Plum In Your Mouth

The Age

Tuesday November 26, 1996

Roslyn Grundy and Stephanie Wood

The mission: to find the perfect Christmas pudding. The result: a triumph of tradition. By Roslyn Grundy and Stephanie Wood.

IN THE dining room, the judges worked silently, resigned and determined. In the kitchen, the air was thick with spice and spirit and the pudding rivals' nervous tension.

And between the two rooms a woman in a blue uniform shuttled trolley after trolley laden with Christmas puddings, identified only by a letter of the alphabet. Flat puddings, glistening puddings, ball-shaped puddings, log-shaped puddings, black puddings, crumbling puddings and perfect puddings.

It was the perfect pudding that the four judges sought in the 1996 Epicure Christmas Pudding Quest.

For Doreen Grisbrook, a home economics teacher with 10 years' Royal Melbourne Show judging under her belt, the perfect pudding was heavy and compact, with evenly sized pieces of fruit. And definitely no cherries.

For Michael Miller, the head of culinary studies at William Angliss College, it was a pudding with clean, well-defined fruit flavors in balance with each other and with the spices and alcohol.

For leading pastry chef Loretta Sartori, of the Collingwood cake studio Distorta, it was a pudding made with good fruit, alcohol and suet. "I don't eat meat, but the flavor that suet imparts sets puddings apart, as far as I'm concerned," she said.

And for Epicure food writer and critic Stephanie Wood, it was a moist pudding with a rich, intense flavor, well-integrated fruit and a distinct alcoholic kick.

Most of these attributes came together in the plum pudding made at Wardlaw Fine Foods. An old-fashioned plum pudding that has travelled a long road.

Half a century ago, Wardlaw employee Margaret Crowe joined a children's scramble for the silver threepences and sixpences hidden among the pudding's sultanas, currants and raisins. There are dim memories, too, of stirring the big bowl bearing the wet, raw ingredients. Of licking the wooden spoon and running her small fingers around the bowl to catch the last of the mixture.

Then she was a grown up and, like a rite of passage, her mother handed her the recipe and the responsibility for making the family's Christmas pudding. Candy the citrus peel. Steep the sultanas, currants and raisins in brandy for six hours. Grate the fresh nutmeg. Stir in the eggs and soft breadcrumbs. Spoon the mixture into a pudding basin and boil for five or six hours.

Crowe has made minor adjustments - she uses butter rather than suet, and replaces half the milk with orange juice - but essentially it is just as was set out in her mother's hand-written recipe.

Crowe took her pudding out into the big wide world almost a decade ago, when she and a couple of friends took over Toorak Tarts. Customers would return year after year, loyal to the pudding that tasted like their mothers had made it. "It's all done by hand - it's handmade like you would make yours at home," she says.

Last year, Crowe brought her piece of family history to the Brighton cafe and catering firm owned by Jay and Rachel Wardlaw. "We made them last year and people thought they were too expensive, but once they tasted them they could see why," says Jay Wardlaw of the pudding for which only the best will do. The finest fruit. Freshly squeezed orange juice. Quality brandy.

And the pudding quest judges could pick the difference. They inhaled the tradition with a mellow aroma of fruit, spice and brandy, and unanimously awarded Crowe's perfect bowl-shaped pudding top marks for appearance, mouth feel, aroma and taste.

"It was clearly a winner," says Stephanie Wood. "While it might not have been as moist as some of the others, it looked pretty damn good, cut well and had an enticing aroma and flavor."

Doreen Grisbrook agrees: "That was a great pudding, wasn't it?"

"It wouldn't put you to bed after a Christmas lunch groaning," says Michael Miller, a judge in Epicure's first pudding quest two years ago.

This year, Miller says, standards were higher. "I thought there were three or four quite acceptable ones, another four or five were just OK, and a third (of them) you just wouldn't serve to anyone."

There certainly were some puddings that the judges turned their noses up at. The tasting was punctuated by occasional grimaces and groans as they encountered a whiff of cheap essence or spirit, a chunk of rough-hewn peel, an unpleasant, cloying aftertaste.

"Some of the competitors have lost touch with what it could be: plump fruit in quality alcohol ... fresh zest," says Loretta Sartori. "If people are not keen on candying their own peel they should just use fresh zest, and avoid essences."

Says Miller: "I think some of them had far too much spice and some had far too much alcohol and some really poor alcohol. I want a really clean fruit flavor to be the first thing I taste."

This might well be disappointing news for some of the 20 anxious pudding makers and their supporters, who began arriving at William Angliss College's kitchen at 8.30am last Tuesday, puddings in tow, to start steaming and presenting.

"It's make or break for a lot of people," says a sympathetic Doreen Grisbrook of the competition, which pitted the big guns against small producers who crank up their stoves shortly before Christmas to make a small number of puddings for small outlets.

Like Gabrielle Geddes, who travelled from Deniliquin, New South Wales, to bring her log-shaped macadamia nut puddings to the big city. She brought one to the William Angliss kitchen but took others door-knocking around town, looking for outlets that might consider selling them. "I was very brave and ventured into Simon Johnson (a Fitzroy "purveyor of quality foods") to see if they were interested, but I haven't heard back from them."

Geddes left her job in community health to pursue a career with food, and has only been making her puddings for a couple of months. She caught the tail-end of her pudding recipe on a television program. "I didn't get all the ingredients and I didn't get all the method, but I just played around with it," she says. "People have found that once they taste them they like them because they are a little bit crunchy."

Other competitors have a few more runs on the board. Like Stephen and Michele Morrice, of Stephen's Fine Foods, whose 25,000 puddings are sold all over the country at department store food halls and smaller outlets.

Their glossy, rich and moist pudding came in just behind the Wardlaw creation. Always the bridesmaid - to their chagrin, the same thing happened at the first pudding quest two years ago.

Family tradition also plays a big part in the Morrices' pudding - the recipe was handed down by Stephen's grandmother.

The Mansfield couple started making the pudding eight years ago after a bad snow season put a dent in their delicatessen business. "It was the first year of the David Jones food hall," says Michele. "We took it in to show them, they loved it and the business has just grown and grown."

* The puddings were tasted "blind" and awarded a score out of five points for aroma, mouth-feel and appearance and a score out of 10 for flavor. All were served warm, but without sauces or accompaniments.

SOME traditions die hard - especially if you bite into them - and there are those who believe a Christmas plum pudding's just not a Christmas plum pudding without a

silver coin inside.

According to Mark Townshend, the manager of Downie's coin and medal shop in the city's Block Arcade, many traditionalists still put threepences or sixpences in their puddings. At this time of the year he sees two or three people a day - and more as Christmas gets closer - who are looking for coins for their pudding.

"You don't hear about it much these days, but it's still around," says Townshend.

One of his more affluent customers visits Downie's every year to buy a gold sovereign to stir into the pudding mixture.

Downie's sells a "Baker's Dozen of threepences" for $7 and a "Baker's Dozen of sixpences" for $10. Splash out on the sovereign and you'll be up for $130.

1. Wardlaw Fine Foods and Gourmet Catering (pictured left), $22.50 a kilogram (available in three sizes) from Wardlaw, 169 Martin Street, Brighton. Tel: 9596 0133.

2. Stephen's Fine Foods, $12.95 (500 grams, other sizes available) from David Jones; Daimaru; Hill Top Cakes, Surrey Hills; Wilson and Walsh, Canterbury; the Vital Ingredient, South Melbourne. Tel: (057) 752 066.

3. Trentham Tucker, $14.40 (750 grams), from department stores, selected supermarkets and delicatessens. Tel: 9428 9106.

4. Traditional Foods Plum Pudding, $7 (375 grams), from Daimaru; Festival, Nutshack and Jewel stores; Georgie Pie, Brunswick; the Gourmet Deli, Brighton; Retenya Deli, Bulleen. Tel: 9387 0866.

5. Brunswick Green Traditional Christmas Pudding, $7 (400 grams) from Daimaru; Festival, Nutshack and Jewel stores; Georgie Pie, Brunswick; the Gourmet Deli, Brighton; Retenya Deli, Bulleen. Tel: 9387 0866.

6. Sapphire Fine Foods, $12 (500 grams, other sizes available), from craft markets and House of Vitality, North Balwyn. Tel: 9859 9893.

7. Newcastle's Pudding Lady, $23 (one kilogram) from John Cesters, Doncaster and Southland, and department stores. Tel: 9578 3404.

8. Stephen's Fine Foods, $12.95 (500-gram log-shaped pudding, other sizes available). Outlets as before.

9. Punch Lane, $14.50 (400 grams, includes terracotta pot), from 43 Little Bourke Street, city. Tel: 9639 4944.

10. Fortnum & Mason, $27.95 (one kilogram, other sizes available), from David Jones; Daimaru; Time for Tea, Glen Waverley and Canterbury; Brighton Chocolates.

Tel: 9540 0011.

© 1996 The Age

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