I was very lucky when I was growing up to have a grandma who was not only Cumbrian but a fully-trained baker and confectioner. You know all those delicious cakes and buns that Birkett’s Bakery used to make before they were swallowed by that huge northern ‘cheap sausage roll’ conglomerate? Well, add a few more currants, another dab of butter and a shake of icing sugar, and you’ve got my gran’s baking.
My gran was born in the first world war, and was signed up to bakery school in the 1930s. Going by the photos, the bakery intake must have been massive, so I fully expect that many of my Cumbrian readers will also have Cumbrian grannies and great-grannies who were just as expert.
We were a two-Christmas-dinner household. Dinner No.1 took place chez mum and dad, and consisted – at pater’s insistence – of turkey, stuffing, and all the usual modern fare. Dinner No. 2 took place two days later at my gran’s, where we would eat things we never ate at any other time of year.
Despite the fact that any culinary history tome will tell you that just about everyone was eating turkey by the end of the 19th century, we still had goose. And as anyone who’s fought the crowds at M&S on the last trading day before Christmas knows, goose fat also makes the best roast potatoes. So far so yum.
Being Cumbrian, the goose was accompanied by a large chunk of Cumberland sausage. If you haven’t had this, you haven’t really eaten sausage. It’s very peppery, and, unlike your average supermarket special, you do have to chew it. And here comes one of my fondest memories of my lovely Cumbrian granda (never grandad. Cumbrian grandfathers have no last consonant). He would sneak out of the kitchen where he was on strict carving duty (don’t cross a Cumbrian grandma in her kitchen, whatever you do), in his zip-up cardie, grey flannel trousers and plaid slippers, and beckon me out of the room. I was rewarded with the first crispy slice of Cumberland sausage, whilst my family members faux-conspiratorially looked in the opposite direction.
We washed our Cumbrian Christmas dinner down with hot ginger wine – although I think it might have been Schweppes’ Ginger Cordial when we were little – along with the same story every year. It turns out that during one depressing night of bombing during the second world war, my grandparents downed an entire bottle of ginger wine; it says much about the teetotal leanings of many older Cumbrians that drinking one bottle was seem as amusingly louche behaviour.
My gran – and indeed, my mother – made their Christmas cakes and puddings to my Cumbrian great-great grandmother’s recipe. It’s very heavy with fruit and black with treacle, and so difficult to stir that everyone in the house had to give the cook a break and help out. Tradition says that everyone in the house stirs a pudding for luck, but in our down-to-earth house, it was Cumbrian pragmatism, and it gave my granda an excuse to claim that he had made all the cakes and puddings whilst my gran lounged about in a floury apron.
Both my gran and my mum made two Christmas puddings. One was eaten after Christmas dinner, and the other was eaten on New Year’s Day. And half of the Christmas cake was saved for Easter Sunday. I’d always assumed this was a weird idiosyncracy confined to our household, but I read recently in a book of folklore written by a lady only a little older than my gran*, that this wasn’t at all unusual. Rich fruit dishes were associated with celebrations generally – most wedding cakes are still fruit, for example – rather than Christmas specifically.
The pudding was always served with a white sauce made with rum. As I’ve already said, my grandparents were just about teetotal, so this, on top of the ginger wine, doubled their alcohol intake for the year. This might explain why there was never, ever, enough rum sauce – or enough rum in the sauce – for my granda. The joke, ‘ eh – did you put any rum in the sauce, or did you just show it the bottle?’ was trotted out every year. And I mean every year.
And yet no one could ever prevail on my granda to drink a drop of spirit. When he worked building ships at Barrow in the second world war, there were occasions when naval vessels dumped the leftover rum supplies overboard. My granda reported that the workers would rush out with their enamel mugs to snaffle several measures of legendary naval rum, and then spend the rest of the day walking in wiggly lines and falling off the dock. He wasn’t very amused by heavy drinkers, and I suspect this is why.
My gran always made mince pies, but then she could probably whip up a couple of dozen in her sleep, whilst washing up and doing the gardening. For, she says, one memorable day when she worked in the Workington bakery as a young girl, she made 1200 mince pies in one day. You west coasters are clearly very fond of a mince pie.
It always strikes me that many of the ingredients of a traditional Christmas dinner are very Cumbrian. Local cookery is strong on the ingredients that came into the coastal town of Whitehaven from the West Indies; rum, brown sugar, dried fruits, ginger, cinnamon, pepper and so on. Think of Cumberland rum nickys, fly pie, Kendal whigs and double sweaters – none of these, like Christmas pudding, Christmas cake, and mince pies – would be around if it wasn’t for those exotic ingredients. We Cumbrians may be at the end of the geographical cul-de-sac, but we know good ingredients when we see them.
So, Cumbrian readers – do you have any memories of strangely local seasonal fare? I’d love to hear about it.
© Diane McIlmoyle 15.12.11
PS. My gran is alive and well, although she’s hung up her apron strings. Let’s dedicate this post to the loveliest and most charming of Cumbrian grandas, Joe Birkett (1914–95). Still missed. Edit: Grandma died on 4th April, 2013, one month short of her 95th birthday.
*Folklore of the Lake District (1976) by Marjorie Rowling