Any non-British person looking at our history of puddings would be forgiven for thinking we're a bunch of maniacs. From our jam roly-polys to our suet puddings, Christmas puddings, bread and butter puddings, Sussex pond puddings, and spotted dicks (I know), we are a nation responsible for not an arsenal of desserts, but sweetened sandbags for the gut.
The word itself means something entirely different to our friends over the Atlantic. In fact, my esteemed colleague on this very website says, "When I think of pudding, I think of Bill Cosby jello pudding commercials." To me, pudding—or, more commonly, "pud"—is a bowl of hot treacle sponge in a thick reservoir of custard the colour of chick feathers. Followed by instant unconsciousness. It's a word more synonymous with comfort than "duvet" or "Friends omnibus."
According to The Oxford Companion to Food, the ancestor of the term was the Latin word botellus, meaning sausage, from which also came boudin. So, in effect, all puddings are the direct descendent of a Roman sausage. Sweet, really.
We had to come on quite a journey to get to pudding as we know it now, though. In the beginning (Medieval times), black pudding (blood sausage) was served with white pudding, which although was also made with sausage skin or stomach lining, was almost entirely cereal in composition—a heavy blend of suet and breadcrumbs. When cooks started to get jazzy and think outside the box, they started throwing in sugar, dried fruit, and spices. Then, in the 16th century, when most houses had little ovens built into their chimneys that were capable of conjuring temperatures hotter than the sun, cooks began encasing their sweet suet bombs in pastry. This path led to baked puddings.
Further breakthroughs came with the invention of pudding cloth (around the beginning of the 17th century), so animal guts no longer had to be used, and again in the 18th century when suet mixtures were joined by the first sponge puddings. Baked and boiled sponge batters became de rigueur. When domestic servants became scant in the 20th century, though, pudding cloths were rejected. Why bother with a bit of material when you can just pile a basin with batter, cover it with foil, and boil or steam it?
Nowadays, you're more likely to spot a naked Jeremy Paxman under Tower Bridge, swimming the Thames on his back with a flowery armband protecting his twigs and berries, than you are a spotted dick and custard on a restaurant menu.
The heavy, palate-sticking puddings of yore are, unless you eat at your nan's every weekend, almost a memory. If you ask any British person what their favourite childhood dishes were, though, they'll almost certainly come back with something hot, spongey, and sweet, invariably involving custard from a packet. It's the stuff we were fed at school in neatly compartmented plastic trays, the stuff our grandparents taunted us with to make us eat all the over-boiled carrots on our Sunday lunch plates, the stuff that stuck to our ribs when we went out to play on freezing cold "summer" evenings.
Heavy puddings were rejected in favour of delicate mousses, panna cottas, jellies, and tarts when nouvelle cuisine came to life in the 60s, percolating from French kitchens onto restaurant plates across the globe, and this is still pretty much a reality eating out in Britain today. Our dense puddings have gone out of fashion over the years, mostly because they're edible heart attacks, but also because they leave little room for creative flare. You can't make a suet pudding look beautiful—a stumbling block in modern gastronomy.
Still, for coma-inducing pudding lovers like myself, there is hope yet. Thanks to people like Heston Blumenthal, who, with his restaurant Dinner by Heston Blumenthal—that of meat fruit infamy—and history-exploring TV shows, we are starting to see nostalgic puddings crop up more. Certainly in London, at least. Buy me a slice of Hoi Polloi's treacle tart and I'll snog you over the table. Take me to Hawksmoor and buy me one of their sticky toffee puddings and I'll marry you in the toilets.
A restaurant that really, truly, wants to look after—rather than just dazzle—you will take the most arterial route to your heart that it can: nostalgia. If you can find somewhere that serves something archaic like Sussex pond pudding, for example (a suet pastry pudding that encases a whole lemon, and, when cut into, releases a thick pond of citrusy, sugary butter) you must make the manager or chef—like Tramshed's Ronnie Murray—your friend. This place wants to do the food equivalent of carrying you to bed after falling asleep in front of the TV.
Outside the restaurant world, home kitchens have always told a different story when it comes to puddings. My mum speaks with glassy eyes remembering the stodgy sponges my nan—a caustic, working class Scottish woman who had a tea towel permanently stuffed into her waistband—would make in a roasting tin on a Sunday and eke out for an after dinner treat for her and her brother during the week.
For Britons of a certain age—particularly those from working class families—a heavy pudding like that isn't just nostalgic. It speaks of something brilliant made from everyday things—fat, sugar, eggs, flour. In hard times, being able to fashion your family something delicious—and, crucially, filling—made from cheap store cupboard ingredients, was really something. Because that's the thing with all our old puddings—they're thrifty as shit. It's why we were fed them at school—for next to nothing, school cooks could bake trays upon trays of sponges that looked like nothing but tasted of everything, and made us all nice and docile in afternoon lessons. In hindsight, we were having awful sugar crashes, but hey. I turned out OK-ish.
The British pudding is so special because it cannot be separated from love and affection. Yes, there is a utility to baking frugally, but you'd never give a piece of sponge to someone you didn't want to make feel good.
Take my favourite pudding of all, the Tottenham Cake. You can only really find the real thing now in market cafés and East End greasy spoons like the sublime Arthur's Café in Dalston. A classic London cake that originates in the Tottenham Quaker community, it's a 19th century invention for a tray-baked sponge topped with pink icing dyed with mulberries from the Tottenham Friends burial ground (or strawberry jam and desiccated coconut) that was originally given out free to children to celebrate Tottenham's 1901 FA Cup victory.
Says it all, really.