’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

Country Living (UK) - - Contents - Words by rachael oak­den pho­to­graphs by clare win­field

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

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