Loved and hated in equal measure, Christmas pudding’s cultural and political clout have extended far beyond the dining table. It has been called a “gastronomic paradox” – the most British of all dishes, largely made from non-British ingredients.

       Today, Christmas pudding, the dense, fruit-packed confection that is boiled for hours and served with brandy butter or steaming custard just once a year, is loved and hated in equal measure, like Brussels sprouts or Marmite. However, its cultural and political clout have extended far beyond the dining table.

       Starting out as an affordable gruel enjoyed by the British working class, by the first half of the 20th century Christmas pudding had become a call to arms – a potent propaganda tool and a boastful symbol of British imperialism. Containing such exotic fare as candied orange peel from South Africa, raisins from Australia and spices from India and Zanzibar, the dish was sent into economic battle by the state and used to promote the empire’s family of nations with a simple message: just look at the wonders we can achieve when we all pull together.

       While the origins of Christmas pudding extend back to the Middle Ages, modern business terms such as “globalisation”, the “international supply chain” and “free trade between nations” were not tripping off the tongue of the average English peasant back then, when a working man’s meal might include frumenty, a savoury oat porridge thickened with breadcrumbs and perhaps dotted with scraps of mutton or beef.

       By the 16th Century, English merchants were active in the spice trade and importing exciting new foodstuffs from Africa, India and Southeast Asia, and this previously unappetising gruel might now include prunes, currants and raisins instead of gristle. Frumenty was the ancestor of plum pudding, it is claimed by no less than Fortnum & Mason, the 18th-Century London department store celebrated for its gourmet groceries, with plum once being a generic term for any dried dark fruit.

       Then, in the 17th Century, Brits began wrapping doughs in cloths and boiling them to make more solid puddings. As more goods arrived in Britain, cloves, or cinnamon, or currants were added to the recipe. Large-scale sugar production was introduced to the Caribbean islands in the 1640s, and sugar was crucial to pudding becoming a sweet rather than a savoury dish.

       Christmas pudding finally became key to Christmas tradition during the Victorian era, in no small part thanks to Charles Dickens’ 1843 literary blockbuster “A Christmas Carol”. The culinary treat of the parable-like novel’s warm-hearted Cratchit family came to symbolise irrepressible cheer in the face of hardship: “In half a minute, Mrs. Cratchit entered. Flushed, but smiling proudly, with the pudding, like a speckled cannonball, so hard and firm, blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy, and bedight with Christmas holly stuck into the top. Oh, a wonderful pudding!”

       Meanwhile, the British hunger for better grub was quietly shaping agricultural policies of nations across the planet. Back then, the Brits relished the might they enjoyed through their sea power and reach, not only to import delicious fare but also as a “civilising influence” on their overseas colonies and other far-flung countries.

This, then, was a thrilling period for the British, not just of increasing gastronomic plenty, but of diversity, complexity and culinary adventure, with “the empire effectively feeding the British working class”, according to Collingham.

       Wherever Britain’s empire-building traders went, they took Christmas pudding with them. With its pleasingly long shelf life, a pudding could journey to the hill stations of Kashmir or the bloody battlefields of Crimea. A convict in Sydney might, with a well-placed bribe to a guard, receive a pudding in the mail.

       The national government stepped up in 1926, establishing the Empire Marketing Board (EMB) to further promote imperial unity, again turning to the much-loved Christmas pudding to convince the British public to be patriotic in their spending habits.

The board’s “Empire Christmas Pudding” included ingredients from Australia (currants, sultanas, raisins, brandy), South Africa (sultanas, raisins, candied peel) British Guiana (sugar) and others played starring roles. Cyprus was miffed to be left out of the mix. The Mediterranean island’s colonial commissioner made an urgent December call to the EMB, demanding that the pudding should be served with its brandy butter.

       This “King’s Christmas Pudding” was a great success, however, remaining immensely popular with British families until World War Two, when the sun finally set on the empire. Today, few British households make Christmas pudding from scratch, preferring the ease of purchasing a ready-made product – in the same way that a modern Italian might shop for panettone, or a German might stock up on stollen. I should add that this writer still relishes a heaped serving of Christmas pudding, even if it comes from Marks and Spencer.

       Thankfully, despite the decline of the Empire, for those who truly love the once-a-year treat, Christmas pudding survives.

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