmas pudding?
Perhaps I’ll never know.
Comment from Damian
Time: December 29, 2006, 11:27 pm
Ellie — hello and welcome to Our Albion. Thanks for the compliments. If you’re Ellie from The Smoke then I loved your blog too — I wish you were still writing it. And if you’re another Ellie, get writing so I can return your compliment!
Buckles, our pud would be spherical if I hung it up in he pudding cloth to cool overnight. But I always turn it out while it’s hot, and it settles into a sort of low mound shape — a bit like Ayres Rock in silhouette. I don’t know about the white stuff — brandy butter has gone a little out of favour at Our Albion, although reports from Australia were that Mum made it this year in the form of hard sauce, which is Brandy Butter piped into little decorative mounds and frozen.
Comment from Sally
Time: December 30, 2006, 12:26 am
That is so funny about the present thing! My family are of the “tear it all off at once and as quickly as possible” cult, whilst Hubby’s family are of the “one at a time” group. Hubby and I try very hard to do the one at a time thing, but after a few presents the kids forget and suddenly they slip into the manic tear it off variety.
Glad the pud was good. Sounds like a nice Christmas!
Comment from Ellie
Time: January 3, 2007, 11:17 am
hi no im not her sorry is she any good? maybe i will have a go?
Comment from Damian
Time: January 3, 2007, 1:59 pm
Ellie of The Smoke was very good — it was actually called sexinthesmoke.com and it was a bit naughty, but beautifully written.
I’d encourage anyone to give blogging a go — but don’t do it for popularity because there are 30,000,000 out there competing for readership. Do it because you like to write.
Comment from Julia
Time: January 3, 2007, 8:39 pm
Buckles! I don’t think I’ve been called that since school.
Thanks for solving the round pud mystery for me.
Comment from Sally
Time: January 4, 2007, 6:36 pm
That’s a lot of blogs.
So how on Earth did I find any of the ones that I read?
And how did anyone find mine?
Hey, I think that that’s another six word short story:
Finding you, finding me, finding blogs!
Comment from The Divine Miss E
Time: January 8, 2007, 1:54 am
OK — I haven’t quite managed to settle into the routine of an old engaged woman, as the things that stick most in my head after reading this (alcohol excluded) are the smacking of a bottom and broken wooden spoons.
That said, my Xmas present to you for next year will be a bottle of Frigate when I come over in August. Remind me closer to the time.
Comment from Dr Ben
Time: January 13, 2007, 11:52 pm
For the record it was a bloody good pud!
Comment from MalkEvange
Time: August 6, 2007, 8:13 pm
Where can I find more on this theme?
Copyright © Damian Clarke, 2019. Original post first published on the Our Albion blog, 28 December 2006.