What’s For Pud? Figgy-dowdy!
We’ll rant and we’ll roar like true British sailors,
We’ll range and we’ll roam over all the salt seas,
Until we strike soundings in the Channel of old England:
From Ushant to Scilly ’tis thirty-five leagues.
— traditional sea shanty, as sung by the crew of the HMS Polychrest
Or, to be more precise, Belly Timber takes to the English Channel, and to a rather peculiar double-ended boat and its famous captain, Lucky Jack Aubrey.
What’s What’s For Pud, you ask, and what the devil does it have to do with sailors?
Exactly this: What’s For Pud is a celebration of English ‘afters’ — pud, pudding, biscuits, sweets — those sticky sweet, scrumptious dishes that prove wrong all the naysayers who turn their noses up at quintessential English cuisine. And we here at Belly Timber, being rather nautically inclined to begin with, believe that nowhere else can one find dishes more quintessentially English than aboard the great ships of the British Navy during the Golden Age of Sail.
Because, as we know, meals aboard Lord Nelson’s fleet were all about two glorious things: Rum and suet.
Yes, I did indeed say suet.
And nice big bottles o’ rum, by gum.
Which brings us to our splendid St. George’s Day dish: Figgy-dowdy.
First, a brief confession: Chopper and I read out loud to each other at bedtime. So, when I say we read Patrick O’Brian’s Post Captain together, I mean out loud, sharing the book from front to back. We’ve gone through Lovecraft tales, the last three Harry Potter books, two brilliant novels by Tim Powers, and now (with a brief interlude for dragons, which I’ll cover in my next post), we’re tackling the Aubrey/Maturin Series. I tell you, every couple should do this. It’s even better than spending the week debating what’s going to happen next on 24.
Partway through Post Captain, I scoured the web for Aubrey/Maturin related books and discovered this one: Lobscouse and Spotted Dog: Which It’s a Gastronomic Companion to the Aubrey/Maturin Novels. Now, we don’t own this book yet, but lo and behold, BBC Radio 4 did a programme on shipboard food and they’ve got recipes from the book up on their website — including figgy-dowdy.
Also partway through Post Captain, we ran across this delicious scene in which Jack Aubrey and several of his officers explain figgy-dowdy to a dinner guest aboard the Polychrest.
‘Now, sir,’ said Jack to Canning, ‘we have a Navy dish that I thought might amuse you. We call it figgy-dowdy. You do not have to eat it unless you choose — this is Liberty Hall. For my part, I find it settles a meal; but perhaps it is an acquired taste.’
Canning eyed the pale, amorphous, gleaming, slightly translucent mass and asked how it was made; he did not think he had ever seen anything quite like it.
‘We take ship’s biscuit, put it in a stout canvas bag –’ said Jack.
‘Pound it with a marlin-spike for half an hour –’ said Pullings.
‘Add bits of pork fat, plums, figs, rum, currants,’ said Parker.
‘Send it to the galley, and serve it up with bosun’s grog,’ said Macdonald.
— Patrick O’Brian, Post Captain, (Book #2 in the Aubrey/Maturin Series)
And because we’re not the most, shall we say, sensible lot in the kitchen, we immediately determined that we just had to try it out for ourselves.
Now, if you follow the link to the BBC website, you’ll notice the Lobscouse recipe for figgy-dowdy is slightly different than the one in Post Captain, though both follow the same pattern: cram a bunch of stuff in a bag with fat and rum and boil it.
Patrick O’Brian himself speaks highly of this style of pud. “Second only to that of Christmas,” he says in a short piece titled Thoughts on Pudding, “we find a series of others, all founded upon that happy marriage of flour (two parts), suet (one part) and sugar consummated in a cloth or basin surrounded by boiling water.”
For our part, we took bits from both recipes: pork fat rather than the hard-to-find traditional suet, and flour instead of ship’s biscuit (even though I do seem to recall seeing a marlin-spike somewhere in the tool shed).
For the add-ins, Chopper included raisins, currents, figs (naturally), and for the spices, ginger and pumpkin pie spice.
As for the rum and water, well the Lobscouse recipe (which we halved) didn’t call for much, and at first the dough refused to stick together. ‘Are you going to add more water?’ I cried. ‘Why no,’ Chopper said. ‘I’m going to add more rum! Ha ha!’ And thus he did. Quite a lot of it, I think.
And so, with a full bottle of rum handy (just in case), and with much fear in his heart, Chopper set to work.
Yes, fear. Because, well, dessert. With pork fat. How can a Yank raised on cobbler and cookies not have fear in his heart?
But, here’s the thing…
Around the mid point of the boiling process, we noticed a shift in the odors from the pot. They weren’t quite so porky anymore. They were spicy. And rummy. And quite tantalizing. And we started to wonder if figgy-dowdy might actually taste good.
Now, the scary part, aside from just knowing that this is a dessert with pork fat in it (do I need to repeat myself? PORK FAT. IN A DESSERT. Okay, done) is that fact that it is, as Patrick O’Brian described, a “pale, amorphous, gleaming, slightly translucent mass.”
In a word, ick. In several words? It looks rather like something that hasn’t been born yet.
Fortunately for our appetites, our figgy-dowdy wasn’t quite as pale and translucent as I’d expected (no doubt due to the copious amounts of dark rum Chopper poured into the mix), so we ventured further.
In fact, when we sliced it open, it looked rather good. Like rum cake.
So, after a quick photo session (that included an attempted assault on the figgy-dowdy by both Villeneuve and a rather menacing crew of pirates) we sampled our pud.
And our pud was good.
A bit chewy perhaps, and slightly dry in the middle — something easily remedied by packing the cheesecloth a little less tightly or, of course, more rum — but damn if it wasn’t a pretty tasty shipboard treat. Call me crazy, but I think we may have to dine like British sailors more often!
We hove our ship to when the wind was south-west, boys,
We hove our ship to for to strike soundings clear,
Then we filled our main-topsail and bore right away, boys,
And right up the Channel our course we did steer.