The Proof is in the Summer Pudding

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Summer pudding originated in spas and nursing homes in mid-18th century England, where it was served to patients as an alternative to heavy, fattening puddings made with pastry, suet or butter. It was known as hydropathic pudding but summer pudding was obviously a better name.

Although water spas have always existed, bathing was frowned upon for decades until 1702 when Queen Anne visited the ancient Roman city of Bath. When the fashionable Richard “Beau” Nash arrived in Bath two years later, the new regimen was established. Suddenly the health benefits of drinking water and bathing were all the rage. Bath became the social capital of Britain, attracting the rich and famous over the summer to bathe and drink the water in the pump room, while amusing themselves with gambling and gossiping. The pump room has been seen in many Jane Austen movies.

Diet was an important part of this health-based regimen so the traditional puddings were now frowned upon. It is not known when fresh fruit became part of the mix and scholars argue over when the summer pudding, as we know it, originated.

Before bread had additives to prevent it from drying, summer pudding was a good way to use up stale bread and summer fruit. It’s an old favourite in my family and has the advantage that it can be made any size with any fruit. In late summer, strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, loganberries, black/red currants and gooseberries make a wonderful mixture. Once pitted, cherries, plums and apricots would also work. In winter, use canned fruit and omit the cooking. You can make one large pudding or individual teacup puddings for an event.

Combine a mixture of soft berry fruit (2-3 lb) lightly cooked with sugar in a saucepan (don’t let the fruit lose its shape) or in the microwave.

Cut a loaf of white bread (no crusts), brioche or sponge cake into thick slices. Line a pudding basin with the bread, making sure there are no gaps.

Pour in the fruit and juice but keep back some juice and a few berries for decoration. Cover the pudding with more bread (cut slices to fit). Put a plate on top of the pudding and a weight on top. Leave it in the fridge overnight.

To serve, take the weight and plate off. Put your serving dish on top of the pudding and flip the pudding. Pour over the reserved berries and juice if needed. The pudding usually turns out with a spectacular marbled white and burgundy look. Serve with whipped cream, vanilla ice cream or Bird’s custard.

Bird’s Custard is the original version of custard powder, which is cornflour-based and thickens to form a sauce when mixed with milk and heated. Bird’s Custard was formulated in England by Alfred Bird in 1837 because his wife was allergic to eggs, used to thicken traditional custard. He did the world a service because now you can make custard in a matter of minutes. I’m ashamed to say my father and I used to fight over the skin on the top of the jug.

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Afternoon Tea, Anyone?

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Anna Maria Russell, the 7th Duchess of Bedford, is said to have started afternoon tea in 1830. She complained about “a sinking feeling” between lunch and dinner and began having tea with bread and butter served mid-afternoon. Teatime became more elaborate as she invited her friends and the dishes increased: crustless sandwiches, pastries, crumpets, and scones with jam. It wasn’t until the price of tea came down that everyone began drinking it and it became part of the working class high tea, or supper, a meal served with eggs and ham around 6 pm.

We associate tea with scones and jam, but Devonshire cream teas may have started centuries before tea was introduced to Britain. As far as we know, scones, jam and clotted cream originated in Tavistock, Devon in the early 11th century. Monks served scones to the labourers who helped them restore the monastery after a Viking raid in 997 AD. Apparently they had no difficulty finding volunteers!

This recipe makes 8 scones (no raisins originally):

225g / 9oz flour

4 tsp baking powder

1/4 tsp salt

50g / 2oz butter

25g / 1oz caster (berry) sugar

150ml (1/2 cup) milk

1 medium egg
Preheat oven to 450°F. Grease baking tray.

Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl. Rub in the butter to breadcrumb texture.

Stir in sugar. Add milk. Mix lightly into a soft dough.

Scoop dough onto a floured board and knead briefly.

Roll dough 1/2 inch thick. Cut into circles. Put on baking tray.

Brush the tops with beaten egg.

Bake for 7-10 minutes or until well-risen and golden brown.

Cool on wire rack.

Tea was drunk only by the wealthy in the 1600s and it was highly taxed. Even in the early 1800s ships could take a year to transport loose tea from China to Europe, making transport expensive. The East India Company had a monopoly on the tea trade in 1832 and began to reduce the journey by building light, fast ships called clippers. We now use the expression “at a good clip,” which comes from the ships. They were streamlined square-riggers and could make 15-22 knots under full sail. The most famous was the Cutty Sark, built in 1868. It made the tea run only eight times (clippers rarely lasted 20 years) and can be seen at Greenwich, London.

We use tea bags without thinking, but they were invented only about 100 years ago. The first tea bags were hand-sewn silk-muslin sample bags. By 1904, Thomas Sullivan of New York was shipping tea bags around the world. A machine was soon invented to replace the hand sewing.

The Empress Hotel, Victoria BC, used to serve tea and crumpets with honey for 35 cents but even that price became too high during the Depression, when many of the Empress residents lost fortunes in the crash. One lady made economies by ordering hot water at teatime because it was free. She then slipped a teabag surreptitiously into the pot while the staff looked the other way.

Give me an egg!

I had disdained cooking (though not eating) throughout my youth, skimming past the kitchen just fast enough not to be pulled inside. Surely there were people to do that. I was more interested in reading books – far more worthwhile. Luckily, from a safe distance I had picked up a hint or two. On my own I lived on boiled eggs but when it came to entertaining I could pull out all the stops and create an omelette.

It was a Sunday evening at the end of summer and already dark. I was expecting the family after their weekend away. They rented the house as diplomatic representatives and I was the glorious not very foreign au pair. An au pair was expected to do a little light housework and look after the children but luckily they were out at school most of the time. Actors who were “resting” did the hard jobs like cleaning out the oven. For three hours of vacuuming, dusting and ironing in the mornings I was paid £3 a week, with room and board (1969). Princely. The museums were free.

The house was on Warwick Avenue by Little Venice, a peaceful canal system in London. It was owned by the governor of a Caribbean island and was a towering white three-storey corner house with basement kitchen, designed by John Nash, in a street of elegant houses. This makes being an au pair worthwhile. Unfortunately there was a fire station nearby (fortunately for the insurer) but we had to endure constant sirens screaming by the house. Come to think of it, it wasn’t very peaceful.

When I heard a knock at the door I was surprised. The family used their keys. I opened the big heavy double doors of this beautiful 18th century townhouse and looked outside. On the front step stood a small, tired East Indian man, nicely dressed, with a suitcase. Was he part of my job description?

“Oh hello.”

“Hello. Are the B______ family in?”

“I’m sorry, no. I’m waiting for them to come back.”

“I’m a friend. I’ve come to stay. Would you mind if I came in and waited for them?”

I was a bit dubious. I was alone in the house filled with precious antiques and paintings and was responsible for their welfare. I was 22 and far too polite to ask for further details. He noticed my hesitation and, with exquisite grace, explained that he was the Indian Minister of Defence. He told me he had just flown in from India and was tired and needed to rest. I let him in and he settled gratefully into a large pale blue comfy chair in the living room. My best manners sprang into action.

“Can I get you a drink? Are you hungry?” I asked. He looked relieved when we decided on an omelette. He didn’t realize that was the only item on the menu. This version required that you separate the whites and yolks, beat them, spoon them together and cook gently, folding the omelette over only at the end. The omelette looks like a soufflé, so it’s quite a party piece but it’s simple to make. I whipped off into the basement kitchen and began my wizardry. I decorated it with alternate slices of tomato and cucumber and thought I was very clever.

The family came home eventually and welcomed their distinguished guest with cries of delight, to my relief. The next day we all played tennis together and I no longer had to cook, just fend off tennis balls.

The omelette might well have originated in the Middle East, so the books say. I say first find your chicken and the egg will follow. They are just as likely to come from the Far East as anywhere else but of course it depends where you are standing.

Carry your eggs on a camel and they are beaten ready for dinner. In desperation, mix the curdling eggs with chopped herbs, fry and then slice them into wedges and hand them round before you get any nasty looks. Carried on camels, donkeys and horses, omelettes became the health dish of the day with each country adapting the recipe to produce frittata, tortilla, and the proper French omelette. The competition was on!

Napoleon was particularly pleased, when travelling through southern France with his army, to discover a master omelettier. They had decided to rest for the night near the town of Bessières and the innkeeper made such a divine omelette that Napoleon ordered the townspeople to gather all the eggs in the village and prepare a huge omelette for his army the next day. The villagers must have loved him. But getting their photos in the paper? It was all worth it. You know how the Guinness Book eggs people on.

You too can become noted for your fancy omelette of whatever size!

Melt a walnut of butter in a frying pan at medium heat to avoid burning. A nasty smell.

Separate the yolks and whites into two bowls, carefully.

Whisk the yolks with a fork while humming a tune to maintain the chi of the kitchen.

Beat the whites until fluffy and stiff then, holding your breath, add the yolks to the whites, folding them in like clouds of dandelion seed heads.

Pour into the frying pan and cook very very gently. Humming is still allowed but not aloud.

Fold the concoction over to serve and decorate the plate with whatever you have in the house, preferably edible. Provide a fork.

When foreign ministers come to stay, you will no longer be at a loss.