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Plum duff or spotted dick — by whatever name, it was the king of gold rush desserts. It’s getting close to Christmas now, which is a good excuse to talk about Plum Pudding.


Plum pudding. (Image: Lachlan Hardy)

Along with boiled mutton, plum pudding in one form or another was one of the most commonly cooked items on the gold diggings. It was ideally suited to the camp kitchens of the gold diggers for a number of reasons: the first of which was the style of cooking. As social historian Daniel Poole explains, ‘Plum pudding had the great merit of not needing to be cooked in an oven. Wrapped in a pudding cloth, it could be wrapped up into a ball and dropped in the cooking pot along with whatever else was cooking…’ [1]

Secondly, all of the dry ingredients (dried raisins and currants, spices, flour, sugar) were readily available on the goldfields. And thirdly, plum puddings are traditionally shortened with suet rather than the usual butter. On the goldfields butter was rarity, and even when it could be bought it was usually rancid, and always expensive. Fortunately, the alternative shortening, suet, could be had at any butcher’s shambles. Suet is raw beef or mutton fat — especially the hard fat found around the loins and kidneys. Now, I know what you’re thinking: ‘I don’t want no kidney fat in my dessert,’ but trust me on this: it tastes great.

During her first day on the Spring Creek diggings in mid-1853, Mrs Campbell, Canadian wife of the new Police Magistrate, panicked about the lack of ingredients for cooking, but she was soon reassured by her male house-hand:

“Oh, dear!” I sighed, “no vegetables—eggs for a pud­ding, Barnes?” A shake of the head was the only reply. “Rice—you can surely get that?” “ Yes, ma’am, at two shillings a pound.” “Oh, then !”—and I breathed more freely—“milk; I know you can,” pointing to the half­ emptied milk-jug on the table. With a smile, Barnes said, “The milkman can only let me have a pint a-day, and it is half-a-crown a quart; but if you like I can make a plum-pudding—plenty of suet at the butchers, and raisins and currants at the store, though very dear.” “Well, then, that will have to do for to-day—boiled leg of mutton in rice, and a plum-pudding—not so bad after all,” I said, handing him some money, which he good-humouredly took, and walked off to purchase the needful.’ [2]

The pudding mixture was tied air-tight in nothing more than a square of calico, which (in an ideal world) had been boiled and thoroughly rubbed with flour to seal its surface. (Incidentally, a typical pudding cloth is about the same size as a square neckerchief, which is also amount of fabric needed to make an arm sling. It’s about 80cm or 2 1/2 foot square.)

There were two ways of making a pudding. One was to make a flat sheet of suet pastry sprinkled with dried fruit, which was then rolled up into a circular pudding; the other was to make the pudding with everything mixed at once.

Due to the length of time required for cooking, plum puddings were strictly Sunday fare, when the diggers were obliged (by the conditions of their licences) to down tools and observe the Sabbath. And of course, plenty were eaten when it was Christmas on the diggings of 1852:

Christmas-day we celebrated with the good old orthodox roast-beef and plum-pudding… and drank a Merry Christmas to all our friends in Old England, in a tumbler of brandy-and-water. We tried to believe it Christmas, spite of the thermometer at 120°, of diggers’ tents in the distance, and the bush around us. [3]

Here’s what I suspect the recipe would have looked like (and a recipe for suet pudding dough beneath that):

Traditional Plum Pudding

1/2 cup finely shredded suet
1/2lb (250grams) moist (soft brown) sugar
1lb (500 grams) seeded raisins
3/4lb (250 grams) sultanas
1/4lb (125 grams currants)
1/4lb (125grams) breadcrumbs
1/2lb (250grams) plain flour
2oz chopped blanched almonds
1/2 nutmeg, grated (or 1 level tsp nutmeg) (other spices commonly available may also have been added, such as cinnamon [cassia], mace and cloves).
1tsp baking powder (i.e.: combination of bicarbonate soda and tartaric acid [cream of tartare]
4 eggs (I question whether these would have been readily available on the diggings; they may have been omitted.)
2 or more tablespoons brandy (Some recipes call for soaking the dried fruit in the brandy beforehand.)

Rub the suet into the flour, then add the sugar and breadcrumbs. Mix together the beaten eggs, and brandy, and add to the dry ingredients. The mixture should be reasonably stiff as you put onto the cloth; if it seems loose, just add a little more flour.

Your pudding cloth: A piece of unbleached, well-washed calico is excellent but anything can be used provided strong weave and with no holes! Have handy some string to tie the pudding cloth. It needs to be boiled and rubbed with flour to seal it.

Get help to tie your pudding – this is advantageous. Very important to ensure all ends are to top and will be included in the string tightly tied. If this is not done, water can get into the pudding and will create a soggy, spoiled end result. That’s very disappointing.

Be on guard to see water does not boil dry! Top up regularly throughout the cooking process with boiling water.

A good guide as to whether your pudding is cooked is that when you lift your pudding out of the steamer to hang, is that the cloth will very quickly show a drying appearance.

Cook for 6-8 hours, and to reheat, boil for one hour.

Suet Pudding Dough

The combination of suet and butter makes the flavour mellow and the texture flakey.

250g plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
½ tsp salt
2 tbsp (50g) butter
75g suet, prepared or fresh grated
100-125ml water

Place the flour, baking powder and salt in a bowl and rub in the butter until it vanishes. Add the suet and water, then mix to a soft dough. This is ready to use straight away.

[1] Daniel Poole, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England, 1994.
[2] Mrs A. Campbell, Rough and smooth, or, Ho! for an Australian gold field, Hunter, Rose & Co., Quebec, 1865, p.83
[3] William Howitt, Land, Labour and GoldOr Two Years in Victoria, Lowden Publishing Company, Kilmore, 1972 [original first published 1855], (this reference is from Chapter 10).