The Pheasant Philosopher’s Christmas Diaries: Stir Up Sunday

Originating in the early 18th century, Stir Up Sunday is the day traditionally designated to undertake the making of the Christmas Pudding.

Always kept on the last Sunday before Advent, it is said that Stir Up Sunday originated from a passage in a sermon in ‘The Book of Common Prayer’ translated from the Roman Catholic ‘Excita Quarsumus’ and read on the last Sunday in November.

“Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people”

However, whilst I consider myself spiritual, but not tied to one particular religion, I see it as a day to have fun with the family, make wishes whilst stirring, and generally set the scene for the beginning of the Christmas festivities. It also allows at least 4 weeks for the Pudding to mature in a dark cupboard before being brought flaming to the table on Christmas Day.

Traditionally made with 13 ingredients to represent the 12 apostles and Jesus, my Christmas Pudding recipe is adapted from the doyenne of English cookery Eliza Acton, whose recipe was first published in the 1840s. Under the reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901), with Prince Albert’s Germanic influences, Christmas became the spectacle it it today, with so many of our Christmas traditions filtering down from this, most famous of couples.

Although the roots of Christmas Pudding’s are deep set in The Middle Ages – where meat and fruit was combined with spices in many recipes – the sweet, sticky, boozy concoction we know and love today is very much a product of post-reformation Britain.

Packed full of moist vine fruits, suet, mixed peel, spices and, of course, booze – it is synonymous with Christmas Lunch and, love it or hate it, no Christmas meal is complete without it. Traditionally, every member of the household takes a turn to stir the pudding and make a wish. My Great Grandmother would take her industrial sized Christmas Pudding to the local brewery to be steamed in the great vessels used for brewing and my grandmother, who is now almost 108 still enjoys taking a turn stirring the pudding and making her wish.

Historically, a selection of silver tokens are stirred into the mix – most often a sixpence (silver is by nature anti-bacterial so no poisoning worries there, although it does make for somewhat of a choking hazard) and the finder of this would “enjoy wealth and good luck in the year to come”.

Christmas Pudding

Serves 6-8

75g plain flour (or gluten free)

75g breadcrumbs (I like to use wholemeal)

175g suet (beef or vegetable)

175g chopped figs

175g sultanas

50g diced mixed peel

1 large apple, grated

1 large orange, zest grated and juiced

150g dark brown sugar

1.5 tsp mixed spice

1/2 tsp sea salt

100ml Armagnac (or any spirit you prefer)

3 eggs lightly beaten

Method

Mix all the ingredients together in a large bowl, making sure that every member of the household gets to stir and make their wish!

Pour into a greased pudding bowl – I use a 21 cm Pyrex bowl – cover with a dampened new tea towel or muslin then tie securely with string.

Place on a trivet in a large lidded pan and pour water 3/4 of the way up the side

Bring to the boil and then simmer gently for 4 hours, topping up the water when necessary

Cool and store in a cool, dark and dry place – I keep my pudding in the bowl, in a large tin – you can ‘feed’ it with spirits but if you are planning on bringing it, flaming, to the table too much additional alcohol can prove dangerous.

On Christmas Day, repeat the steaming procedure for 1 and 1/2 hours then serve with your choice of Brandy Butter, Custard, Cream or Vanilla Sauce – not forgetting the obligatory sprig of decorative Holly!


The Pheasant Philosophises in Gascony: Market Musings

PoudenasAlmost twenty-five years ago, my parents bought a large, honey coloured stone village house on the borders of three French departments; the Lot-et-Garonne, The Gers and The Landes. Three departments with extremely different culinary influences yet all exceptional in their own way.My first ever piece of food writing was for my GCSE English coursework portfolio. I wrote about French Markets, they enthralled me with their colours, smells, tastes and vibrancy. I had always enjoyed writing but when I wrote about food and drink it was like coming home. Every holiday I made it my business to learn everything I could about the local French food – I tried it all and discovered so much.

So, twenty-years later, what’s changed in rural France? 

The village hasn’t, the markets haven’t – although there has been a wonderful resurgence in artisanal beer which has proved very popular with my other half. The pace of life is still the same…a few more shops open on Monday than used to, and one or two of the supermarkets are opening on Sunday mornings. There have been small injections of more contemporary culture – only this morning I spotted a designer coffee stall offering lattes and syrup-garnished cappuccinos; but in general, my little part of South-West France has remained the same and that is quite wonderful. 

I think the British could learn a lot from the French attitude towards food – they are proud of their regional dishes, simple as some are, and in Britain we too have a great deal to celebrate, culinarily. Whilst France is synonymous with fine dining, rural France indulges differently – not in the most elegant and visually perfect – but in the freshest and most nutritious, children are fed well from an early age, their palates are educated, they’ll often choose salad and fruit over some fake sugary concoction. Unlike the UK, France is not at the height of an obesity crisis, although twenty years ago it was rare to see any obesity in the county, today it is about – something which has fallen in line with the expansion of ready meals and highly processed products arriving in the great, overly lit hypermarkets which are sadly now ever present. 

Inherently though, there is a good nutritional underpinning and food is celebrated. Families gather together to share a meal, the summer evenings offer nocturnal markets showcasing the very best the region has to offer, there are feasts dedicated to individual dishes – the Gascon Garbure for example – which is a wonderful hotchpotch of meats boiled with vegetables and sometimes white beans, then served with great reverence – I suppose it’s a little like our Welsh Cawl, that ever boiling stock pot which had been part of Welsh culture for centuries. 

This morning I visited one of my favourite local markets, about 30 minutes drive away. The town of Eauze, in the Gers, is famed for its Roman remains and the market which snakes through the streets on a Thursday morning is one of those places that tourists hope to happen to happen upon to tell friends about at home. Divided into two halves, one for clothing, household goods, gifts, jewellery and the like and the other – my favourite – is in the lower square under the shadow of the trees and is, of course, the food market.

Packed into a relatively small space are dozens of traders – some selling a few vegetables or eggs from their gardens, some on a much grander scale. It’s like Pandora’s box, around each corner is something delicious waiting to be discovered. 

Today, it being mid June, I picked up some delicious local strawberries, absolutely on the point of perfection (so perfect in fact that they had to be eaten rather quickly after lunch), deep, green courgettes with their smooth, tactile skin, and deep, vibrant red cherries from the Gers. There were the first of the season’s melons – still an expensive treat until July when they fill the markets in abundance with that sweet smell which begs you to buy them. There were haricots blancs, haricot vert – the vendor snapping the fine beans to display their crisp freshness. A little further on were organic cheeses; goats, cows and sheep, wrapped in waxed paper and proudly displaying their ‘Bio’ credentials. Another stall was packed with glistening barrels of olives, all varieties and flavours – beside which were drums of preserved fruit from the sweet local prunes of Agen to the candid pineapples of the exotic West Indies, and littles packets of spices from across the globe. 

What is wonderful about France, is the opportunity to regularly buy exactly the amount you need. Markets are held daily somewhere in the area, most towns are no more than a 30 minute drive apart and there is no shame in buying three tomatoes, 100g of olives or a handful of cherries. There is certainly less waste, which, in this age of over excess and a throwaway economy, is surely welcome. 

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