Strike it rich

Simon Hopkinson hates brandy butter, but he loves Christmas pudding. And no one has ever made it better than that great Victorian cook Eliza Acton
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Around about this time of year, many folk up and down the land are already beginning to contemplate all the various bits and pieces necessary for their particular approach to Christmas lunch. Should it be the traditional turkey this year? Or a goose, perhaps? Maybe even two easier-to-cook ducks? And they may also be considering a little smoked salmon as a first course or maybe a hugely seasonal Tesco's Finest "[NEW!] Thai-style crab cake with [horribly gloopy] sweet chilli dip" or even nothing at all, to start with; the latter, let's face it, being the correct decision, as this leaves room for the all-important second helpings. And then there is the wine to think about. And crackers. And nuts. And those vile Eat Me dates (naturally, those who have already filled their freezer with frozen sprouts need urgent treatment). But, finally, of course, there is the pudding to be either made or purchased.

Around about this time of year, many folk up and down the land are already beginning to contemplate all the various bits and pieces necessary for their particular approach to Christmas lunch. Should it be the traditional turkey this year? Or a goose, perhaps? Maybe even two easier-to-cook ducks? And they may also be considering a little smoked salmon as a first course or maybe a hugely seasonal Tesco's Finest "[NEW!] Thai-style crab cake with [horribly gloopy] sweet chilli dip" or even nothing at all, to start with; the latter, let's face it, being the correct decision, as this leaves room for the all-important second helpings. And then there is the wine to think about. And crackers. And nuts. And those vile Eat Me dates (naturally, those who have already filled their freezer with frozen sprouts need urgent treatment). But, finally, of course, there is the pudding to be either made or purchased.

Now, a Christmas lunch without Christmas pudding is, for me, unthinkable. In fact, I happen to like eating Christmas pudding at any time of the year; it is, after all, nothing more than a very rich, very fruity steamed suet pudding. There is, ultimately, no substitute pudding for the festive lunch. Mind you, I am particularly finicky over how it is dressed. A small smear of brandy butter atop a hot mince pie is, I guess, OK (so long as it has not been made with granulated sugar that will not have dissolved and, not surprisingly, remains offensively granular in texture - will these Philistines never learn?), but the very idea of a slowly melting, congealed lump of it upon a lukewarm serving of Christmas pud is enough to make me feel slightly queasy sooner in the day than is seasonally usual, which is a great shame indeed.

Christmas pudding, you see, needs sauce. It needs to be wetted a bit. An alcoholic "butter cream" (essentially nothing more than a sickly sandwich filling for cakes), as it gradually warms through, quickly transforms itself into one of the most unpleasant of culinary textures: that of greasy, over-sweet slime. Does it lubricate the pudding? Does it fish-hooks! Nevertheless, it remains a British tradition - albeit a rum one - and as those are becoming a little thin on the ground, these days, I guess it should be allowed to continue. Though not at my table, thank you very much. Brandy (or rum, if you like), however, when added to a rich, judiciously sweetened, steaming saucepan full of limpidly lactic, smooth white sauce performs in quite the most seductive manner ... This is simply a matter of opinion, you understand, nothing more.

Enough of that. To return to the question of the all-important pudding itself. Mum always, but always, baked and iced a Christmas cake though rarely ever made a pudding. Whichever was the one she eventually chose to buy (I seem to recall a particularly fine one from the food halls of Kendal Milne & Co, Manchester), however, I don't ever remember a single pudding failing to please this boy. But, then, once one pauses to think about it, a plenteous collection of rich, dried fruit - which, in general, all seems quality stuff whatever its provenance - mixed with suet, eggs, alcohol, flour and sugar, then gently steamed for hours in a bowl, cannot, with the greatest will in the world, be easily cocked up. Well, that is, until that bloody brandy butter accompaniment makes its unwelcome appearance ...

Far and above any of the Christmas puds that the "refayned" Cheshire women in snobby old Kendal Milne food halls could sell to my impressionable mother, all those years ago (well, that's how, as a small boy at the time, it seemed to me) are those made by The Carved Angel restaurant, in Dartmouth, Devon, each and every year. The restaurant's founder and uniquely gifted chef (she might well prefer the title "cook"), Joyce Molyneux (now happily retired, but hugely missed by all) began this tradition many years ago, both serving them seasonally in the restaurant and also offering them for sale to customers to take home, all traditionally packed into cream china pudding basins, wax papered and with a neat hat of double-thickness muslin tied around their rim.

Eventually, of course, word of these remarkably good puddings spread far and wide. So much so that a mail-order service was put into operation. The consequences of which soon found The Angel churning out hundreds and hundreds of puddings, not just to meet the demand of discerning Dartmouth folk, but others far and wide } throughout the land. The equally discerning David Mellor, for example, immediately began to stock them from mid-November onwards in his gorgeous London kitchen shops - and he continues so to do, in the Sloane Square branch (020-7730 4259).

As you might therefore have guessed, the new proprietors of The Carved Angel, being keen to respect the bright-minded legacy of its inspired founder, and simply knowing when they are on to a good thing, are happy to continue posting a pudding to all who want one (see below for details) for their Christmas lunch. However, as I mentioned at the beginning, there are those who choose to make, and there are those who choose to purchase. Read on.

Joyce Molyneux has never made a secret of the origin of the recipe for these delicious puddings of hers, so typically respectful is her desire for integrity and true provenance (unlike some other operators, more widely known, and who shall remain nameless). It was to the cookery writing of the legendary Eliza Acton where Joyce Molyneux went to find her perfect pudding recipe. And, as far as I remember, the particular reason why she liked the result of Acton's recipe above all others was because it had this unusual lightness to it, yet also seemed to offer up the required richness too. Acton, herself, confirms this in her recipe (see opposite), and which I partly put down to the quantity of freshly grated apple in it.

You must understand that the very last thing I would wish to do here is dampen sales of Carved Angel Christmas puddings! But anyone with the minimum of nous, and who chooses to spend quality time enjoying beating and occasionally stirring several ingredients together in a big bowl with a wooden spoon, should now be celebrated as being the most progressive and keen of cooks Joyce Molyneux would, I feel absolutely sure, fully extend to such enthusiasts her heartfelt approval (you know, it occurs to me that those very words "to spend quality time enjoying" seem either to have quietly disappeared from the vocabulary of the British domestic kitchen, or are now preceded - on the television, that is - by, "Now, I know this seems like a lot of hard work, but do try!" Oh, dear me ...

Finally, it slightly - and only very slightly - concerns me that the new wording on the present label for the famous Carved Angel Christmas pudding, apparently, no longer credits Eliza Acton as the originator of the recipe. So, with this recent omission in mind, it only seems right that you, the reader, should have the final choice as to whether, this Christmas, you decide to buy it, or beat it.

Carved Angel Christmas puddings can be ordered on 01803 832465, or via the website at www.thecarvedangel.com

'The Author's Christmas Pudding'

The following is transcribed from my very scuffed Penguin paperback of The Best of Eliza Acton (1974, 75p!). Whether this is still available, I am unsure, but her most famous work, Modern Cookery for Private Families, first published in 1845, has been republished by Southover Press (1994, £19. 95). It includes her Christmas pudding. Available from Books for Cooks (020-7221 1992).

3oz (75g) flour

3oz (75g) breadcrumbs

6oz (175g) each of suet, stoned raisins and currants

4oz (110g) minced apples

5oz (150g) sugar

2oz (50g) candied peel

1.5tsp spice

pinch of salt

small wine glass of brandy (Cognac, not "cooking brandy")

3 eggs

"To three ounces of flour, and the same of fine, lightly-grated breadcrumbs, add six of beef-kidney suet, chopped small, six of raisins, weighed after they are stoned, six of well-cleaned currants, four ounces of minced apples, five of sugar, two of candied orange-rind, half a teaspoonful of nutmeg, mixed with pounded mace, a little salt, a small glass of brandy, and three whole eggs. Mix and beat these ingredients well together, tie them tightly in a thickly floured cloth, and boil them for three hours and a half. We can recommend this as a remarkably light small rich pudding: it may be served with German wine, or punch sauce."

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