Proper Christmas dinner – turkey, cranberry sauce, Christmas Pudding, brandy butter, right? Oh come on, get serious. Soup, fish, beef, duck, lamb, salad, mince pies, plum cake. And a couple of rabbits, maybe. And Orange Pudding. At least.
James Woodforde was an unremarkable country parson who kept a remarkable diary, from 1758 till his death in 1803. For the last thirty years of his life he was the parson of a small parish at Weston Longville, in Norfolk. This was not exactly a job, more a device to allow an educated gentleman to live comfortably. Woodforde was expected to read prayers at his church on Sundays – unless he decided not to, in which case he was obliged to find someone to stand in for him – and perform the occasional baptism, wedding or burial. He led a low-key, comfortable, profoundly Tory existence, looked after by his niece Nancy. The diary records the minutiae of his everyday life. It’s like Jane Austen without the art. He never moralises, and he never mentions religion. His interests were (roughly in order) food, food, drink, food, money, the details of household management, and food.
For a short time before taking the job in Norfolk, Woodforde was the Sub-Warden of New College, Oxford. On Christmas Day 1773 ‘We had for Dinner two fine Codds boiled with fryed Souls around them and oyſter sauce, a fine ſirloin of Beef roaſted, ſome peas ſoup and an orange Pudding for the firſt courſe; for the ſecond we had a leaſe of Wild Ducks roſted, a fore Qu: of Lamb, and ſallad, and mince Pies. After the ſecond course there was a fine Plumb Cake brought to the ſenr. Table as is uſual on this day.’
This dinner, ordered by Woodforde, was served at 3 o’clock to fifteen Senior Fellows. (Sorry, can’t help using Capitals.) Supper, served a few Hours later, was for the Junior Fellows too. The fact that they were at the College on Christmas Day suggests that they were all living there. Did they have Families? It seems not.
The dinner was, by the upper-middle-class standards of the Time, modest. At a formal dinner with Bishop of Norwich and twenty other People a few years later, Woodforde describes two courses of twenty Dishes each, followed by twenty Desserts, the centrepiece of the Table being ‘a most beautiful artificial Garden’. At the New College Christmas Dinner, the Food is quite plain, and it’s very likely that the Fellows didn’t by any means eat it all. Very possibly the leftovers would feed the Servants. What is very curious is the Structure of the Meal. For one thing, it’s not really a Meal, it’s two Meals. You eat your Fishes and your Beef and your soup and your Orange Pudding, and then you start again. For each Course/Meal, the dishes are served in the French Style - simultaneously. Are they hot? Presumably not. And even if they are, they’re going to get cold. Because surely you don’t pile them all on to your Plate at once? The savoury and the sweet? This style of Service was gradually superseded during the nineteenth century by the Russian Style, in which the dishes were brought to Table one at a time. You’ve got to say, the Russians had a point.
Curiously, there’s no Plumb Pudding, even though Plumb Pudding was common in the late eighteenth century. There’s a recipe in Hannah Glasse’s wonderful 1747 cookbook The Art Of Cookery made Plain and Eaſy. But there is the intriguing Orange Pudding. Orange? Pudding? Orange Pudding in winter? Oh yes, Seville oranges, imported from Spain, not usually available these days till January, but obviously arriving before Christmas then. Hannah Glasse has recipes for two different kinds, one baked, one boiled.
An Orange Pudding
Boil two Seville Oranges in ſeveral Waters till they are tender, take out all the In-meat, and beat the Skins to a Paſte in a Mortar; add to it half a Pound of fine Powder-ſugar, half a pound of Butter beat to Cream in a Mortar; then take out the Seed and the Strings, and add the Pulp of the Oranges to it, and the Yolks of ten Eggs, beat all together till it is ſmooth; then lay a Sheet of Puff-paste all over your Diſh, pour in your Pudding and bake it three Quarters of an Hour.
A boiled Orange Pudding
Grate the Rind of two Seville Oranges, and beat it in a Mortar to a Paſte; put a quarter of a Pound of Naple Biscuits into a Pint of thick Cream, mix this with the Paſte of Orange, and ſweeten it to your Taſte; beat up five eggs, mix all well together, flour a Pudding-cloth, put in your Pudding, and put it into a Pot of boiling Water, an Hour will boil it: Take White-wine, a little Sugar and ſweet melted Butter for Sauce.
The baked Pudding is almost a custard Tart, but probably, considering the quantities, deeper. For the boiled Pudding, I used 150g Sugar, and cooked it in a Bowl rather than a Cloth - coward. (Naples Biscuits, by the way, are similar to Ladyfingers. They were often used in eighteenth century Puddings.) Both the Puddings are subtle, light and delicious, much more suited to the end of a Christmas Dinner than a Plumb Pudding.
On that Christmas Day ‘We had Rabbits for ſupper roasted as is uſual on this day. The Sub-Warden has one to himſelf; the Burſars each one apiece; the Senr. Fellows ½ a one each. The Junr. Fellows a rabbit between three.’ Woodforde remember, was the Sub-Warden, so he had a whole Rabbit to himself.
Words by Orlando Gough