THE PROOF OF THE PUDDING
’Tis the season to be busy at Susan Green’s Northumberland farmhouse, where her mother’s recipe and a generous dose of locally made Alnwick Rum go into her homemade Christmas fare
At Susan Green’s farmhouse in Northumberland, her mother’s recipe and local Alnwick Rum are used to create her homemade Christmas fare
SUSAN GREEN HAS A CONFESSION about her observance of Stir-up Sunday. “I’m too busy to worry about which direction the mixture is being stirred in,” she says, when asked if she follows the tradition of moving her spoon from east to west in honour of the Three Wise Men. “I don’t even use a wooden spoon – just a plasticgloved hand.” She’s also too occupied in the weeks before Christmas to ensure her puddings have time to ‘mature’ – although, given that Stir-up Sunday has its origins in a 16th-century prayer and not in any culinary necessity to make plum pudding five weeks before eating it, that’s a ‘rule’ she’s safe to ignore (as proven by the national-newspaper food critic who gave her a rave review after being sent a sample).
What the founder of The Proof of the Pudding is insistent upon is using the best-quality ingredients and preparing them by hand. And her rum-soaked, fruit-laden Christmas puds certainly prove their point: even though Susan creates around 1,500 each year, in the Northumberland farmhouse where three generations of the Green family have been raised, they’re produced with so much love and care that each one still has that inimitable homemade touch .
“Everything is done the hard way,” she says, working her way through a bowl of unwaxed oranges and lemons, zesting each one with a microplane, before slicing it in half and extracting the juice. The sinus-popping citrus scents that fill the kitchen are a sunny contrast to the grey skies visible through the windows, which overlook the snow-topped Cheviot hills. “There’s nothing in these puddings a home baker wouldn’t use. I just do it on a larger scale.”
In between pulses of the domestic food processor in which she is grating apples from her garden (the peel goes to her kunekune pigs), she explains that the secret of successful scaling up is preparation. The dry mix of breadcrumbs, beef suet, white flour, soft brown sugar and spices, which will be added to the grated apples, carrots, zest, juice, locally sourced free-range eggs and rum-drenched dried fruits, has been measured out in advance by Penny Blackmore, one of two part-time staff who helped Susan
bake about a tonne of handmade Christmas puddings last year. “Bread is specially produced for us by a local baker: a basic white tin loaf, with no improvers or additives,” Susan says. “We crumb it ourselves after we’ve sliced the crusts off – the pigs benefit from that no end.” She adds that beef suet is essential to the taste and texture of her puddings: “It’s one of the reasons they’re so light. My mum used beef suet in her puddings – I would be sent to the butcher for it and have to grate it myself.”
Susan still uses her mother’s Christmas pudding recipe, although she’s tweaking a new version with added nuts that she created due to customer demand. “I fiddle and faff until I’m happy,” she says of her approach to recipe development, maintained since the earliest days of The Proof of the Pudding. She started the business in the farmhouse kitchen that is still the heart of the Green family Christmas, its beams hung with festive foliage and rustic back staircase strewn with garlands. It was while walking down this same staircase 17 years ago that she realised she was pregnant with her fourth son. A former solicitor, Susan had left her job to bring up three boys while her husband, Richard, looked after their 1,100-acre arable and beef farm near Alnwick, and had been on the verge of returning to work. “I remember thinking, ‘Ah, now we have to go back to the drawing board,’” she says.
Susan was already renting out cottages and running a horse livery business from the tenant farm (their landlord is the Duke
of Northumberland), so baking seemed an obvious thing to do next. She joined a group of friends on a cake stall at Alnwick farmers’ market, while still pregnant with Tristan, now 16. “The problem with cakes is that if you bake one today, you have to sell it tomorrow,” she says, recalling how she soon realised that to run a viable business she’d need a product with a longer shelf life.
She started with her own-recipe chocolate sponge pudding and tried it out at a country-house charity fair: “I was terrified. I took a friend with me to do ‘front of house’ while I hid behind her and heated up samples. I found it hard to believe anyone would buy something I’d made. But we sold almost all of them, and those left over I dished out to local delis.”
Fast forward 15 years and Susan now produces a range of baked and steamed puddings. They include the bestselling sticky toffee, a heavenly sticky ginger and a steamed marmalade pudding so zingy that its fragrance seeps through the plastic bowl and hand-tied cloth in which it is packaged. Laced with orange liqueur, it’s a light option for Christmas-pudding phobics, although there are not many of those among Susan’s customers: “At shows, people often walk past declaring, ‘I don’t like Christmas pudding.’ But if I can get them to try a sample, they’ll say, ‘You’ve convinced me.’”
Such evangelism may in part be due to the generous dose of Alnwick Rum Susan soaks her fruits in: when she lifts the lid on the plastic tub in which three kilos of cherries, jumbo raisins, sultanas, currants and candied peel have been steeping in a bottle’s worth of the dark, spicy spirit for two days, the kitchen buzzes with a heady blast of instant Christmas. “When I was a child, there was always a bottle of Alnwick Rum to pour over the pudding,” Susan says, explaining that the local tipple is now back in production after the century-old recipe, lost for 20 years, was rediscovered. “We could use cheaper rums, but this one has depth.”
It’s an approach that’s typical of this modest entrepreneur, whose success comes from doing things the old-fashioned way. “It’s been suggested we could make more money if we moved into commercial premises, but that wouldn’t sit right with me,” she says. She has had a new production area installed in a converted utility room next to the farmhouse kitchen, but it’s still around the family table that Susan and her staff (and their daughters) sit, in the weeks before Christmas, to wrap hundreds of puddings in muslin cloth and hand-tie them with string.
Come Christmas Day, she finally gets to enjoy the spectacle of a rum-doused flaming pudding with her mother, husband, four sons, their partners and her three granddaughters: “We get up early to feed the cows, then go to church and have friends round for drinks. So it’s a mad panic to get lunch on the table.” When it’s pudding time, they uncork the rum and light a match. “We’re very traditional and very greedy. We like white sauce and double cream poured over the top, and Alnwick Rum butter on the side.”
fruit, from a popular recipe that she has perfected over the years. Building up to the festive period, she makes about 1,500 with two parttime staff and family helping
FROM LEFT In a traditional country kitchen on her family farm in Northumberland, Susan makes her richly flavoured Christmas puddings, laced with Alnwick Rum and packed with