Are you a traditionalist when it comes to the end of the Christmas meal? For me nothing comes close to Christmas pudding but I have often wondered what the ‘figgy pudding’ in the song ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ was? Was it a fig pudding of sorts?
Turns out there is quite a long story behind the pudding we call traditional. Christmas pudding originated as a 14th century porridge called ‘frumenty’ (sometimes frumentee, furmity, fromity, or fermenty).
It was made primarily from boiled, cracked wheat—hence its name, which derives from the Latin word frumentum, “grain” and contained beef and mutton with raisins, currants, prunes, wines and spices.
By 1595, frumenty was slowly changing into a plum pudding, having been thickened with eggs, breadcrumbs, dried fruit and given more flavour with the addition of beer and spirits. It became the customary Christmas dessert around 1650, but in 1664 the Puritans banned it as decadent. In 1714, King George I re-established it as part of the Christmas meal, having tasted and enjoyed Plum Pudding.
By Victorian times, Christmas Puddings had changed into something similar to the ones that are eaten today – the image above is from the famous Mrs Beeton’s Cook Book.
But what of the famous figgy pudding – where does it come into the story? Well, it dates back to 16th century and its possible ancestors include savoury puddings, such as crustades (a type of custard tart), fygeye or figge (a potage of mashed figs thickened with bread), creme boiled (a kind of stirred custard, and sippets (croutons). In any case, its methods and ingredients appear in diverse older recipes, and changed from place to place – in the West Country figgy pudding was made with plums or raisins and didn’t necessarily have figs in at all. Since the carol comes from that part of the world we can be pretty sure that our traditional pudding is close to the one mentioned in the song.
And the holly on the top? Although we eat this pudding at Christmas it was often associated with Easter – holly is a reference to his crown of thorns, but on the upside it was also thought to bring good luck and healing properties. I am looking forward to mine!