It’s getting close to Christmas and I am sure that many of you are starting to plan what food you will making for the big day. I try and give you a Christmas recipe every year and I narrowed things down to four, and then asked Twitter which I should post and Twitter answered: the traditional Christmas pottage, the forerunner to the more familiar Christmas pudding.
Then, in a strange coincidence, Channel 5 asked me to take part in their Christmas special for their Cakes & Bakes show, asking if I would do a bit on the history Christmas pottage/pudding/cake. It won’t be broadcast until Christmas 2021, but it can be viewed on their streaming service to watch right now, just follow this link. As usual it was great fun to film, though – as always – rather nerve-racking.
Pottages were thick soups – stews really – made from meat and vegetables, made thick with grains or breadcrumbs. The meat was omitted if it was a fast day of course. Everyone ate them; if you were poor it wasn’t much more than a thin gruel. If you were rich it was packed with meat, boose, dried fruits and spices, and at Christmas they really went overboard.
As far as I know this pottage was made from at least the Late (or, if you prefer, ‘High’) Middle Ages and it was eaten either on Christmas Day, or even better on Christmas Eve: a big steaming bowlful of it would be the perfect way to mark the end the 24-day fast that was Advent and start of the 12-day piss-up that was Christmastide.
And as all the people in the neighbourhood dine with [my uncle] at Christmas, he takes care to place those who are married at the upper end of the table with himself, and to provide them each with a silver spoon to eat his plumb-porridge, which is generally very good, while the batchelors and maidens, at the lower end of the table, are furnished only with wooden spoons, and have their plumb-porridge serv’d up in a wooden bowl.
From ‘Excursion of an Oxonian into the Country’ in The Student, Or, The Oxford and Cambridge Monthly Miscellany (1750)
Here’s the eighteenth century recipe I based mine on:
Plum-Pottage, or Christmas-Pottage.
Take a Leg of Beef, and boil it till it is tender in a sufficient quantity of Water, add two Quarts of red Wine, and two Quarts of old strong Beer; put to these some Cloves, Mace, and Nutmegs, enough to season it, and boil some Apples, pared and freed from the Cores into it, and boil them tender, and break them; and to every Quart of Liquor, put half a Pound of Currans pick’d clean, and rubb’d with a coarse Cloth, without washing. Then add a Pound of Raisins of the Sun, to a Gallon of Liquor, and half a Pound of Prunes. Take out the Beef, and the Broth or Pottage will be fit for use.
Prof. R Bradley, The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director‘ (1728)
It really was quite the dish.
Often pottages were cooked in a hot water pastry instead of expensive earthenware or iron pots; these were given the name ‘coffins’ and overtime pastry and baking became more refined and produced for us the mince pie. Sometimes the pottage (or porridge) was cooked in a bag and boiled (see Cauldron Cooking). It had to be less soupy and bound with eggs but cooking it this way provided us with the Dickensian cannonball-shaped Christmas pudding.
I took a look in the excellent University of Leeds Special Collections and found that they cite this fifteenth century recipe as the first example of the dish. It is more savoury, packed with onions and herbs and died red with saunders (a dye made from cedarwood).
My recipe will feed the whole family, including the “batchelors and maidens” that’s for sure. If you don’t want whole spices you can use ground ones and if you don’t want to use beef (or don’t have the time) just swap the water for beef stock:
500 g shin beef, sliced
1 litre cold water
1 tsp salt
400 ml red wine
400 ml stout
2 nutmegs, cracked, or 1 tsp ground nutmeg
6 blades of mace, or 1 tsp ground mace
1 heaped teaspoon whole cloves, or ½ tsp ground cloves
2 medium-sized Bramley apples, peeled, cored and diced
200 g currants
100 g raisins
100 g prunes
2 or 3 handfuls of fresh breadcrumbs (optional, see recipe)
Place the beef shin in a large saucepan with the salt and pour in the water. Heat over a medium flame – take your time – until the wate begins to just simmer. Skim away and scum, cover and leave to simmer very gently 2 ½ to 3 hours or until tender.
Add the remaining ingredients except the breadcrumbs, bring back to a simmer and cook until the apples are tender, and the fruit has plumped up nicely, around 30 minutes.
Break up the beef (if it hasn’t already fallen apart on its own) with the back of your spoon and then add enough breadcrumbs to achieve the desired consistency: you can leave it soupy if you like and add none, though I think it was better thickened slightly. Start by adding 2 handfuls and allow to simmer for 10 minutes, and then add more if you think it needs it.
Taste, adding more salt if you think it needs it and serve.
The Country Housewife and Lady’s Director‘ (1728) by Prof. R Bradley
‘The Festival of Christmas’ by Joan P Alcock in Oxford Symposium on Food & Cookery, 1990: Feasting and Fasting: Proceedings (1991)
‘Stewet of Beef to Potage’ in A collection of ordinances and regulations for the government of the royal household, made in divers reigns. From King Edward III. to King William and Queen Mary. Also receipts in ancient cookery (1790) by the Society of Antiquaries of London; University of Leeds Special Collections: https://library.leeds.ac.uk/special-collections/view/811