Plum Pudding - Myth and Legend

According to tradition, plum pudding should be made on ‘Stir-up Sunday’.It is a custom that is believed to date back to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer where a reading states 'stir up, we beseech thee'. The words would be read in church on the last Sunday before Advent and so the good people knew it was time to start on their favourite Christmas treat.

It was family affair where everyone would gather to stir the pudding mixture from East to West, in honour of the Three Kings who came from the East. Sometimes coins would be hidden in the dough; finding them on Christmas day would bring luck and good fortune. I think we all know this tale. But is this story in fact a 16th century custom or a Victorian interpretation? 

There are a lot of legends and claims made about the origins of the plum pudding. Some say it was King George I in 1714 who requested plum pudding as a part of the first Christmas feast of his reign. And that it was because of him that Oliver Cromwell's ban on Christmas and its rich festive foods was lifted. George I was baptized 'the Pudding King' because of these myths but there are no written records prior to the 20th century to tell us that indeed this king deserves his regal pudding title. Nor is there truth in the claim that George I was responsible for lifting the ban on the festivities surrounding Christmas. However, this ban, along with other prohibitions, was abolished at the start of the Restoration of 1660, long before George I came along.

The first written record of a recipe for plum pudding as we know it today can be found in John Nott's 'The Cook's and Confectioner's Dictionary' from 1723; there is however no reference suggesting that it is associated with George I or to the practice of Stir-up Sunday. 

An earlier reference in the diary of a British naval chaplain during the reign of Charles II, speaks of a Christmas Day dinner on board a ship in the year 1675, consisting of a rib of beef, plum puddings, mince pies and plenty of good wines. This is the first time a plum pudding is associated with Christmas in a written record.

Hopping down in Kent - Hop brandy

While driving through the rolling Kentish countryside I can't help but shout out 'Oast house' when I spot the somewhat fairytale like conical rooftops of the hop kilns. I nurture my inner child with my endless enthusiasm for things other people might not even notice anymore.

These monuments of agricultural industrialisation were used for drying the freshly picked green hop flowers. They usually had two or three storeys, some with perforated floors on which the hops were spread out. On the ground flour was a charcoal-fired oven spreading warm air through the kiln which is permitted to pass through the perforated floors to dry the hops. The white wooden cowl on the roof rotates with the wind to allow air to circulate and moisture to escape to prevent mould. Although we are more used to seeing round Oast houses, the kilns started out square shaped. The earliest example dates back to the mid 1700's and can be found in Cranbrook.

Hops have been grown in Britain since the the late 15th century and probably even earlier. They were introduced to Britain from Flanders where hopped beer had become the fashion. Hops don't only add bitterness to beer but also act as a natural preservative. In the early Victorian era hop growing became the most important industry in Kent as tastes changed from un-hopped ale to more bitter beer.
The need for hops was especially great due to the late Georgian law forbidding the use of any other ingredients than hops and malt in beer. A year after the law was approved, the drum roaster -used to roast malt- was invented by Daniel Wheeler. By roasting the malt the brewers could legally give extra flavouring and colouring to the beer by creating very dark, roasted malt for the use in Porters and Stouts. 

Of course those large amounts of hops needed to be picked and so each september the destitute families from London and sometimes even further away, came 'hopping down to Kent'. If they were not completely pennyless, they could afford the ticket for the 'Hop pickers Special' train which left from London Bridge. If they were too poor, they had to walk to Kent. For six weeks they would live on site in hop huts to help with the hop harvest. Although the work was rough, it was a time especially the children looked forward to all year. Hop picking in Kent was a welcome change from the slums is which most of these families lived. And although the hop huts were far from luxury, it was still a welcome breath of fresh air compared to the miserable fog in London.

Gunpowder, treason and bonfire parkin

The fifth of november, remember?

One of the most intriguing of English traditions to me is Bonfire night. Otherwise known as Guy Fawkes night it is a feast that commemorates the failing of a plot by Roman Catholic conspirators to blow up the House of Parliament in London killing the Protestant King James in the process.

Although Guy Fawkes is mostly remembered on this occasion, it was Robert Catesby who was chief instigator of the Gunpowder Plot. Catesby turned against the government of Elizabeth I when his father along with so many others Catholics, was prosecuted for refusing to conform to the Church of England. When Elizabeth I died, James - son of the Catholic Mary Queen of Scots - came to the throne which gave the Roman Catholics new hope for greater religious freedom. When this hope turned pear shaped the English Catholics plotted to put Arbella Stuart on the throne, she was Catholic, James' cousin and a major claimant to the throne of England having both Tudor and Stuart bloodlines. Arbella always stayed close to the throne but never became queen, by blood she had a larger claim to succession and she became known as the 'Queen that never was'.

The seed to the Gunpowder plot however was planted nearly a century earlier by another Tudor, Henry VIII. When he issued the Act of Supremacy which declared him head of the Church of England to be able to divorce the first of his six wives, he started a century of violent religious turmoil. Henry's Church of England wasn't initially Protestant but his son Edward VI instituted more Protestant reforms. Mary I, being Henry's daughter with his Catholic wife whom he divorced to marry Elizabeth's mother Anne, was a Catholic and tried to restore the Catholic faith. She started her five year bloody reign by reviving the laws against heresy and was hated for it. The result was the persecution of Protestant rebels and the execution of some 300 heretics. Elizabeth's accession to the throne on Mary's death was greeted with enormous jubilation from the people. Yet again the Roman Catholics were facing persecution and the plotting to replace Elizabeth I with Mary Queen of Scots began.

This brings us back to Mary's son James and the infamous Gunpowder treason and plot.
On the 5th of november 1605 Guy Fawkes was apprehended while guarding 36 barrels of gunpowder in the cellar under the house of Parliament. How they found out about the gunpowder in the cellar leads to speculation but it is presumed that someone from within the circle of conspirators of the plot warned someone to stay away from parliament on the 5ft. After his apprehension Fawkes was tortured to give up the names of his accomplices.