The pud, the bad and the ugly: 15 Christmas puddings are put to the taste test

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It completes the Yuletide blow-out. But with so many Christmas puddings to choose from, Christopher Hirst sorts the stupendous from the stodge

Made predominantly of dried vine fruit, candied citrus peel and nuts, Christmas pudding is a chunk of southern sun in the depths of the dark northern winter. Acting as the denouement of our yuletide blow-out, it is the fate of many puds to remain untouched or even uncooked, but in the right circumstances, well away from turkey or goose, this calorie bomb gains considerably in its appeal. I speak from hard-won experience, having just tackled 15 of these epic desserts in three sessions with the help of three teams of tasters.

When the puddings were released from the steam where they had spent a scalding couple of hours, I was able to appreciate the accuracy of Dickens's description of the Cratchit family's kitchen in A Christmas Carol: "Hallo! A great deal of steam... A smell like an eating-house, and a pastry cook's, next door to each other, with a laundress's next door to that! That was the pudding."

Faced with a line of dark-brown puddings steaming like freshly-shot cannon balls, I was determined to exercise restraint. But it is hard to carve a modicum of pud and even harder to stop eating when you have started on the raisin-packed aggregate. It didn't seem to matter how small a piece I tried to cleave – a teaspoonful, a mustardspoonful, a molecule – the result was always pretty substantial. By the end of each session, I felt like I had swallowed a wrecking ball, but that didn't stop me snaffling one last morsel.

Though the arrival of the Christmas pudding surrounded by flickering blue flames of fiery brandy is the greatest coup de théâtre on the British dining table, some of our supermarket chains have decided that it is high time for puds to put on the bling. M&S is selling one topped with gold cherries and edible gold dust, while Tesco goes one better with a topping of real gold leaf. There's also some funny business going on inside certain puds. Last year, Heston Blumenthal's Hidden Orange Christmas Pudding provoked unseasonal jostling in Waitrose. This year, Sainsbury's has produced a pud packed with kirsch-soaked cherries.

Such amendments strike me as novelties in a gastronomic form that reached perfection somewhere around 1840. The very best Christmas puddings of today are still made with beef suet rather than modern vegetarian substitutes. Not that we should dispense with all innovations. In a celebrated article, Elizabeth David described spending two days making Christmas pudding on a Greek island: "When I hear people moaning about ... how much better things were in the old days, I wonder if they have ever given a thought to what it was like to shred suet, clean currants, take the stones out of huge sticky raisins, chop the ... peel, pound the spices...". It was even worse when the pudding was boiled in floured cloth before cheap basins came along. The result was, according to one observer, "a sort of raisin and currant soup".

Elizabeth David never recovered from her experience on Syros: "I find Christmas plum pudding a pretty awful concoction". Even after my onslaught of 15 puds, I don't share her animus. The Christmas pudding is full of good things. Unfortunately, it's just too full of them to have more than one day a year – preferably Boxing Day.

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