Stirring up festive cheer

Chaos in the Victorian kitchen on Stir-up Sunday.
Chaos in the Victorian kitchen on Stir-up Sunday.

by Heather Elvidge

November can’t hide its dark side any longer. After two weeks of mostly kind weather, the month seems set on the path to winter.

Leaf fall has been a long drawn out affair. Bonfire Night and Remembrance Day passed, and still leaves clung to branches. Cold nights brought a late blaze of red from shrubs, 
apple trees and ornamental cherries, although most have shed their leaves at last.

As the days grow shorter we look forward to our midwinter festival. With its heady blend of Christian message and pagan customs, Christmas brings hope and good cheer into the darkest part of the year.

Stir up

On a wintry day, thoughts turn to food. Hot soups. Bacon sandwiches. Wholesome stews. Toasted muffins. And with Christmas looming, we’re dreaming of even richer fare.

Supermarkets report soaring sales of dried fruits and brandy as home bakers get into the festive spirit. Thanks to the BBC’s Great British Bake Off, more of us are making our own Christmas cake this year.

With the cake in the bag, now’s the time to tackle that other icon of festive excess. November 24 is the traditional day for making plum puddings.

Since the 1830s it’s been known as Stir-up Sunday, a name borrowed from the collect that’s still read in churches today. Victorians heard the old version from the Book of Common Prayer, first published in 1549:

“Stir up, we beseech Thee, O Lord, the wills of Thy faithful people; that they may plenteously bring forth the fruit of good works …”

Christmas pudding has been appearing on our tables for centuries and like mincemeat, it used to contain real meat. Its ancestor was plum pottage, a thick, medieval stew of mutton or beef simmered in wine with breadcrumbs, raisins, currants, prunes and spices.

When the Puritans purged Christmas from the calendar in 1644, they also condemned the “lewd custom” of eating rich food. Plum pottage was in disgrace until Christmas, with all its extravagances, returned with the Restoration.

Everything changes however, and by1800 the old dish had all but vanished. But it had already spawned the plum pudding boiled in a cloth, with the recipe tweaked to use minced meat, less wine, and more breadcrumbs.

In 1714 the new round pudding landed on King George’s Christmas table, becoming instantly fashionable. When the price of dried fruit fell the plum pudding spread to the masses.

Victorian cooks had a tradition of 13 ingredients, one each for Christ and the Apostles. And everyone seems to have had a family recipe — Mrs Beeton included eight in her popular household book.

The Victorians liked to add in silver charms. A ring was for a wedding; a horseshoe for luck; a coin for money; and a button or thimble for another year as a singleton. In the 20th century it was a silver thre’penny bit, but a shiny five pence coin (washed and wrapped in baking parchment) will do just as well.

Because you are going to make one, aren’t you? Don’t forget to make a wish, while stirring the mix three times, clockwise. Keep it secret, or it won’t come true.