The proof of the pudding


Love it or hate it? Liz Hands mixes up some Christmas pudding (and tea loaf) in advance of Stir Up Sunday

It’s a question that divides families at Christmas. Who wants Christmas pudding? As someone firmly in the yes camp, the chance to make plum pud with the official Christmas pudding supplier to English Heritage is not to be missed.

Lea and Robert Darling’s farmhouse on the outskirts of Darlington is home not only to themselves and their three Jack Russells, who rush out to great us on arrival, but also to Burtree Puddings.

The action all takes place in a converted warehouse next to their home, where the Darlings make a staggering 300 Christmas puddings every day in the run-up to the festive season.

This is, though, by no means a huge commercial operation. Every one of those 300 puddings is made by hand and Lea and Robert, soon to celebrate their Ruby wedding anniversary, have the division of labour sorted.

“They say the difference between a cook and a chef is a cook can follow a recipe whereas a chef can create one,” says Robert. “I’m definitely the cook and Lea is the chef. I just follow instructions.”

Well, it helps when the instructions are as good as this. Into a huge square mixing tub we tip handful upon handful of raisins, brown sugar (Burtree never uses white sugar), sultanas, currants, suet (gluten-free in this case), cherries, ground almonds and spices.

While everyone has their own ideas about the spirit best suited to Christmas pudding, this one has brandy and cider, plus whole fresh oranges which are pulped. “It’s the oil which gives it the flavour,” says Robert.

The aroma when you open the oven doors is Christmas itself, but the Darlings say they have cooked so many puddings, they can no longer smell it. Tasting, however, is a different matter. In their farmhouse kitchen, we try the gluten-free version. The oranges give it a zesty freshness which will surely win over even the most ardent Christmas pudding haters. There’s also a Traditional pudding with Newcastle Brown Ale and brandy, and a Deluxe option with rum, barley wine and stout, which is darker, richer and earthier.

Burtree, which holds an incredible 37 Great Taste Awards, the Oscars of the food world, really started making puddings after a process of elimination prompted by losing acreage from the farm. Diversification was necessary for survival, but criss-crossed by the A1, the A68 and Burtree Lane, the location is no good for tourism so a B&B was out of the question. For a time, Lea and Robert raised turkeys, but as they point out, while a turkey is just for Christmas, puddings are a year-round business. The choice was clear.

They also make treacle, sticky toffee, lemon, ginger and chocolate puddings, and their latest new recipe – an orange marmalade sponge with sticky marmalade sauce. Starting out selling a few cakes, puddings and Lea’s family tea loaf recipe at farmers’ markets, their puddings are now in demand across the world. French superchef Jean-Christophe Novelli has said that the last food he wants to taste before he dies is a Burtree sticky toffee pudding. Praise indeed!

Burtree has also just become the official supplier of Christmas puddings to English Heritage shops the length and breadth of the country, with Traditional and Deluxe puddings on sale at sites including Belsay Hall, Stonehenge and Whitby Abbey.

“We start getting Christmas pudding orders as soon as the children go back to school in September,” says Lea. “Psychologically for families, that’s it, winter has started, and Christmas pudding is usually the first purchase.”

For those making their own pudding, Stir Up Sunday (this year on November 22) has been a tradition since Victorian times when families would get together to make their Christmas pudding five weeks before the day itself, each member of the family taking a turn to mix and making a wish.

As for what to put in our own pudding, Lea says: “If you’re making your own Christmas pudding, you put in what you like. The important thing is that you and your family enjoy it together. For us, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without pigs in blankets, roast parsnips, red cabbage, bread sauce and, of course, Christmas pudding.”

And with that, they’re back to the baking. I ask for their Christmas pud recipe, not really expecting to get it, but there are a couple of Lea’s favourites over the page for you to try at home. Me? I’ve done my bit – I’m going home with a Burtree pud. Roll on Christmas Day!



Burtree Puddings  Steamed Syrup Sponge
Lea Darling’s Tea Loaf


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