Dr Sara Read

Dr Sara Read

Academic, Novelist, Grandma, Dog Walker

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Maladies and Medicine

Maladies and Medicine

Health and Healing in History

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blogs, Interviews

Christmas Puddings and Nanna’s Plum Loaf

On the 26th November 2017 I was a guest again on Llewela Bailey’s BBCWM breakfast show to talk about the tradition of Stir Up Sunday – the last Sunday before advent which is when we are meant to make our Christmas Puddings. You can listen again via this link  for the next week or so (15 minutes from the end).



Most of the Christmas traditions we now take for granted came long after the historical period I research, often from the nineteenth century. This is certainly true of stir-up Sunday but not of plum pudding itself which seems to have been a seventeenth-century development, so right up my street. On Christmas day 1662 diarist Samuel Pepys had  plum pottage for his lunch after going to church. His wife Elizabeth was unwell and so didn’t venture out on that frosty Thursday morning, so on his return he took the plum pottage up to her bedside and they dined on it with some chicken. Pepys also mentioned that because of Elizabeth’s illness, she hadn’t been able to make their mince pie (which was rather different from our pies today, and contained a large quantity of beef amongst other ingredients), so he had bought one when he was out. Plum pottage, a fruity, spicy porridge, is often thought to be the base from which our plum pudding grew. It was a traditional winter dish but not one specifically associated with Christmas at this time.

One of the things which surprises people is why the dish is called plum pudding when it apparently contains no plums.


And this is a mystery which came to puzzle me too. In our family, my Nanna would never let you leave from a visit without taking home one of her plum loaves (or plum bread). Since I had grown up with this, and even when I got hold of her version of this Lincolnshire recipe and began making it for my own family, I never queried the lack of plums that the name promised, but accepted it as a quirk. It wasn’t until I was looking into the origins of Christmas pudding that I found the answer. The Oxford English Dictionary explains that (definition 4a.) A plum can also mean:

‘A dried grape or raisin as used in puddings, cakes, etc. See plum broth n.plum pie n.plum porridge n.plum pudding n., etc. Now rare (chiefly hist.) exc. in established compounds.’

As the entry makes clear, this usage is now historic, which gives an indication of how old our family recipe must be. But it does prove, that as far as those eating plum pudding and plum pottage, etc in the seventeenth century were concerned, that the dish did indeed contain plums, it’s just that ‘plum’ had more meanings than the specific fruit we use the name for today!


As well as  discussing Christmas puddings on the radio, I have been doing some Christmassy filming with Loughborough University as part of their keeping well this Christmas campaign and my piece is all about an early indigestion remedy based on brandy. I even made up the mixture live on film. Have a watch of the film via the link below to see how well it turned out.


I’d like to take this opportunity to thank my readers for supporting my new website this year. Merry Christmas! 


*Updated 21.12.17 to add the link to the Loughborough University film as promised.

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