Today I quite disgusted myself. And if you’re of a queasy disposition you might want to skip this post. Just think The Devil in the Dark covered in chalazae, smelling like pasta, and you’ll almost be there. It’s Pinch-Bum Day, aka Oak Apple Day, aka Royal Oak Day, with other names including Shick-Shack Day, Shit-Shack Day, Shig-Shag Day, Arbor Tree Day, Oak and Nettle Day, and my personal favourite, Yak-Bob Day. Given the cat vomited everywhere before I started, Yak-Bob Day sounds very apt, although I do call her dirt trays, shit shacks.
Anyhow, Oak Apple Day has nothing to do with apples and everything to do with celebrating the restoration of Charles II on 29 May 1660. To show loyalty to the Crown, it was customary to wear a sprig of oak and anyone who didn’t was fair game. Punishments included being whipped with nettles, being assailed by eggs, a good kicking, and being pinched on the nether regions, hence Pinch-Bum Day.
Pinch-Bum Day has an embarrassment of folklore riches associated with it; an origin story, a prince, a couple of royal birthdays, pagans, a holiday, fertility rites, processions, garlands, chants, wood dragging, morris dancing, alcohol, flags, maypoles, a dawn rising Tin Can Band, and of course, food. Today is also the day when the Royal Hospital Chelsea celebrates their Founder’s Day. It’s said that Nell Gwyn, her of the oranges and the ear of Charles II, persuaded the King to found a retirement home for army veterans in 1682. And for their Founder’s Day dinner, it was traditional to serve a plum pudding or a plum duff for afters. So that’s what I made.
So, firstly there’s no plums in a plum duff. It’s thought that plum refers to plump, as in plump up the volume, and yes, there was a lot of swelling going on during cooking. I can honestly say that I’ve never made a recipe where I’ve subbed seven out of the eight ingredients. I’m not saying that’s where everything went wrong, I’m just saying that I’m glad I got to avoid asking a butcher to remove membranes from a beef suet. So the breadcrumbs were some sort of rice concoction, the flour was gluten free as was the baking powder, I used pre-grated vegetable suet that looked like over-gorged maggots, coconut sugar as I’d never tried it before, an own blend mixed spice as I didn’t have any preblended, normal, bog standard mixed dried fruit and soya milk to bind. All of that went into a bowl and got stirred. So far so good.
Then after shaping the dough into a sausage, I laid it out on a clean, floured tea towel, wrapped it, tied it with string, and then shoved it in a pot to boil for 1.5 hours. Every so often I would return to the pot to top it up and turn the duff over as it kept bobbing to the surface. After a bit, I popped a lid on as that felt sensible.
After 90mins of the kitchen smelling like salty pasta water (despite the lack of salt in the recipe), I ladled out the be-tea-towelled lump onto a chopping board and began to unwrap. Reader, I was not prepared for what happened next:
I eventually levered the duff onto a plate and began the scrape down operation. Flicking fat on a platter is not as fun as it sounds. And then, of course, I had to taste it. I can’t tell you how relieved I was to find the insides did not reflect the outsides. There was still this thick gelatinous coating but at least the interior looked vaguely familiar. So my first spoonful, I got the ratio wrong, too much crust, not enough core. The outside had a pillowy consistency but tasted of emptiness, a void where good things should have been. The inside was just bland with a last ditch attempt at sweetness when I bit into a currant. And all of it was very stodgy and very heavy. I can completely understand the need for custard on this.
Ever the professional, I dug out another spoonful from the centre. This one wasn’t as bad, but still almost completely lacking in taste. This duff, because I can’t speak for all duffs, especially the ones that combine beef suet and custard, had the texture of a cake but the banality of a bread. I’m wondering if soaking it in booze might help. Or frying slices of it like Christmas cake. Or pairing it with cheese. Or using it as a door stop. Or mind melding with it like Spock to see if it has sentient life.
As it cooled, the outside got darker and slightly more inviting. But not by much. Not by much at all.
Cooper, Q. and Sullivan, P. (1994) Maypoles, Martyrs & Mayhem: 366 Days of British Myths, Customs & Eccentricities, London, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc
Hazlitt, W.C. (1995) The Dictionary of Faiths and Folklore, Beliefs, Superstitions and Popular Customs, London, Bracken Books
Jones, J. and Deer, B. (1987) Cattern Cakes and Lace, London, Dorling Kindersley Limited
Roud, S. (2006) The English Year: A Month-By-Month Guide To The Nation’s Customs and Festivals, From May Day to Mischief Night, London, Penguin Books
Simpson, J. and Roud, S. (2001) Oxford Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford, Oxford University Press