Rediscovering our taste for blood
Growing up in the West Riding of Yorkshire, I enjoyed black pudding from an early age, much preferring its flavour and even its texture to (as I saw it at the time) salty, fibrous ham. The large cubes of tasty white fat dotted throughout the pudding were regarded as a great bonus, akin to the raisins in a scone. I didn’t know at the time that I was actually eating boiled pig’s blood, but I’ve never seen any great problem with this. Black pudding is a fundamental example of the “everything but the squeak” principle.
The pig-eating portion of humanity has been making black pudding as long as it has had fireproof pots. Rich in nutrients, particularly iron, it is a way of utilising and preserving the large quantity of blood produced during slaughter. A sort of black pudding appears in Homer’s “Odyssey” from 1000BC, when blood and fat are cooked in a stomach. The Roman food writer Apicius describes a rich black pudding containing hardboiled egg yolks, which sounds to be heading towards the full English.
The Spanish developed delicious morcilla, while northern Italians produced horseshoe-shaped sanguinaccio. Blasphemous as it may be for a Yorkshireman to say so, I now prefer the soft consistency of French boudin noir to our home-made version. Boudin noir has gained an inventive range of flavourings – brandy in Lyon, apples in Alsace, spinach around Poitiers, onion in Paris, cream and butter in Flanders.
Scandinavians, even, have their own version of blood sausage, eaten in soup along with blood-enriched rye bread It’s tempting to imagine the British black pudding as a Viking import, whose popularity has remained strongest in the North.
In the past few years, sales of black pudding from the main producers in Scotland, Lancashire and Yorkshire have been enjoying healthy growth. “Our production is up around 1520 per cent on last year,” says Duncan Haigh, co-owner of Arthur Haigh Ltd near Thirsk, North Yorkshire, which makes “about a ton and a half a week” of a black pudding called Doreen’s, based on a recipe by his mother. It differs from most black pudding because it is baked rather than boiled, and triangular in shape.
“As soon as I discovered the triangular moulds, I said, ‘Bingo! That’ll do!’” Haigh recalls. “We use dried blood, seasoning, oatmeal, rusk, split barley and back fat in 10-millimetre cubes. It’s got to be from a fat pig or it breaks down and melts. You want it to stay whole – all the flavour is in the fat. Because it’s baked, our black pudding has a softer texture. It dehydrates by up to 20 per cent in the oven, which intensifies the flavour. If you put it into stews, it’ll make your gravy top-notch.”
A big reason for the black-pudding boom is its recent adoption by star chefs. This homely item marries happily with a host of foodstuffs including scallops, guinea fowl, pigeon and, of course, pork. “Chefs like it because it adds richness,” explains Haigh. “And it’s cheap.”
This cannot, however, be the reason that Andrew Pern gets through 750kg of black pudding a year at the Star Inn in the village of Harome, North Yorkshire. Most of it is used in a signature starter in which fried black pudding and caramelised apple form the outer layers of a “sandwich” with a plump disc of sautéed foie gras acting as filling. The Star sells 150 portions a week at £14.95 each. The black pudding, sometimes home-made, sometimes from a Northumbrian producer, is cooked “so it is crisp on the outside and unctuous inside”.
“I wanted to bring together a luxury and a staple,” says Pern. “Black pudding adds a fantastic depth of flavour. As a farmer’s boy, I used to have it for breakfast. We also serve it with sautéed squid, and in a Scotch egg using quails’ eggs. On Sundays, we dice it in the gravy that we serve with roast pork.”
The most inventive use of black pudding is to be found in the Lanterna, Scarborough, the acclaimed restaurant of Piedmontese chef Giorgio Alessio. His ravioli stuffed with black pudding is typical of his desire to utilise local ingredients in dishes from his native Italy. “No, we don’t use this ravioli stuffing in Piedmont,” says Alessio. “But I love the flavour of black pudding. Sometimes I eat it cold, just as it comes. Black pudding ravioli sells very well indeed. You’d be surprised. It comes with a sauce of melted butter and Parmesan with just a touch of English mustard to add bite.”
But Alessio’s greatest innovation in this department is an ice cream. When you taste it you can’t quite believe it, but, yes, the speckled scoop conveys the essence of black pudding in a surprisingly palatable, if at first somewhat disconcerting form. “Tables tend to share one portion,” Alessio says. “It took a while to get the recipe right. The first few times that I tried, it was inedible. But by using a very small amount and taking out as much fat as possible, you get a taste of black pudding that is definitely there but not overpowering.”
If only this lickable miracle had been around when I was a child.
Doreen’s black pudding is sold at Castle Howard near York, and Bulmers Butchers, 110 Westmoreland Street, Harrogate. For other outlets and mail order, see yorkshireblackpudding.co.uk
Boudin noir is available from Harrods, or by mail order from Keevil & Keevil in Smithfield Market; keevilandkeevil.co.uk
Morcilla is sold at Brindisa in London, brindisa.com
The Star Inn, Harome, North Yorkshire; thestaratharome.co.uk
Lanterna, Scarborough; lanternaristorante.co.uk
The new black: an artfully arrayed stack of German Blutwurst