English Summer Pudding
Raspberries may not be what you think. Of course, the word “berry” might seem justification for believing these are berries. But they’re not. They’re actually drupes—stone fruits, like cherries, peaches and plums. To be more precise, they’re drupelets, because each tiny globe in the cluster is a separate fruit with its tiny stone in the center. Like other stone fruits, raspberries belong to the rose family.
Though many plants were cultivated before written records, raspberries, popular in Europe from prehistoric times, were not domesticated until the 1600s. However, since most things have historically been cultivated to improve them, the delay in domesticating raspberries is due to this fruit being just dandy in the wild. (Some scholars say the Greeks domesticated them, but Roman historian Pliny the Elder identified raspberries as wild fruit). So “domestication” may simply have been letting wild plants grow in one’s garden.
Wild raspberries exist in several regions of the northern hemisphere, but the concentration of species suggests a possible point of origin, despite the fact that they were widely dispersed so early on (by the Mesolithic period at the latest). North America has three important species, plus a few minor ones; Europe has one species (though numerous cultivated varieties of that one species); and eastern Asia has more than two hundred known species. So, while scholars can’t nail down its origin, the general consensus is that eastern Asia seems likely.
Despite North America having more species than Europe, colonial Americans preferred imported European raspberries until the Civil War. There are areas of Vermont and Connecticut where one can find “feral” European raspberry bushes planted by birds that stole fruit from the gardens of European colonists. And even today, among the raspberries under cultivation in the US, European varieties outnumber American ones.
One of Europe’s species, Rubus idaeus, was named for a mountain, Mount Ida in Turkey, where it was originally found in great abundance. (At least that’s what Pliny the Elder tells us.) Then in 1925, a French physician, Henri Leclerc, published the tale of a nymph named Ida, daughter of King Melissos of Crete, who was picking raspberries, white at the time, to feed a very young Jupiter. She scratched her breast on the thorny bushes, and her blood turned the raspberries red. Yum!
The importance of the raspberry in Great Britain is illustrated by the acreage given to growing it. There, 10,000 acres of red raspberries are cultivated, whereas in the United States, about 40 times larger than Great Britain, only about 11,000 acres of red raspberries are cultivated. That doesn’t count the wild berries growing in the North Woods. It should be no surprise, then, that raspberries feature prominently in the following classic English dessert. And while it may sound terribly quaint and British to call a dessert like this “pudding” (the British call virtually any dessert “pudding”), my 1967 Webster’s dictionary still identifies pudding as being the cereal-based soft food the English still think it is.
This is a fabulous summer dessert—and much easier to prepare than you might think from the number of notes following the recipe. It’s just that this dish has so many possible variables, depending on what fruit is available. I have made this dish with various berries (and drupelets), but always include raspberries. Enjoy.
English Summer Pudding
8–10 slices white bread, crusts removed
Whipped cream, crème fraîche, thick cream, or Devonshire cream
Wash the berries, removing unripe or moldy ones. If using currants, remove stalks. If using strawberries, hull and quarter them. Put the berries and sugar in a saucepan and cook over medium heat for 3 to 5 minutes, until the sugar has dissolved and the juice has begun to flow. Do not overcook, or you will spoil the fresh flavor.
Line a bowl or pudding basin with the bread, overlapping edges and press to seal. Fill gaps with small pieces of bread, if necessary. (You don’t want the fruit slipping through.) Pour in the warmed berries and juice and place slices of bread on top to cover and fold over any bowl-lining bread that sticks up above the berries. Place a plate that fits exactly inside the bowl on top and a weight (a large jar or can) of 3 or 4 pounds on it. Refrigerate overnight.
Just before serving, remove it from the refrigerator and turn out onto a large serving dish. (You may need to warm the bowl slightly with your hands to get the pudding to “let go.”) If there are any bare spots left on the bread, use a little of the escaping juice to “paint” the spots. To serve, cut into wedges and serve with your chosen cream.
Berries: The traditional combination is red currants, black currants and raspberries. Many versions add blackberries, cherries, or quartered strawberries. American versions include blueberries (yep, they’re North American natives). There’s almost no wrong way to make this (though berries that are too dry can be a problem). You also want to use primarily red fruit, because too many black currants, black raspberries, or blackberries will make the dessert look muddy, instead of a brilliant, appetizing pink. A weight range is given because some berries are denser. For the traditional currant/raspberry mix, use about ¾ lbs. of currants to 1 lb. raspberries. When I made a “red, white, and blue” version (with whipped cream for the white), I used ¾ lb. blueberries, 1 lb. strawberries, and 6 oz. raspberries. (A little over the 2 lbs., I know, but this is not a recipe where precision is important, as long as our bowl is big enough to hold the fruit. Your main focus is good, ripe, juicy berries.)
Sugar: The variance for sugar is because some berries are sweeter than others. If you use currants, you’ll need more, as they are considerably tarter than blueberries or strawberries. Start with ½ cup and taste the mixture, adding more as necessary. If you use currants, and haven’t worked with them before, they come in small clusters on a thin stalk. Picking them off the stalk one at a time is tedious and messy, but you can make it easier by grasping the end of the stalk, slipping it between the tines of a fork and sliding the fork down the stalk to strip the berries off.