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Discovering England’s puddings

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Beer editor Christopher Staten travels to England to find the meaning of pudding.

Sitting in the banquet room of the Three Ways House Hotel in Gloucestershire, England, a few glasses of red wine and a stiff double shot of whiskey under my belt, I’m desperately trying to bring the half-eaten portion of Sticky Toffee Pudding lumped in front of me into focus. Around the bowl’s edges, a Pollock-esque display of syrup, raspberry jam and custard lashings looks like the blown-out leftovers of a head once filled with sugarplum dreams. This is my fifth helping of pudding in under an hour, and nausea’s setting in. Around me, the polite mannerisms of my fellow English pudding eaters have vanished into the saccharine ether. Fork ends bang against tables; heckling ensues. I’m American, from the land of largesse, and little old ladies with delicate accents are eating me under the table.

“After a few pints of custard people get confused,” a voice rises out of the clatter. “The first thing people say when they come here is ‘What if the pudding runs out?’ It never, ever, ever runs out.” Cue maniacal laughter.

This is the famed Pudding Club, self-proclaimed “Eighth Wonder of the World,” and the voice belongs to club chairman Peter Henderson. If I don’t focus and finish my gored pudding, it’s likely Henderson and his sugar-spiked dessert junkies might toss me out.

*

The night before traveling to southwestern England’s bucolic Cotswolds in search of pudding, a region of rolling hills, farms and orchards, I got a rather poignant Facebook message from my uncle.

“I’ll save you the trip,” he wrote. “Open a box, pour it in a bowl and add cold milk. Stir until fully mixed and then refrigerate. I probably just saved you $5,000.”
On one hand, he’s right. There’s no shame in embracing Bill Cosby’s jiggly treat, but like fictional twerp Gareth Keenan of “The Office,” I don’t trust the way it moves. I want to know what pudding really is, what I’ve been missing all the nights I’d satiated my post-dinner appetite with such delicacies as aspartame-jacked popsicles. I want to taste the fabled dessert that was savored by Dickens’ lowly Cratchit family, and rudely demanded each year in “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.”

Advice from family duly noted, I touched down in England, stomach empty and sweet tooth primed. First order of business: a few pints with an old friend and a primer on pudding.
“English puddings are generally pretty stodgy, unsubtle affairs like so many things on this island: warm ales, pasty faces, thick gravy, comfy pubs, heavy coats, an obsession with offal,” my friend tells me. “My only explanation is that in all these instances we are guarding ourselves against the weather. A good pudding—treacle sponge or jam roly poly—is like a raincoat you don’t have to remember to take along. Attached at your stomach, hips or face, it’s with you for the ride.”

Pudding’s a bizarre concept for a foreigner. There’s savory pudding, like the dried-blood black pudding and gelatinous kidney pie, and then there’s the sweet variety. I’m here for the sweets. Embedded deep in British gastronomic history, pudding has emerged as a label for just about any dessert, whether it be sweet, tart, bread-based, cold or hot. These desserts could be anywhere, in any shape, any form, but every style, without fail, turns heads like sizzling fajitas.

*

When searching for meaning, it’s best to start with the obvious. That’s how I found myself standing in the short stone doorway of The Old Original Bakewell Pudding Shop in the conveniently named town of Bakewell, home of the world-famous Bakewell Pudding since the 1880s. According to local lore, this rich, buttery, tart puff pastry came about when a drunken cook botched a huntsman’s order for raspberry tart.

“Instead of putting jam on the top, she put it on the bottom, and the huntsman liked it,” explains Pauline Dinsdale, a pleasant woman nice enough to offer a quick tour around the cramped, low ceiling bakery. “But that’s all hidden in the mist of time; part of the myth.”

Today, the shop boasts an output of up to 14,000 puddings each week during peak season, all crafted by one main baker. While it’s perhaps the most famous sweet pudding in England, the recipe’s a secret to this day, locked away in a safe. It’s clear that if I’m going to understand pudding, I’ll have to get my hands dirty.

I arrive at the Brompton Cookery School, located on a National Trust property in the heart of Shropshire for a hands-on lesson in pudding. I’m attempting to make a perfect pear tart, and a very talented, very patient cook named Jane Bennett has agreed to show me how. I crack some eggs, peel some pears and prepare the pastry. As the pieces come together, Bennett, who’s standing over my shoulder, admits pudding is steeped in tradition but that there’s no rulebook for making it. I must be doing something wrong.
“I love making pudding, I’ve been doing it all my life,” she says. “And innovation is definitely allowed.”

There’s a fine line between her innovation and my ineptitude. The pudding was decent, but there was something missing. If I truly want to experience pudding’s restorative properties, I’ll have to find someone to make it for me—while I watch, drinking a beer.

Enter Rob Rees, aka The Cotswold Chef. Rees invites me to his house to demonstrate how to make his Cotswold Bread and Butter Pudding. He fires up the oven as I take a seat in the kitchen with a pint of local Wickwar Station Porter.

“I could do some poncey stuff with lots of dribbles, and all kinds of things, but that’s not what you want from pudding,” he explains. “Every Sunday, we’re always doing pudding here. It’s the one time for the kids that I allow them to have sugar.”

More than a chef, Rees is a strong proponent of the Slow Food movement, and heavily celebrated in this farming region. I watch as he seamlessly cracks local eggs, portions out local milk and butter and performs some version of wizardry that transforms this dish into a buttery, aromatic treasure. Its rich bread-butter-sugar mix coats the tongue while a dash of orange zest perks the taste buds. As I lose myself in the pudding-porter combo, I begin to understand the comfort this treat offers. Its thickness sticks to the ribs, and its sweetness forces a smile. It elevates the down times and punctuates the good. Confident in my newfound understanding, I retreat from the Cotswold Chef’s hillside home to pose as a pudding connoisseur with the best: The Pudding Club.

*

There’s a bit of pageantry at the Pudding Club “meetings” known as the Parade of Pudding. After members and guests filter into the ballroom and find their tables, the charismatic, hilariously charming Peter Henderson begins the royal announcement of puddings, while waiters heave large bowls of dessert through a whooping, roaring, table thumping crowd. It’s electric, but there are rules. Members can come up to the pudding buffet as many times as they wish, but only when their table is invited. Members are only allowed one pudding in their bowl at a time. And, finally, if you don’t finish what’s in your bowl, you can’t move on to the next round.

And so, here I am, staring at that half-eaten bowl of Sticky Toffee Pudding in front of me while images of previous helpings flood my mind: Squidgy Chocolate & Nut, Jam Roly Poly, Rhubarb Trifle, Ginger Syrup. Henderson motions for our table’s sixth round, so I shove the last spoonfuls of the spongy, rich toffee dessert in my mouth and waddle over to the next helping, Bread and Butter.

“If you want to go for it, if you think you’re hard enough, then come on,” laughs Henderson. “One young man ate 23 puddings. Seven was just a snack.”

As the hours that night melted away like chocolate under a warm lashing of custard, I made my way through the seven-pudding challenge, and then some more. After a final glass of wine I struck out for a walk in the crisp, cool night, hoping to burn some sugar before passing out in bed. Trudging along the wet, muddy paths that circumnavigate the bordering farmland, I laughed as I remembered my friend’s comment. Despite the chilly air, my stomach was warm and a brush of sugar sweetness coated my smile. Pudding—whatever form you find it in—is comfort, not unlike a raincoat you carry with you at all times. •

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