The Merry and Medieval ‘Plum Pottage’
THarvest time in many cultures is a time about sharing and coming together to celebrate the year’s bounty and the dishes it produces. It’s that time of year where family is in town (or gathered in your village), loved ones are near, and what brings us together? Food. This time of year was especially important in many medieval households, as a time for celebration, giving, and for many to share the best of their kitchens with their guests. Where cooks cook and present their dishes with great pride.
Now what did they eat? or what was served? We have a good idea of what was served from many of the artworks left to us today, as well as recipes that have been passed down, which have their roots in the medieval kitchen. For example, mincemeat tarts or pies, goose, special pies, roasted pig, swan (but only with permission from the crown), stewed vegetables, mulled wines and ale were all presented on the table. Some modern themed cookbooks such as my own inspired by the book series, Game of Thrones, contain recipes with a medieval origin, that are quite fantastic. What is one of the most popular dishes today? I would go with Christmas Pudding.
Christmas pudding is another Christmas tradition which sources say began in the Middle Ages but it might have been earlier than that, as there is a reference to it as far back as Roman times. The traditional name of “Plum Pudding” came later, in the Victorian Era. But the fruit pudding familiar today was known variously as “Plum Porridge, or Pottage” or “Frumenty.”
Like many of the dishes from the Middle Ages which consisted of varieties of meat and raisin dishes; this dish was made from porridge or boiled wheat, raisins or “plums”, eggs, sweetened by molasses or honey, as sugar was very expensive, fruits, currants, dates, then spiced with cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger. The mixture was kept moist by treacle or molasses. The pudding’s fair alcohol content helped preserve it. It would then be good to eat anywhere from a month to a year after it was made. We start to see variation and addition to the dish as early as 1420, and during the reign of Elizabeth I, plums were introduced as a fruit in the mixture. Due to popularity of the fruit, it was added to many other dishes, hence “Plum Pottage” came to be.
After the pudding was cooked, it was originally hung from a hook in a “pudding cloth.” This was later changed to cooking or boiling/steaming later on. The round little shape it has today topped with holly began to circulate in 1836. This is where the food specifically becomes a Christmas dessert. Originally it was eaten as a topping with pork, much as we use apple sauce today. Authors such as Charles Dickens reference the new popular use in his story adding the dish to a Christmas meal. Cards and printed articles also show families gathered and celebrating the holiday with the pudding dressed with its holly on the table.
On a funny note, both Christmas puddings were outlawed to be eaten in the 17th century by the Commonwealth Parliament. The consumption of the foods were considered “heathenish and a papistical practice.” This silliness was reversed under the rule of Charles II.
NB, Christmas Pudding, It’s Medieval Orgin. The West Austrialian, Dec. 21, 1935 (trove.nla.gov.au)