“A bowl of stale bread and stewed fruit keeps the doctor away…” Hydropathic pudding: 1894

It’s the start of the summer holidays, and what a year it’s been for teachers and students!

By 6pm on the last day of term I’m usually arse-deep into a profusion of cocktails of unhealthy quantities of alcohol and sugar (sorry for that image). But this year felt a bit different.

For one, it felt like a less triumphant end to term than previous years. After weeks of sanitising upon entering the classroom (“one squirt’s enough, Ryan!”), mask wearing (“for the last time, it goes over your nose, Ryan”) and learning ‘zones’, (“I don’t care if the year 7 toilet area is nicer than year 10’s, Ryan, you still can’t use it!”) the final day felt more like a hobble over the finish line rather than a victory parade. Maintaining COVID protocol and encouraging 1000 kids to as well had been truly exhausting, but somehow* our school managed to avoid the tsunami of cases that overwhelmed many other local schools by the end.

The second reason the end of term felt a little flat was because it was my last one (as a teacher at least). From September I’m off to become a student again and get my Masters. Will I return to teaching? Possibly (probably?) – it’s a career I’m passionate about and I really believe there are very few other jobs that will fulfil me like teaching did. But for now I’m going to try something else – wish me luck!

So I spent Friday evening reading my goodbye cards (“my favourite lesson was when we drew castles” – a supply lesson, as I was away that day…) and generally moping. Until my husband pointed out that with the longest summer holiday ahead of me, I had more time than ever before to focus on historical cooking.

Summer pudding…

He was right, and summer was making its presence felt with a week-long heatwave, so I decided my first foray into summer-hols-historical-cooking should be distinctly sunshiney. Summer pudding, anyone?

Summer pudding is something I remember eating once or twice as a child. I recall being in a gloriously sunny garden aged six or seven, sitting on a stripy deckchair and being handed a bowl of purple and pink bread with vanilla ice cream and thinking it was the oddest jam sandwich I’d ever seen. For the uninitiated: summer pudding is essentially stewed fruit which has been left to soak into a mould of stale bread. It should resemble a bright red/pink/purple dome which when cut into spills forth oozing summer fruits. It’s been decades since I last ate summer pudding and I’d come to associate it with other old fashioned desserts that are slowly dying out.

summer pudding with berries on blue table
The ideal, I’d say. Copyright: BBC Good Food.

Of course it’s not true that summer pudding is completely dying out; Nigella Lawson, pinnacle of modern British baking, includes an updated recipe in her most recent cookbook. Search ‘summer pudding’ in the BBC Good Food website and you’ll get a fair handful of decently reviewed recipes. But for some reason when I think of summertime desserts I think of lemon tart, choc ices and eton mess before I think of summer pudding.

Perhaps it’s the name. It’s too eager, isn’t it? Too full of hope, and if there’s one thing a Brit knows not to trust, it’s the promise of summer of any kind. So come July, we eschew summer pudding for something that can be enjoyed with less irony as the gazebo and BBQ collapse in gale force winds, and hypothermia sets upon Uncle Alan.

But as poor as it may be now, summer pudding’s branding problem is nothing compared to what it was.

…or hydropathic pudding?

Let’s be clear: summer pudding’s reputation and history is murky at best. How do you sell a dome of stale bread drenched in stewed fruit, which has spent 24 hours being squashed down by a plate laden with the heaviest kitchen objects you could find – a cafetiere of stale coffee and a bottle of ketchup balanced precariously atop a kilogram bag of sugar?

To find the first truly identifiable summer pudding reference I had to move my research to the 19th century, when summer pudding went by many different names, including the infinitely less marketable name ‘hydropathic pudding.’ Today’s experiment is from the earliest reference I could find to anything resembling summer pudding and comes from Lizzie Heritage’s 1894 work Cassell’s new universal cookery book.

Hydropathic Pudding

This has many names. It is very nice when properly prepared, and the pudding served very cold. Required: fruit, sugar, and bread. Cost, variable; generally moderate.

The nicest fruits for this are raspberries or currants, or a mixture, or strawberries, with or without a few red or black currants; plums are sometimes used. Take a plain mould, and cut a piece of bread to fit the bottom; then put fingers of bread round; the sides should be bevelled a little so that they overlap and prevent the escape of the fruit. The latter is stewed with enough sugar, and poured in, and a cover of bread put on. A plate with weights on is put on the top, and the pudding put in a cold place to set.

Another way is to line the mould, and then fill up with layers of bread and fruit; and if the bread is cut very thinly, this will be generally liked better than the first mode, as there is less fruit, and it suits the majority better. For a plainer dish a basin may be used, and slices of bread put to line it entirely; then either of the modes can be followed. These should be turned out with care, and may be served plain, or with a simply made custard. They are useful for those who cannot take pastry or rich puddings, and for children.”

Cassell’s New Universal Cookery Book, 1894.

As you can see, the recipe above is almost identical to summer puddings today, further cementing my feelings that it was a very old fashioned dessert. But I wondered: if nothing had changed, ingredients wise, then why the name swap?

References to “those who cannot take pastry” and the suggestions to serve it plain suggest that the pudding was offered as a healthy alternative to heavier steamed puddings that were popular at the same time.

Even more compelling to the ‘healthy’ origins of summer pudding is the original name: hydropathic pudding.

Hydropathy is/was a belief that water alone can cure ailments – be it through drinking particularly pure water or through the use of water therapies like bathing. Now, no one’s disputing that getting plenty of H20 in your system is a good thing, but believing that Radox and a rubber duck will cure you of your gluten intolerance is nonsense. While immersing yourself in water will certainly alleviate certain symptoms (e.g. joint pain or muscle inflammation), it’s unlikely to actually cure you of the actual illness.

The rise and rise of hydropathy

Hydropathy experienced a boom during the 19th century thanks to Austrian farmer Vincent Preissnitz who apparently cured his own broken ribs by wrapping his chest in damp bandages and drinking a lot of water. Inspired by the seemingly miraculous healing properties that clean water, stripped down diets and regular exercise had on patients abroad, English Captain Richard Tappin Claridge popularised hydropathy in Britain.

In 1842 he published Hydropathy; or The Cold Water Cure, as practiced by Vincent Priessnitz, which was an instant hit and ran to multiple editions within a few months. Hydropathy dealt mainly with the various forms of bath invalids could take**, but one chapter explained the diet that hydropathic spas should offer to their customers.

Ah, bottom left corner – my favourite: stand on a balcony wearing a sheet, looking into a bath.

Unsurprisingly, Claridge recommended a diet of water and cold foods. He explicitly stated that hot food or food that had “stimulating properties” such as spices or rich sauces should not be served. Furthermore, he states that the ideal breakfast consist of bread, cold milk (or water), and fruit. Fruit should be eaten cold and regularly, but only the types of fruit that grow naturally in Britain; according to Claridge, exotic fruits were often particularly juicy “to refresh the blood [of those who are] parched up by a burning sun” which is hardly an issue in Britain, so fruits such as mango or pineapple were thought to overstimulate the temperament of the average Brit, undoing the good work of previous hydropathy treatment.

Summer pudding – or rather, hydropathic pudding – fit the bill perfectly: cold, wet, bready and British summer-fruity, it must have had a prominent place on the dining tables of hydropathic spas.

But while holidays to spas were all well and good for the social elite of Europe, when it came to home dining frugal health food wasn’t something you necessarily wanted to serve to guests. Hydropathic pudding might sound enticing to someone who had survived four days on tepid mineral water and raw carrots, but in real life – where the cakes and buns exist – it just sounded… naff.

Hence the name change; by the early 20th century, hydropathic pudding had fallen out of recipe books and had been replaced with identical instructions for summer pudding instead, which was infinitely more appetizing and far less reminiscent of urine-filled pools and eggy smelling water.

Today’s experiment

Whatever you want to call it, the 1894 recipe I followed was delicious. Yes, I had to pour over extra syrup when I turned it out because not all the bread had soaked the juice up. And yes, I did get a tiny bit of ketchup on the bottom of my pudding because someone hadn’t screwed the cap on properly before I used it as a weight. But despite this, my summer pudding was divine: tart and sweet, spongy and, above all, summery.

I stuck mostly to blackcurrants and raspberries as per Heritage’s instructions and added a couple of extra layers of bread inside the pudding itself as she suggested, which went down very well. Rather than plain, as I suspect Claridge would have liked, we ate ours with clotted cream – healthiness be damned.

Would I make it again? Absolutely, and to be honest I don’t know why I don’t make it every summer. Perhaps it’s because it takes a little bit longer than other desserts because it has to be left for quite a while to soak. Perhaps it’s because it seems like a bit more of a faff than ripping open a Vienetta and going to sit in the paddling pool. But I suspect, really, it’s because of the reason I mentioned before: its name is too gloaty, too self-confident; the day after I made this the heatwave ended and the heavens opened. Summer pudding indeed.

Extra juice may or may not have been poured on top…

E x

*It wasn’t really “somehow”; it was down to exhaustive, careful planning by SLT – who worked really hard to keep everyone safe – and sheer luck. Also the fact that Ryan went on holiday the last week of term helped stop the spread within year 10.

**I couldn’t not tell you about one of Claridge’s specific types of bath: the douche bath. Here, he says people can find relief for afflicted parts of the body by stripping off and exposing themselves to the “powerful action” of running water. Now, I’m sure that some people genuinely used these douche baths for purely medicinal purposes, but Claridge’s slightly disapproving instruction to stop using them “when it produces feverish excitement” and that, for some reason, the average duration of a douche bath “is from three to fifteen minutes” and that “most of the patients…are very much pleased with this part of the treatment” suggests many hydropathy spa patients weren’t finding complete relaxation from drinking twenty glasses of water a day alone…