A Plea for Pudding

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Reading The Guardian often makes me angry. In this case, I was watching it. It didn’t help.

The video in question was entitled ‘What is British Food?’; it is a harmless enough enquiry, but one that crops up with alarming regularity. My objection was to the content. Critic Jay Rayner, having begun with the astonishingly senseless query ‘Do we have such a thing as British food?’, proceeds to ask three culinary bloggers to devise a ‘quintessentially British’ three course menu. The result is a national disgrace.

For his starter, EuWen Teh can offer no more than a prawn cocktail. As a main course, the bloggers consider Shepherd’s Pie the height of our island cuisine. Finally, and foulest of all, Helen Graves proposes ‘maybe just a bowl of ice cream’ as her pudding.

At this point, I was struggling to hold back the tears. A bowl of ice cream? Just a bowl of ice cream? A bowl of ice cream in England, the home of the pudding, of the world’s finest sweet treat? Books have been written on our puddings alone. For centuries they were renowned at home and abroad. Even the French could not hide their admiration; in La Cuisine chez Soi, a recipe book from the 1920s, I have found no fewer than three methods for ‘le plum-pudding’, naturally served with lashings of crème anglaise.

But what has become of these puddings today? The Guardian and their like brands them as ‘fattening’, while cheesecake, crème brulée and tiramisu are merely ‘indulgent moments’, or some such nonsense; they are labelled ‘school-dinner stuff’, because only our schools are sufficiently untouched by pretension to serve up our quondam favourites; they are left untasted, because bread and butter pudding’s got bread in it, so it’s, like, yucky, isn’t it? I cannot help but agree with Sir Harold Nicolson’s lament, that ‘One of the most distressing manifestations of the changing world in which I live, is that the fashion for pudding has almost wholly faded.’ Sir Harold was born in 1881; what would he say today?

But it’s alright, I’m told – there’s still Sticky Toffee Pudding. Yes, indeed there is. And make no mistake, I love – nay, adore – the calorific concoction. But the lauded STP has become a cliché. I struggle to remember the last time I did not see it on a pub menu; indeed, it has become as ubiquitous as other, traditional puddings are absent. Sticky Toffee is superb, but no more so than Syrup Roll, Caramel Dumplings or Toffee Apple Pudding, which languish on the dusty pages of recipe books as historical curiosities.

I occasionally mention, generally to the bemusement of others, that I enjoy cooking historical food, but I wish that no such boast were necessary. These dishes should not be forgotten, they should be as present on our tables as roast beef, fish and chips and toad-in-the-hole. Who could resist the amber crust of a baked rice pudding, or the steamy allure of currant dumplings, fresh out the fryer? Does anyone really prefer a French strawberry tart to our native treacle equivalent, or a Spanish flan to an English custard? Is anything closer to ambrosia than stewed gooseberries, or better for the soul than rhubarb crumble?

Over Treacle Roll, writes Norwak, queen of puddings, ‘otherwise sane men have been known to turn lyrical’ – myself included. I would happily devour a Cabinet Pudding, although I doubt Mr Cameron’s Ministers have enough style to tuck in between sessions. The Sussex shepherd who wrote down his recipe for Rotherfield Sweet-Tooth did the world a favour, while I would have a newfound respect for primary school children if they sang ‘we all want some Figgy Pudding’ with a ravenous honesty.

I cannot hope to describe all our glorious puddings in one article. I merely urge you to seek out a Hasty Pudding, a Herodotus Pudding, an Uncle Toby Pudding; to track down a Suffolk Raisin Roly-poly, a Tewkesbury Saucer Batter, a Sussex Bailiff’s Bliss; to devour an Everlasting Syllabub, a Figgy Obbin, a Gooseberry Flummery. Ignore Summer Pudding, as that alone is awful, but choose Crumble, Pie or Pancake; Dumpling, Dough or Duke of Cambridge tart.

Or, of course, you could have just a bowl of ice cream.