Food & Drink Special: Pudding them to the test

THE ULTIMATE CHRISTMAS PUDDING TO MAKE, OR, IF YOU CAN'T BE BOTHERED, OUR PANEL PICKS THE BEST TO BUY

It's always assumed, isn't it, that children love Christmas pudding? But your own experience must tell you otherwise. They absolutely hate it.

This fact is well-known to the country's leading Christmas-pudding manufacturer, Matthew Walker of Derby. This year, for the first time, and with children in mind, it is producing "un-Christmas puddings". Could there be anything more un-Christmassy than a banana toffee Christmas pudding? I think not. This is a pudding they are making for ASDA. And others surely cannot be far behind.

So wherever did we get the idea children love plum pudding? Well, they did, but it was a long, long time ago. In Victorian times every Sunday dinner, no less, concluded with the plum pudding course.

Even before Mrs Beeton's day, you'll find evidence in The Modern Housewife, a book written in 1853 by her predecessor, Alexis Soyer, the famous French chef of the Reform Club. One engraving in it shows a family of numerous children clamouring as the cook brings in a cannonball pudding. The caption reads: "The children have cunningly reserved their infantine appetites for the grand national dish, the Blazing Plum Pudding." Cunningly reserved their appetites?

Soyer further elaborates: "The plum pudding, to which, for the occasion, a few spoonfuls of brandy have been poured on the dish, is set on fire the moment of placing it before the mother, who hurries to serve them, in the hope of putting a stop to the unmusical domestic harmony of the little ones, who do not fear to burn their mouths as long as they satisfy their appetites."

The reference to unmusical domestic harmony has the smack of personal experience. But how very elephantine their infantine appetites seem to us now.

It's all we can do to get the adults to eat it these days, and then only once a year. But there it is, we do eat it, and we hope thereby to express unity with our fellow countryfolk. Personally, I think it's a wonderful tradition, and I feel if we're going to do it at all, we might as well do it well. And we can, for at it's best it's surely one of the treasures of the British table.

Every year my grandmother used to get down her worn-out Mrs Beeton around the end of September, allowing a good three months for the pudding to mature before Christmas. We were all roped into taking back-breaking turns to stir the wet mixture. "For luck," we were told. The largest pudding was reserved for Christmas dinner, smaller ones she gave away and one or two she "laid down" for next year.

They were rather sticky, dark and heavy puddings, but a certain quantity of alcohol ensured palatability and added to their keeping quality. We did occasionally try "bought" puddings but unanimously rejected them as disgusting. They consisted of cheap suet, cheap dried fruit, stale nets, artificial flavours, all of which combined to produce an unacceptable and fatty, over-sugared stodge.

Much has changed since those days. For a start 30 per cent of people claim not to eat Christmas pudding at all on the day. Nineteeen per cent eat a home-made pudding. And 51 per cent of the puddings have been bought.

Bearing in mind the disappointment of buying a poor example (a damper on the Christmas proceedings if ever there was one), I organised a tasting of 50 puddings a year or two back, and a few were truly awful. The best was Anton Mosimann's, but so it should have been, as it weighed in at twice the price of the others.

Happily, a dozen others were very good. It seems that the supermarkets had their eyes on the profit margins of top department stores who trade in the "quality" market. So, alongside a standard range, they also offered a "luxury" pudding. In fact, my favourites on the day were Tesco Luxury, Waitrose Luxury and Sainsbury's Luxury puddings in that order.

All of them, I later discovered, had been made by the same company Matthew Walker, which also had two other puddings in my Top Ten, and under its own name. It turned out that it makes half the Christmas puddings sold every year and, for the most part, the best ones.

It introduced a yet higher grade last year, a Supreme Luxury pudding, and picked up 10 out of l0 in a women's magazine tasting. This year, as a result, all the supermarkets are doing an extra-premium range with names like "Super Luxury" and "Connoisseur".

It was time to make my way to Derby to see how it works these miracles. It's a very, very old local concern, going back to 1880. But the managing director, Graham Keating, is only 32 and a young management team was put in place by Northern Foods which bought the company a few years ago, investing hugely to modernise it and doubling sales in the process.

Graham Keating is proud, though, to have made a link with the founder. "An 80-year-old lady came in and said she remembered meeting both Matthew Walker and his son John (John sold out in the 1960s). Matthew had started in business offering a local shop jams, cakes and puddings made to his grandmother's recipes. The Christmas pudding was the big hit."

"The recipe for our traditional pudding hasn't changed materially," claims technical manager Gary Upton. "The main change is that we use vegetable suet instead of beef suet." This has not been prompted by gastronomic reasons, by health concerns about saturated animal fat, nor even by vegetarians, but by the demands of the tiny export markets - Americans and Germans who don't want any part of British beef in their foods.

The way puddings are made has changed, though. What was highly labour- intensive, the hand-filling of basins, is handled by sensitive piping fillers. "It's essential to make sure the mixture doesn't compact," says Mr Upton. "We need to keep the mixture light and aerated."

Modern steamer retorts, put in at a cost of pounds 11/2million, handle in a day what used to take the old steamers three days. Christine Slater, who has worked here for 17 years, said it wasn't a very comfortable atmosphere then. "With the clouds of steam escaping it was like Dante's Inferno."

Were there some tips they could share with the home cook? "It's very simple, really," says Gary Upton, leading me round to a new store built to hold 10,000-litre stainless steel drums of cider, brandy, sherry and rum. The company uses 700,000 litres of alcohol a year, the real stuff, not flavourings.

Another warehouse was given over to packages of dried fruit, primarily Turkish sultanas, Greek currants, Californian raisins, Italian candied peel and, for the top end of the market, whole glace cherries, They use 21/2 million kilos of dried fruit a year. Not to mention more than a million kilos of sugar, and more than half a million kilos of breadcrumbs and rusks - flour is only a very small part for any of the company's pudding recipes.

In a pudding, you get what you pay for, basically. Standard is a nice blend of dried fruit, nuts, breadcrumbs and rusk, sugar and cider. Luxury grade has more dried fruit, demerara sugar, more alcohol, including brandy, rum and so on. And super-luxury grade usually has added eggs, cream and more quality fruits, probably whole glace cherries, whole walnuts, and much more alcohol, up to 18 per cent.

The process is simple enough. Mix the dry ingredients gently for about a minute and a half. Add wet ingredients (including the cider or, say, stout) and mix for 10 minutes more. Put into basins. Steam for four hours. Leave to cool slowly. This can take up to four days. Depending on the grade, inject with brandy and liqueurs (Calvados in their new Matthew Walker Super Luxury grade). After 24 hours it's lidded, wrapped and stored.

"You need three months ageing to get the best out of a pudding," says Gary Upton. "But they can go on improving for a year. One lady told us recently that one of our puddings was the best she'd ever had. When she showed us the label we found that it was nine-years-old."

How can we tell the age? Mr Upton looked at Mr Keating. Mr K looked at Mr U. "We can't tell you that." My guess is that the key is the four-figure number stuck on the pudding independently of the label. The first figure, probably a six, refers to the year it's been made, 1996. The next three figures the day of the year ie any number from one to 365 (it makes puddings all the year round). A one-year-old pudding would be 5,360, for example. A three-month-old pudding would be 6,265 or thereabouts,

At home on Christmas Day you can cook a 1lb pudding in the microwave in three minutes (or it takes about one hour in a steamer). A 3lb pudding in a microwave is a bit of problem though (two hours in a steamer). But the new generation of mini-puddings, weighing l00g each, which they are developing, are a doddle, ready in 45 seconds. The cutest of the new ones is its Murphy, made with Murphy's stout. It's a thick, dark pudding and it cooks out as black as, well, a pint of Guinness.

There's still time to make your own pudding if you're in the mood. It won't fully mature, but should have the nice balance they look for at MW, no one ingredient overpowering any other, giving you a rich, sweet, moist, spicy, alcoholic, citrussy finish. This is a family recipe which the MW research kitchens have tested for me, adding their own modifications.

CHRISTMAS PUDDING

To make 2 x 4lb puddings

350g/12oz grated fresh breadcrumbs

625g/1lb 6oz raisins

625g/1lb 6oz sultanas

540g/1lb 4oz demerara sugar

170g/6oz chopped almonds

150g/5oz mixed candied peel

255g/9oz grated butter (hard from fridge)

8g/14oz mixed spice

20g/34oz fresh lemon peel, grated

170g/6oz glace cherry halves

20g/34oz grated fresh orange peel

4 large eggs

4 tablespoons lemon juice

250ml/8fl oz cognac

150ml/5fl oz sherry

Mix the dry ingredients together, and stir well. Add liquid ingredients, and stir (with the family joining in to make wishes). Fill two buttered pudding basins, tie foil across top (leaving pudding enough room to expand) and boil-steam, in a covered pan with water coming halfway up the sides of the basin, for six hours. Change wrapping and store in an airy place. Boil for one to three hours on day of eating.

THERE ought to be no messing with Christmas pudding was the general consensus when we recruited a large panel of testers. As a once-a-year treat, panellists were looking for the flavours and textures remembered from the home-made puddings of their childhoods. "Christmas is special," insisted our expert witness, Michelin-starred chef Phillip Britten of The Capital in London. "It's probably the only time we eat goose, for example, and we want to eat it in a traditional way. You don't turn the goose into a risotto, and you don't serve a pudding which is some pale, modern imitation of the real thing. Christmas pudding ought to be rich, flavoursome and filling - but not too stodgy. You can buy puddings which hold their shape after cutting ten slices, but that means that they're too floury. A pudding should collapse on cutting. It adds festivity."

THE PANEL

The rest of our panel of tasters ranged from chefs Shawn Butcher and Andrew Thompson of Odins restaurant; the guests at a dinner party organised by Holly Irvine, including Sam Protheroe, vegetarians Emma and Wyndham Sergeant and Rob Whiting, and pudding lovers Clare Bawden and six of her friends.

THE TEST

All puddings were steamed, rather than microwaved. Holly Irvine and Clare Bawden conducted their own blind tastings "for fun". Other tastings were separate, but marketing-conscious. As one manufacturer pointed out, consumers buy food products for a complex set of reasons, including dietary issues as well as packaging, rather than for flavour alone. The panel agreed - sometimes expressing bitter disappointment with expensive puddings which had raised their expectations of something special.

***WAITROSE, SELECT CHRISTMAS PUDDING

454g size pounds 4.99

The principal selling points of this supermarket pudding - sold in a thoughtfully illustrated box - are its inclusion of "Grand Marnier, cream and pecans", added ingredients which were neither understood or liked by the panel. "I don't understand the point of the cream," said Phillip Britten, who tutted over the pecans "which are American, after all." In the event, nobody reported finding a pecan - only almonds. The Grand Marnier turned out to be an extract. Panellists found the pudding "citrussy" and "very fruity", if insufficiently spiced. Showing that the proof of the pudding is often subjective, the two blind tastings disagreed about the Waitrose product. "It's all right, but not like a Christmas pudding," said Holly Irvine's guests, "and it's typical of mass produced puddings - it doesn't look real on the plate," while Clare Bawden's friends chose it as their overall favourite.

***ASDA LUXURY CHRISTMAS PUDDING

many sizes available, 454g size pounds 3.29

Interestingly, this inexpensive pudding from ASDA, which claims to feature Grand Marnier but actually contains Grand Marnier extract too, was well received by many, if not all panellists. Shawn Butcher said he could have "eaten the whole pudding alone, no custard required", though he did go on to damn it with faint praise. "It's perfect for the average family making a token Christmassy gesture of having a sit-down meal while the TV blares in the background." Phillip Britten decided the pudding was "a bit bready, with little spice, and you certainly can't taste the alcohol", while Robert Whiting spoke for his fellow dinner guests when he described it as "bland".

*THE VILLAGE BAKERY

three sizes available, 450g size pounds 5.50

This pudding comes in a red plastic bowl, but its content is an impressive list of all-natural vegetarian ingredients which make you feel good about yourself before you have even cooked it. Its pedigree is impeccable, too: the Village Bakery is an award-winning business in Cumbria which supplies organic bread and cakes "made by hand, baked in wood-fired brick ovens", as its logo states, nationwide by mail order and to the likes of Waitrose, even holding bread-making courses to allow enthusiasts to copy its methods at home. Unfortunately, once turned out on the plate, this oddly pale looking pudding was universally loathed by all tasters, including the health freaks and vegetarians. "It's aesthetically displeasing," complained Emma Sargeant, while other tasters likened its texture and flavour to bread pudding, spotted dick, and even hot fruit cake, but not, alas, Christmas pudding.

***MARKS & SPENCER CONNOISSEUR CHRISTMAS PUDDING

many sizes available, 907g size pounds 6.99

Panellists commented on the "lovely gold box", even if the speckled plastic bowl was "ugly - and possibly tainting the flavour" according to Phillip Britten. "It has the most pleasing ingredient list, though," he added, pointing out that it contains prunes and was the only pudding in our range to make an attempt at being a "true plum pudding". Clare Bawden's panel liked it - especially its alcoholic flavour. Other panellists claimed to have completed a learning curve during the testing in this respect: "They never really taste of alcohol unless you pour it on yourself, so there's no point in paying extra for it to be listed on the box," said Holly Irvine.

**FIRST EDITION SARAH MEADE CHRISTMAS PUDDING

450g size only, pounds 9.95

Spooned with care into handsome ceramic bowls these hand-made, vegetarian puddings are created "in the old fashioned way" to a family recipe used by the owner of Sarah Meade since she was 12. We had great hopes for it; panellists "oohed" and "aahed" over the packaging. "It looks terrific in the dish, if the flavour were better you could keep eating it, but it tastes woody." Other panellists were more emphatic in their disappointment. "Seriously foul," opined the staff at Odins, and suggested it would be "lovely as a gift - perhaps for your mother-in-law".

*****NATIONAL TRUST CHRISTMAS PUDDING

two sizes available, 900g size pounds 6.50

"Fantastic, perfect," was the way chef Phillip Britten acclaimed this dark, glossy pudding ordered by mail from the National Trust catalogue. "It has a tangy flavour and is quite sticky, which is good," he explained. On the other side of town, his culinary counterpart at Odins declared the pudding to be "more mature than most, more like a home-made pud, dark, moist and with lots of nuts - hallelujah!" Unprompted, the home tasters had no problem agreeing that this Christmas pudding is a real find. They were also impressed by its red and green presentation box and by its relatively low price for the weight, making this our overall winner.

****THE CARVED ANGEL CHRISTMAS PUDDING

21b size only, pounds 10

A big, traditional pudding in a ceramic bowl printed with The Carved Angel's logo and covered with calico, this product is sold through specialist food shops. Its recipe is by Eliza Acton, but although Victorian in origin, is not horribly dark or caramelised. The producer claims to have stuck to the recipe except for the addition of ginger "as we are particularly fond of ginger." Predictably, then, panellists who don't like ginger didn't like it. Shawn Butcher was appalled by its "shocking, pale ale colour" and found it "overpoweringly gingerish" and "most peculiar". Phillip Britten described it as "nice and moist and zingy. Beautiful, in fact, but not really like a Christmas pudding. Perhaps you could serve it on 3 February and everybody would simply think it was a wonderful dessert."

STOCKISTS

ASDA, Waitrose, M&S supermarkets everywhere; The Village Bakery mail order, tel: 01768 881515; Sarah Meade puddings from John Lewis or mail order, tel: 01256 397163; Carved Angel puddings from specialist food shops, or tel 01803 832465, National Trust, tel: 0117 988 4747

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