The pudding strikes back: The craze for dessert-only dining is growing
Starters? Take them or leave them. Mains? If I must… My name is Holly Williams and I am a pudding addict. Luckily, I'm not the only one...
Perhaps the extra toffee sauce was a little over-ambitious. Maybe it was the slug of cream that did it. I have hit the pudding wall. But no matter: I have successfully tried all seven traditional great British desserts at the Pudding Club and, while I might feel a tiny bit sick, I'm also feeling distinctly proud.
If it sounds like some kind of grotesque man-versus-food challenge, you clearly are not my kind of person. I am a self-confessed pudding addict. Getting to eat seven different desserts is the dream – no having to choose between chocolate or crumble, sighing as untasted options whip by on a waiter's arm.
My fear of missing out is rarely more pronounced than in a cake-based situation. Worst, of course, is when you go out for dinner, strategically choosing tedious savoury overtures in order to leave room for afters – then find no one else wants them. It's always a sneaky relief to discover a fellow sugar fan; luckily, the boyfriend also has a "second stomach" – science may not have yet found this, but it must exist. Whole weekends are structured around cinnamon-bun-finding missions or pilgrimages to favourite ice-cream shops.
I would also, with minimal scientific support, make a case for the hereditary nature of the sweet tooth. My grandmother has, at the grand age of 91, basically given up pretending she wants to eat anything other than jam butties and biscuits. My mum goes into reveries at the mere mention of custard, her fondness for pudding stretching back to 1950s school dinners. She raised me right: on multiple portion of her excellent summer pudding (which definitely counts towards your five-a-day).
So, naturally, she is my teammate for Pudding Club. It's taken place at the Three Ways House Hotel in Mickleton, a pretty Cotswolds village, since 1985 – and it's a serious business: there's a degree of pomp and circumstance, a scoring card and a vote for best pud of the night.
It's a tradition the current owners, Jill and Simon Coombe, were keen to preserve. "Keith and Jean Turner, the people who leased the hotel before we bought it in 1995, loved traditional British pudding," begins Jill. "But in 1985 you couldn't get British puddings in restaurants; you'd be offered strawberry cheesecake and Black Forest gateau. They thought it was outrageous – that we were losing our pudding heritage and legacy." Thus the Pudding Club was born: initially a bring-and-share event with friends, it soon became part of the hotel's identity.
There are no dainty mousses or fancy foams: these puddings are hearty steamed affairs – your syrup sponge, your spotted dick – or baked classics such as apple-and-blackberry crumble, all served with "lashings of custard". And Jill is as much a traditional pudding lover as the club's founders: "After lunch today I did have a sneaky portion of ginger syrup [sponge] with a bit of custard and as I ate it, I thought, I can't believe these were not being eaten 20 years ago because they are fantastic – it would be a crime, actually, for them not to be preserved."
No fear of that: the Coombes now run fully booked Pudding Club meetings nearly every weekend – with a capacity of 73 diners, they make an artery-clogging 750 portions with 14 gallons of custard on top. Many diners – wisely – choose to stay in the hotel's rooms (some even have pudding-themed décor), waddling upstairs to collapse in a syrup-induced coma. The couple have also expanded the business, running pudding-making courses, selling ready-mades in local shops, and publishing a recipe book. Pudding Club is even big in Japan – they've held meetings there and many Japanese tourists visit the hotel.
With a capacity of 73 diners, the Pudding Club makes an artery-clogging 750 portions with 14 gallons of custard on top (Kalpesh Lathigra)
We assemble in the lounge to meet the Pudding Master; tonight, it's Steven Milne, who has the appropriate blend of gravitas and comic twinkle. He reads the rules: you can eat as much pudding as you like, but you must clear your plate before you can get the next portion. Very school dinners – as is the queuing, bowl and spoon in hand, for each serving to be dolloped out. He's got tactical tips, too: "Go easy on the portion size," he recommends, suggesting that fruitier options make a good mid-evening palate cleanser – surely the only time a crumble has ever been considered such a thing. "About 10pm, I see the faces change," he warns us, gravely.
Things get off to a splendid start, with the pudding procession. A few guests are always recruited to help carry them through. There's a wedding party in; Cindy and Earl Patterson tied the knot in Reading, then drove up with several car-loads of guests. Appropriately, they carry the passion-fruit charlotte in from the kitchen, to the applause of the hungry crowd. They've been to Pudding Club once before, and loved the fun of it; for a wedding dinner, it is, as Cindy puts it, "a bit different".
I am asked to parade the jam-and-coconut pudding, giving me a feeling of ownership of the dessert throughout the night (happily, it warrants a score of eight out of 10 for its boingy, fruity-topped sponge).
We sit on long tables, making for a collegiate, cheery atmosphere – there is much whooping for favourite puds, as well as serious consideration of their relative merits. While I discover a hitherto unknown love of spotted dick, two girls in their early twenties sitting next to us loathe it, hiding their leftovers in napkins so they can get more chocolate pudding instead. They liken it to "raw pastry", which may be precisely why I enjoy it… my love of stodge knows no bounds.
To our left, another couple tuck in, although Sally is disappointed that there's no jam roly-poly on the menu; she and her partner Lee had been before, years ago, and the memory clearly burns bright. Interestingly, five out of the six people at our end of the table are vegetarian – perhaps no coincidence, as dessert is often the only course where veggies get as much choice as everyone else. But generally, it seems a diverse crowd – and Jill says that there is no typical Pudding Clubber: "At any meeting, you might have a group of 20-year-olds on one table, then a group of 80-year-olds on another."
At the end of the night, bellies distended and eyes more glazed than lemon-drizzle cake, we vote for our favourite. That spotted dick does not do well; an unsurprising fondness for the sweetest, richest, moistest options is revealed, with the sticky-toffee pudding taking the ultimate crown. It's a fair decision: it may have finished me off, but it still got my vote.
In the 28 years since the Pudding Club opened, the sticky toffee has become a staple on gastropub menus, so it's hardly an endangered dessert any more. Indeed, any of the dishes served could easily appear on restaurant menus today, thanks to the increasing focus on local or traditional grub. Add to that the Great British Bake Off effect, and the patriotic, retro, get-out-the-bunting and put-on-your-pinny trend that has swept the country in recent years, and we can surely say our puddings are preserved.
But my own love of desserts is not just confined to those that can be made in a basin. Oh no, it is a broad church, welcoming tarts and fools, pies and pavlovas, meringues and mousses, ice-cream, buttercream, cream cakes, crème anglaise, crème brûlée…
There are no dainty mousses or fancy foams: these puddings are hearty steamed affairs (Kalpesh Lathigra)
Fortunately, I'm not alone in my greedy-guts desire to shovel more than one down my cake-hole in a sitting. Many places now serve half-and-half puddings or, more delicately, miniature selections, dessert assiettes, or things such as "rhubarb three ways". There are other establishments dedicated specifically to afters, offering special dessert menus and eating areas.
In America and Asia – notably Hong Kong and Singapore – it isn't uncommon to go out just for dessert, or to flip-flop between establishments: a main here, a dessert there. In the UK, you might expect a dirty look if you turned up to a Michelin-starred restaurant and only ordered cheesecake. Unless you go to Pollen Street Social, that is.
Jason Atherton's London restaurant won plenty of praise for its dessert bar when it opened in 2011. You can round off a meal at the bar, or just drop in for a pud. The bar was part of Atherton's plan to increase the status of the often-unloved third course in fine dining; and, perched on a stool with a view of the bustling kitchen, these feel like the best seats in the house, as you watch the pastry chefs at work, making "rocks" of ice-cream in great foaming buckets of liquid nitrogen, or gently arranging little edible flowers.
It's a far cry from the custardy carnage of the Pudding Club, mind. Forget tradition or nostalgia; this is ambitiously, unabashedly inventive. The menu reveals a fondness for Asian flavours – peanuts, lime, yuzu, coconut – rather aptly, given the whole enterprise was inspired by south Asian dinning habits. I swoon over unusual, winning combinations – bay-leaf ice-cream with figs, mango sorbet with jalapeno peppers – and what I believe restaurant reviewers call "witty deconstructions": the "PBJ" tumbles those rocks of "nitro" peanutty cream over cherry sorbet and jammy slithers. It proves puddings may benefit from the same imaginative attention as main courses. Afters, but not after-thoughts.
Pollen Street Social's is not the only dedicated dessert bar. Of course, ice-cream parlours, patisserie cafés and purveyors of afternoon teas have long offered impressive selections of sweet treats, but you don't usually get several courses. William Curley, a chocolatier in Belgravia, offers just that. At five courses, his dessert bar approaches Pudding Club levels of gourmandising, tipped into all-out decadence by an accompanying glass of champagne. It's not all chocolate – although those devoted to cocoa will find plenty to enjoy. Again, dishes are made (or at least assembled) in front of you; again, you're sat on a stool at a bar. It's proved so popular that last month the opening hours extended to include Friday nights. A post-work pint or a post-work five-course dessert menu? No contest.
Forget ceviche or dude food; ditch the small plates and pop-ups; let the cocktails and craft beers be an afterthought, but please, please, please let dessert bars take hold in Britain. I promise, we pudding lovers will keep coming back for seconds – or even sevenths.
Where to get your just desserts
The Pudding Club
Vote for your favourite of seven traditional British puddings, then sleep it off in dessert-themed room. Friday and Saturday evenings; Three Ways House Hotel, Mickleton, Chipping Campden, Glos, threewayshousehotel.com
William Curley Laurent Perrier Champagne Dessert Bar
Raise a glass of bubbly with a five-course dessert menu for the ultimate weekend indulgence. Saturdays, noon to 7pm, and Sundays, noon to 5pm; 198 Ebury Street, London SW1, williamcurley.com
Leaf Pudding Club
Another five-course dessert delight – all washed down with cups of premium loose-leaf tea, at this hip tea shop in Liverpool's city centre. Monthly – the next is 29 October; 65-67 Bold Street, Liverpool, thisisleaf.co.uk
The Pollen Street Social Dessert Bar
Round off a meal or drop in for dessert (the bar is not bookable). Enjoy unusual flavour combinations with a dash of foodie theatre. Monday to Saturday, 10 Pollen Street, London W1, pollenstreetsocial.com
Lucy's on a Plate Up the Duff Pudding Night
Six delicious courses of pure pudding: choose your perfect menu from around 30 different cakes, tarts and puddings. First Wednesday of month; Church Street, Ambleside, Cumbria, lucysofambleside.co.uk
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