Join the popular eating club that’s far from stodgy
There is always that moment when you hit a sugar wall: maybe after your fourth helping of pudding—the spotted dick—as you are lustfully eyeing the pear and ginger crumble. Belts loosen, buttons pop; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. The crumble sits untouched in a haze of custard, and with a sigh, you settle back in a naughty-but-nice glow.
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An evening at The Pudding Club in 19th-century Three Ways House, a comfy, privately owned hotel in the Cotswold village of Mickleton a few miles from Stratford-upon-Avon, is one of those eccentric indulgences that just have to be experienced if you want to understand British culinary culture, if not British character.
The club was started in 1985 by a bunch of sweet-toothed diehards determined to save the traditional Great British Pud from extinction in the face of upstart quick-cook convenience confections and dastardly foreign imports like Black Forest gateau. Their passion for treacle sponge, jam roly poly, and all things steamed, baked and swimming in custard raised the collective pulse. The club caught on and celebrates its 30th anniversary through 2015.
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Open to anyone, Pudding Club evenings are held every Friday and occasionally on Saturdays, regularly attracting up to 70 guests. Seven different puddings are served and (diets be damned) you can scoff as many helpings of each as you are physically able.
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“The Brits love their comfort food in winter, and wonderful fruity fare like summer pudding and passion fruit charlotte in summer,” said Jill Coombe, who owns Three Ways House with her husband Simon. “The Pudding Club is all about lighthearted fun, indulgence and sharing. There’s no typical Pudding Club guest; they’re all ages, and we’ve followers from across the world.”
A svelte Jill admits to a predilection for Lord Randall’s pudding, a club signature steamed pud bursting with apricots and marmalade, and named for a cad in a Victorian ballad who was poisoned by his lover (rest assured, it was the eels wot dunnit, not any pudding). Such tales exploding on the taste buds are another reason for our romance with rib-stickers.
Many of the puds served at the club can trace a history back to medieval pottages and frumenty, the hearty fare that filled the bellies of toilers in field and farm. Not for nothing did the Elizabethans call times of good luck and contentment “puddyng time,” and Georgian and Victorian royalty were sticklers for stodge and suet. Today, just a bite of bread-and-butter pudding or blackberry Eton mess unlocks memories of childhood nurseries, granny’s kitchen, school dinners, Oxbridge halls, gentlemen’s clubs and the House of Lords.
And so Pudding Club evenings have been likened to medieval banquets with custard or, by one wag, to making love in a thunderstorm And so Pudding Club guests arrive as dusk falls on the golden Cotswold stone of Three Ways House. There’s already a hubbub of expectation as a little lubrication is enjoyed around the log fire in Randall’s Bar-Brasserie.
Then at 7.30 p.m. we’re into the striped sofas and easy chairs of the Terrace Suite lounge, sipping glasses of chilled elderflower pressé. Pudding Master Craig Matthews, sporting a custard-fountain patterned tie, calls order with a rolling pin, relates the history of the club, some anecdotes and explains the etiquette for the evening.
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Seven different giant puddings, from spotted dick to toffee and apple, will be on offer, with multiple replacements and nine gallons of custard at the ready (head chef Mark Rowlandson and “queen of puds” Sheila Vincent have been doing this for years). Guests sit together at long tables (convivial college dinner style), and Craig will call groups in turn to the pudding table (we do love our queues). Then it’s one helping at a time—as many times as you can return.
The record number of helpings is 25, set in December 2010 by a particularly determined gent, Craig reveals. “He was a deep sea diver, worked on oil rigs in the Arabian Gulf, six foot four and wears a kilt. He’s in management now.” There’s no answer to that.
We take our places at table and, after a light “main course” of chicken, trout or pasta, we’re ready for the Parade of Puddings: clapping in each steaming, gleaming temptation and summoned to “be upstanding” to drum spoons on tables as the fnal sticky delight arrives. The first table is called; lashings of custard, cream, toffee and chocolate sauces cascade; a lightheaded excitement bubbles with tart jokes.
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The bread-and-butter pud, squidgy underneath and crisp on top (earliest known recipe, 1723) is much in demand; the passion fruit charlotte—the club’s most popular cold pudding and related to Elizabethan trifles—is rapidly vanishing. The spotted dick (the name probably comes from “dough” or “duff”) has hardcore fans, and how else to describe sumptuously named “very chocolate pudding”?
If it’s summer, the club majors in lighter or cold favorites like peach Melba (created in the 19th century for the soprano Dame Nellie Melba when she visited The Savoy), or lemon posset, which began life in the 15th century as a milky spiced remedy for the ill. But always the oozing heavyweights will be here: the jam roly poly of Dickens’ Bleak House and the royal pleasers like Queen’s and Victoria’s puddings, created for Queen Victoria by her chef Francatelli.
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The evening drifts on and bold initial tactics to out-pud that deep-sea diver (take small helpings, alternate light with heavy, add lots of lubricating custard) are crumbling. Faces grow rosy and score cards for each sampled pudding are marked. Many guests have been before, and club evenings are popular as birthday and anniversary outings. A visitor from Boston, Mass. confides: “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
As coffee is served, a show of hands reveals 22 out of 73 guests have tucked into seven or more helpings of pudding. (Reader, I didn’t surpass my own previous record of four.) Then to rousing cheers, bread-and-butter pudding—“a good working-class favorite,” Craig declares—is voted Pudding of the Evening, with syrup sponge a close second. We are all handed our Pudding Club certificates of attendance.
Pudding Club evenings have been likened to medieval banquets with custard or, by one wag, to making love in a thunderstorm. Be that as it may, they are eccentric, boisterous and indulgent.
Rather than waddle home afterwards, I stayed overnight—Three Ways House has 48 bedrooms including seven different quirky themed Pudding Bedrooms. Maybe you fancy sweet dreams in a Chocolate Suite or Sticky Toffee and Date Room reminiscent of a Bedouin tent?
Pudding Club meetings are held weekly on Friday and some Saturdays, and cost £37. Special Pudding Club Breaks are also available. See the Three Ways House website www.threewayshousehotel.com and surf the custard at www.puddingclub.com.
Three Ways House, Mickleton, Gloucestershire is 90 minutes from London and 10 minutes from Stratford-upon-Avon.
To travel by road from London, take the M40, exit at junction 15 and take the A46/A439 to Stratford-upon-Avon. Follow signs for Broadway and Shipston-on-Stour and take the A3400 out of Stratford and right turn onto the B4632 to Mickleton.
For a more scenic run, exit the M40 at junction 8, then follow the A40 and A44 to drop by Oxford, Chipping Norton and Moreton-in-Marsh before taking the B4081 via Chipping Campden to Mickleton.
If you fancy walking off your puddings next morning, world-famous Hidcote Manor Garden and Kiftsgate Court Gardens are minutes away.
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