Entering the room, our fellow diners frisked us with their eyes. They gave our bodies the full sweep to satisfy themselves that we were not carrying any banned substances.
Like blancmange. Or powdered desserts.
I felt extremely self-conscious but, at the same time, elaborately casual of my body fat mass and facial floridity index.
My face blazenly radiated high blood sugar and my gait proudly displayed I had lived a life of the highest calorific value.
According to ceremonial etiquette, I had dressed for the occasion – in roomy corduroys and a loose, ‘forgiving’ jam stain-resistant shirt with plenty of give around the bread basket.
Similarly, my wife was conspicuously not in denial about her suet habit.
Shown to our long table, I expected to be asked to turn out my pockets to prove I wasn’t a Black Forest Gateau smuggler. Such sickly foreign imports are taboo in the north Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, where even the word ‘cheesecake’ – can bring instant and irredeemable social isolation. Cheesecake is Greek. And the British are very patriotic about their puds.
“So what do you fancy tonight?” the gentleman beside me asked. “I’m going to kick off with a dead man’s arm.”
The lady next to him licked her lips at me. “A short sleeve would be nice.”
Stephen Milnes, the ‘Master of Calories’, banged a kitchen rolling pin and asked us to raise our spoons “To Praise the Pud!” and, with great pomp and pageantry, 73-litre celebrities were announced and paraded into the room. Some of the pudding porters were guests celebrating their birthdays.
“Come on!” said MC, who sported a hand-painted custard fountain silk tie: “Even puddings have feelings!”
The Squidgy Chocolate and Nut Pudding received a standing ovation. Thunderous applause greeted the ever-popular Bread and Butter Pudding. The evergreen Apple Crumble, a diehard veteran, received a hero’s welcome. And the cold Passion Fruit Roulade got a warm one, while the Jam Roly Poly attracted a few unsavoury boos.
The local ginger and marmalade Lord Randall was cheered all the way to the serving station. The 19th century Three Ways House, a former village doctor’s house in Mickleton near Stratford on Avon and 90 miles west of London, is the headquarters of The Pudding Club, founded in 1985 to celebrate and preserve the tradition of the Great British Puddings like Spotted Dick (a steamed suet pudding containing dried fruit ) and the 19th century, flat-rolled Jam Roly Poly, known as shirt-sleeve pudding, because it was served in a shirt.
The club has met every Friday for 31 years and pudding chef Sheila Vincent has produced over 30 different puddings and thousands in total for the first 21. Her husband is the gardener at Kiftsgate, the famous rose garden.
Many of her creations trace a history back to medieval pottages and frumenty. Elizabethans called times of good luck “puddyng time”.
Seventy pud fans of varying shapes and ages, their New Year resolutions forgotten or at least in remission, met for the first meeting of 2017.
The word pudding probably derives from the French boudin, for small sausage. Original puddings were savoury. Henry VIII’s favourite puddings were haggis and black pudding. Trifles and fools go back to the 16th century when cream was flavoured with rosewater and ginger. Jelly was made from calves’ feet. Rice pudding (or whitepot) was a Tudor invention. Puddings were steamed on Royal Navy ships. Pepys mentions cream junkets and syllabus. Spotted Dick – (the name probably coming from ‘dough’ or ‘duff’) was also known as a ‘Bolster’.
The 48-room hotel has pudding-themed suites – its Chocolate Room has a chocolate box headboard and chocolate wrapper framed bathroom mirror, but, thankfully, the Spotted Dick and Custard Room boasts conventional hypo-allergenic pillows rather than ones filled with strawberry jam.
Our room was the Syrup Sponge Pudding Suite with dripping treacle-coloured curtains and canopy, a recipe for syrup sponge written on the bathroom door, old advertising posters and a lampstand made from cans of Lyle’s Golden Syrup which, established in 1885, is an older brand than Coca Cola, Marmite and Cadbury’s.
“I remember Angel’s Delight and Instant Whip as a child. But The Brits love their stodge and comfort food in winter,” said Jill Coombe, who owns Three Ways House with husband Simon. The daughter of a Southampton butcher, Jill met Simon in Llandudno. They went on to manage Bath’s Royal Crescent Hotel.
“In summer, as well as our stodgy standards, we have lighter dishes like Peach Melba created in the 19th century for the soprano Dame Nellie Melba when she visited The Savoy or lemon posset, which dates back to the 15th century as a milky spiced remedy for the ill.”
The Pudding Club is especially popular with the Japanese who don’t really have a pudding culture. Custard is a curiosity
The Pudding Club is especially popular with the Japanese who don’t really have a pudding culture. Custard is a curiosity.
Says Simon: “It’s a sell-out every week. We had a couple come from New York for the weekend. One couple has been 25 times. We have walking tours and have worked out walkers need to fuel up with a pudding a mile! You can get your five-a-day in one of our puddings!”
At The Pudding Club, the puds come every 14 minutes. You are not allowed to have more than one in your bowl and you can eat as much as you can. With lashings of custard. If you can’t cope with lashings you ask for “a smidgin”.
I sat next to a custard connoisseur who told me that Bird’s Custard was invented in 1857 by chemist Alfred Bird in Swansea, south Wales. His wife was allergic to eggs. Bird’s great-grandson once attended a Pudding Club function. Bird’s also invented Angel’s Light in 1967.
Says Milnes: “For a lot of British people the Pudding Club is a nostalgic trip back to their school days. To school dinners. When I started the job I weighed 14 stones. Now I’m 16. It’s all great fun and it’s amazing how people bond over pudding! And how lashings of custard loosens tongues, inhibitions and trousers belts. There are very few sticky silences.”
Everyone has their own pudding judging criteria. From succulence, moisture to gooiness, heartiness and lushness. Some are bottom men. Some top.
Milnes circulated around the tables, overseeing fair play. And ensuring that portions were not discreetly tipped into the ice buckets or accidentally-on-purpose dropped under the table.
“By 10.15 pm you see a lot of changes in faces. But satisfied sighs outnumber the bilious groans.” Everyone votes for Best Pud. Jam Roly Poly only got one vote.
It obeyed tradition. It has never won. Lord Randall – named after a Victorian cad who poisoned his lover – didn’t go down well compared to bread and butter. This didn’t surprise Milnes. The cream always rises to the top.
The roulade fought above its weight while apple crumble, always a solid contender, pushed squidgy chocolate. But once again the clear winner was Sticky Toffee.
“We have no idea why Sticky Toffee always seems to win,” said Milnes. “You can’t make pudding sophisticated but sticky toffee is hard to beat. Even though it’s a relatively modern 1970s dish.”
The record for the most pudding ever consumed at the UK’s Pudding Club is held by a deep-sea diver from the Gulf. He ate 25 independently-audited portions in one sitting.
At the end of the evening, over coffee and complimentary bloat relief tablets, guests swapped PC talk and compared increases in their body fat percentage before wishing each other good night and sweet dreams.
And returning to their rooms, quite justifiably walking like undersea divers.
Three Ways House Hotel (01386 438429, http://threewayshousehotel.com/PuddingClub places at £37.50 per person/Rooms from £135 on bed and breakfast basis.
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