An in-depth journey through the history of British pudding might seem like an odd project for a Belgian writer, but by the time she was eight Regula Ysewijn was already such an anglophile that her parents took her to Canterbury for a day trip. It spurred on a lifelong obsession with British food that would eventually lead to the award-winning Pride and Pudding, a blend of food history and recipes that was one 2016’s most critically acclaimed food books.
“I wanted to write a book about British historical food,” says Regula, “to show people that Britain’s food is amazing.”
It was clear, however, that fitting the entire history of British food into one book wasn’t feasible. “I had so much on puddings that I decided on those, because there’s so much to tell. One type of dish describes the complete evolution of [British] taste.”
The book was first written for a Flemish audience, but Belgian people are often surprised to hear that British cuisine warrants its own book. Regula enthusiastically rebuts that idea, launching into an explanation of food’s importance in Britain.
“In the 18th century, during the Napoleonic War, roast beef and plum pudding became the way to show your patriotism and your disgust for the French,” she says.
Then in Victorian times, before the introduction of Christmas trees, pudding was the symbol of Christmas.
“People say Britain doesn’t have a food culture, but it’s actually strong enough for British people to put food on Christmas cards and all kinds of political pamphlets. You can’t be a non-foodie nation if you’re using food to make political statements,” says Regula.
But if what you have with your roast beef is politically important, the story of Britain’s move from plum pudding to Yorkshire pudding is a social and economic one.
“The thing is that puddings have always been something that could be prepared together with the main course,” says Regula. “Because it was stuffed into guts or a bag, they were able to boil it [in a stew] with the rest of the food. Pudding was often eaten as a starter to fill you up before you were actually going to tuck into the meat, so that you wouldn’t need as much of it. With batter puddings it’s the same thing. When people started roasting meat in front of the hearth, they wanted something to have with the meat. Because they weren’t boiling anything they used the hot fats to cook the pudding. They would serve the batter pudding, or the Yorkshire pudding, before the meal or with it, depending on how many mouths they had to feed. If you had a lot of pudding you would even have it as a dessert with a little bit of honey or fruit.”
These early puddings were not the savoury puffs of batter we know today, however. Nor were they cooked the same way. “Traditionally, you would have had a joint of beef or mutton turning in front of the fire in a bottlejack spit, and there would be a big pan underneath that would normally catch all the dripping that came off the meat,” says Regula.
“So when they wanted to make a pudding they would replace that dripping pan with a pan containing the pudding. Sometimes it was prepared before the radiant heat of the fire so that it would get going quickly, and the pan would be sat so that the fat would drip on top of the batter and cook it.
“It was a much slower process than we have today. It would be quite flat – more like a pancake. It’s hard to describe how amazing a batter pudding made in that way actually tastes. It’s not for vegetarians, it’s very animal-y and very primitive, and it’s an absolute delight.”
While today Yorkshire puddings are idealised as the grub of humble farm kitchens, they used to be a luxury.
“Earlier on it would have been the very rich [who ate them], because most people wouldn’t have the spit to cook on. That was the privilege of more wealthy people. Other people would just eat grains and pulses, bread, things like that.” As is the case in many third-world countries today, meat was a luxury. That meant pudding was too.
“Pudding has always been something for the rich. It only dripped down to the lower classes at the end of the 19th century,” says Regula.
As the seeds of the 20th century were being sown the working classes began to cook their own roasts. The industrial revolution was coming into full force and the old slums were being demolished.
“If you go back further, a lot of the houses in the cities would have been made of wood, so people wouldn’t actually cook at home,” says Regula. “Even in the 19th century, people would go out and buy a piece of meat, and they would go to their local pub or cookhouse and someone would fry it for them there. Puddings were served in public houses and cookhouses, but they wouldn’t have been able to do it at home.”
But as Britain prospered housing improved and kitchens evolved.
“People started getting ovens rather than fires,” says Regula, “so the logical thing was to start experimenting with how they could get that pudding into the oven without the need for a huge chunk of meat over it. Firstly they would have made it with beef tallow or lard. [Then] all kinds of cooking oils started to leap into our cooking [in] the 20th century. And when the whole muffin or cupcake craze came from America people started to make them in cupcake shapes so you’d have the individual puddings, but that’s all quite recent really.”
See next week’s Magazine for a trio of Regula’s favourite Yorkshire pudding recipes.