A Very Cumbrian Christmas Dinner

Grandma and the bakery girls, c. 1934

Grandma and the bakery girls, c. 1934

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.

We were all young, once...

We were all young, once…

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


13 thoughts on “A Very Cumbrian Christmas Dinner

  1. I love this Diane. I’m glad it’s not just my family who tell the same old stories at get-togethers. It’s a tradition in itself!Now I may just have to have another mince pie, although I suspect it won’t be a patch on one of your Grandma’s 🙂 On a slightly separate note, my great-grandparents got married on Boxing Day in 1925. I wonder if it was a joint Xmas/Wedding cake?

  2. Hi, Kate! I suspect it’s the repeated stories that hold families together, don’t you? My granda was hilarious, in a rather gentle, but mischievous way. I’m sure your great-grandparents’ cake was a joint one! And eaten on New Year’s, too. My grandparents were married in January, 1940. I must ask my gran about their cake – and I wonder if she made it herself?!

  3. Wonderful reminiscing, Diane! I do remember my grandmother spreading a huge table for Christmas. She loved me because I always loaded the plate and then went for seconds, cleaning the plate. She was a teetotaler, too. Happy holiday season!

    • I suspect my brother was very popular for exactly the same reason! Although, having said that, my granda could knock back both seconds and thirds of Christmas pudding – it must have been his absolute favourite thing. Mind, he made them 😉

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

  4. Another fascinating post, Diane – so evocative I could practically smell it. I’ve seen you write before about your Grandma liking cake, now I understand why. (It’s obviously rubbed off on you as well, Little Miss Muffin! 🙂 )

    Your thick, black Christmas pudding reminds me of our Black Bun which was only given and eaten at Hogmanay / New Year. Is this a Scottish custom or do you have Black Bun in your neck of the woods as well?

    • Ah yes, my gran has never knowingly turned down cake or pudding. I’m not sure what she would make of my fruit muffins, although I’m sure she’d give them a go! I’ve baked a Christmas cake for her this year, which I will marzipan and ice today. Seems fair, given that she made us all birthday cakes and Christmas cakes for donkey’s years.

      I don’t know Black Bun, but it sounds exactly right. I understand that Christmas wasn’t a holiday in Scotland until well after it became the main one in England, so I’m sure they saved the best stuff for Hogmanay. I must look into the distant customs of Hogmanay one day, as I find it fascinating. It’s funny that New Year hasn’t a bigger role in Cumbria, given that we were part of Scotland for a large part of our history. Perhaps it’s a gaelic-speaking, northern Scotland thing.

  5. Wait, there’s more..! Barely had the Christmas dinner washing up been dried and put away when it was time for tea!

    Tea was always to be served by 5 o clock. The fact that the biggest dinner of the year had been completed barely a couple of hours earlier was no excuse for any sort of postponement. So slices of ham with cold cuts of turkey and sausage were rolled out, to be consumed with pickles and slices of thickly buttered bread. And then there was the trifle! Not a sherry trifle obviously, a sufficiency of booze had already been consumed for the season, but trifle nevertheless. And finally a fondant fancy and then a slice of the Christmas cake (before putting the rest away until Easter as Diane describes).

    And there’s one more fond food memory… Grandma’s home-made rum butter (not brandy butter, always rum butter) made from early in December. Even though the alcohol content was almost certainly below the detectable limits of a police breathalyser, it always felt dangerous to have a couple of slices of toast for breakfast spread with rum butter before driving to work.

    • Lol! 😉 David is my big brother, for those who haven’t guessed. I do remember Grandma buttering the loaf, then cutting the slice off. It always looked mad to someone brought up on sliced bread but now I see it makes perfect sense if your uncut loaf is crumbly!

      The rum butter was always ace. I seem to recall you rather liked our Great-Aunt Alice’s rum butter spread on treacle bread, too, at her kitchen in Maryport.

      And as for the fondant fancies… the only bought cake we got all year, and strangely delicious for that! Fight yer for the pink ones! 🙂

  6. Wow, I used to love when the Birkett’s van came around …My Mum would go out and get two cream cakes ( this is in the 70s) whilst my brothers were at school and we would sit and eat them watching little house on the prairie !

    • Blimey, I never knew they had delivery vans! I guess it would have started out as bread delivery. I really fancy the idea of emergency cream bun deliveries 🙂

      You’ll have gathered that my mum was a Birkett. Not related, as far as I know, despite my gran’s baking credentials!

  7. 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.

    Navy rum, real Navy rum not the stuff that Lambs sell in bottles, was deserving of a bit of respect. We’re talking cask strength here. My father, who was in the Navy during WWII, had a story of two ratings on the destroyer in which he first served who saved up a fortnight’s rum ration—strictly against the rules, for reasons that became clear—and drank it all in an evening. I guess that’s about 600, 700 ml? More than a pint each. One died and the other was dishonourably discharged after two weeks in hospital. Falling off the dock sounds like the lesser fate!

    • Heck! I’m really pleased to hear your account because the idea of sailors necking large quantities of rum seemed more Trafalgar than WWII. My granda repeated this so many times that it must have been true at Barrow-in-Furness – but obviously not only there, from what you say.

      My granda was one of those chaps who only told you half of what he’d seen. Every so often you’d hear a scrap – say, about clearing the bodies (or rather parts of…) as an ARP warden – that would make you realise how little you knew. Given he was fiercely anti-drunkard, maybe he did see more happen than the odd stumble into the water.

      Thanks for coming over 🙂

  8. Pingback: The Christmas/Midwinter round-up! | Esmeralda's Cumbrian History & Folklore

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