How long does something have to been happening for it to become ‘traditional’? We have a tradition in our family of having red sparkling wine at brunch on Christmas morning (a token drink only, along with the customary berries in some form or other, - it is, after all, very early in the day!) This custom was begun by my son-in-law (knowing my great love of sparkling reds),who has been part of our family for something over a dozen years. Is a dozen years long enough for something to become a tradition? Of course it is!
The ‘traditional Christmas dinner’ (the formula of turkey, ham, flaming Christmas pudding etc) is largely a nineteenth century English construct, for which many historians blame Charles Dickens. Not an ancient tradition at all.
So – what of brandy butter (or ‘hard sauce’, in the US)?
In a previous series on English sauces, we found that for many cookery book writers of olden times, the signature English sauce was ‘melted butter’ (although the phrase often referred to a béchamel type sauce, not simply butter, melted.) Although this perhaps establishes butter as a favoured ingredient in sauces, this is, however, the complete antithesis of hard flavoured butter (which seems to me to be more like butter icing – or frosting, if you prefer.)
The Oxford English Dictionary gives the first written reference to ‘brandy butter’ as occurring in 1939, which is clearly very belated. Although the citation (which is also a recipe) occurs under the listing of ‘brandy butter’, it primarily references ‘hard sauce’:
In the USA, a Hard Sauce is made with one measure of fresh butter to two of castor sugar... In England, a similar sauce is called Brandy Butter or Rum Butter.’
Strangely, there is no entry under ‘hard’, but under ‘rum’ we have 'Rum butter, a hard sauce made from rum and butter', with the citation coming from an English cookery book of 1889.
Certainly rum butter (heavily nutmeggy in flavouring) has been considered a specialty in Cumberland (the Lake District) of England since at least early in the nineteenth century. I have no idea why this lovely English region should have a local specialty containing a Caribbean liquor – perhaps some early smuggling pursuits? (Cumbrians, come for the with your theories, please!)
Some by-no-means exhaustive research has uncovered the following snippets, which I give you for your consideration and delectation.
Brandy Butter Sauce For Plum Pudding.
A quarter of a pound of butter to be beaten with a wooden spoon all one way till it looks like thick cream; then add a quarter of a pound of loaf sugar (less is better) a glass of sherry, and a small glass of brandy; mix well with the butter and sugar adding only a small quantity at a time.
Dainty Dishes, by Lady Harriet Elizabeth St. Clair, 1866
Two tablespoonfuls of butter.
Ten tablespoonfuls of sugar.
Work this till white, then add wine and spice to your taste.
Miss Beecher’s Domestic Receipt Book, (American) 1848
Warm a pound of butter and a pound of brown sugar in a basin. Beat it to a cream, and add three ounces of rum and a grated nutmeg to taste. It must be quite smooth. Then put into a jar and cover.
The Times, July 25, 1938
P.S The Times gave this recipe as a summer picnic suggestion, for spreading on bread and butter or biscuits instead of jam. Sounds like a good idea to me. How about on scones?
Quotation for the Day.
The chief fuddling they make in the island [Barbados] is Rumbullion, alias Kill-Divil, and this is made of sugar canes distilled, a hot, hellish, and terrible liquor.
From a manuscript of 1651.