How Christmas made Elizabeth a Crosspatch

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Trying to create the grand finale to the English Christmas feast on a Greek island, Elizabeth David came to realise the complicated reality of this familiar item

Living on the Greek island of Syros in 1940, Elizabeth David charmed islanders with her piccalilli from an improvised recipe. ‘To me the mixture seemed fairly odd, but with my village friends it was successful enough.’ In fact, they were so willing to barter it for other food items that, as David recalled, ‘I could have lived for nothing so long as I was prepared to dedicate my life to pickle-making.’ When Christmas approached, talk in the village tavern turned to another exotic English item. ‘By now I had learned a little more about these kindly village tyrants. If Christmas pudding they wanted, Christmas pudding I should have to give them.’ Realising that the ‘happy-go-lucky system’ she had developed for piccalilli would be a bit risky, David telegraphed home for a pudding recipe and worked out that by multiplying each ingredient by three, there would be sufficient for ‘a large-scale Christmas party .

Now, all those with their fine talk of the glory of Old English fare, have they ever actually made Christmas pudding, in large quantities by Old English methods? Have they, for instance, ever tried cleaning and skinning, flouring, shredding, chopping beef kidney suet straight off the hoof? Have they ever stoned bunch after bunch of raisins hardly yet dry on the stalk and each one as sticky as a piece of warm toffee? And how long do they think it takes to bash up three pounds of breadcrumbs without an oven in which they could first dry the loaves? Come to that, what would they make of an attempt to boil, and to keep on the boil for nine to ten hours on two charcoal fires let into holes in the wall, some dozen large puddings? Well, I had nothing much else to do in those days, and quite enjoyed all the work, but I’d certainly never let myself in for such an undertaking again. Nor, indeed, would I again attempt to explain the principles of a hay-box* and the reasons for making one to peasants of whose language I had such a scanty knowledge and who are in any case notoriously unreceptive to the idea of having hot food, or for that matter hot water or hot coffee, hotter than tepid.
All things considered, my puddings turned out quite nicely. The ones which emerged from the hay-box were at just about the right temperature – luke-warm. They were sweet and dark and rich. My village friends were not as enthusiastic as they had been about the mustard pickles.  What with so many of the company having participated in the construction of the hay-box, my assurances that the raisins and the currants grown and dried there on the spot in the Greek sun were richer and more juicy than the artificially dried, hygienically treated and much-travelled variety we got at home, my observations on the incomparable island-made candied citron and orange peel (that was fun to cut up too) given me by the neighbours, and the memorable scent of violets and brilliantine given to the puddings by Athenian brandy, a certain amount of the English mystery had disappeared from our great national dish.

From Spices, Salt and Aromatics by Elizabeth David (1970)

*A hay-box is a large insulated container that completes the cooking of items previously heated to around boiling point. Hay, the most commonly used form of insulation in this wooden structure, is so effective that no heat source is required.

Photo credit: Syros by Thomas Hackl on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC

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