Thursday, December 17, 2009

Brandy, Rum, or Hard?

I was asked recently about the history of Brandy Butter in its role as a traditional sauce for Christmas Pudding. Those of you who are regular readers will be aware that I have trouble with the concept of ‘traditional’ in relation to the foods that we eat at particular times or in particular circumstances.

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 b├ęchamel 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

Hard Sauce.
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

Rum Butter.
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.


Fay said...

Rum, Nutmeg, sauce or butter,it doesn't matter to me as long as there is plenty of pudding to sop it all up!

The Old Foodie said...

I couldnt agree more, Fay! My mother in law makes the pudding for our Christmas, and very good it is too (complete with coin charms)

Chris Stanley said...

Great post as usual!

Perhaps I might shed a little light on the use of a Caribbean liquor (i.e. Rum) in northern England.

The old British Navy, as well as number of private trading concerns, were well-acquainted with rum.

The Navy actually had its own stocks of rum in order to accomodate the rum rations its sailors recieved (up until the early 1970's at least). This was a very strong ("Navy strength"; ~57% ABV) distillate generally imported from Jamaica (sometimes Barbados & Guyana too) and was often aged in warehouses along the docks of the Thames.

Private concerns involved with the Caribbean trade also engaged in similar practices. Around 1800 a new section of the Port of London, called the West Indies Docks was completed, to better accomdate the sugar (and sugarcane spirits) traffic that was moving through England at the time.

As for why rum was so popular as far north as Cumberland, I couldn't rightly say. Though rum was fairly cheap & very prevalent during the 18th and 19th centuries, so its likely that the product merely found its way up there...

More information on rum during these periods can be found in Wayne Curtis's excellent book "And a Bottle of Rum":


The Old Foodie said...

Thanks Chris, for your very informative comments. Dont you love this internet sharing?

Unknown said...

erm maybe because west cumbrian ports were involved in transatlantic trade???? Whitehaven was at the peak of trade in the top 5 ports in England, Molasses and sugar etc were brought over as part of the trade primarily from virginia

The Old Foodie said...

Thsnks hailey, you may very well be right - it makes sense, I think, that it might be related to sugar importing.

Catherine said...

I made an apple brandy cake last night for a neighborhood get together. I always make what I call a "hard sauce" to put over this with some bourbon in it. One of the guests questioned me about my sauce. She said this is not a "hard sauce". It kind of took me back as it was my moms recipe that I have been making for some 30 years. The recipe is butter, sugar, and milk coming to a boil, then beating in egg yolks and egg whites (separately), then adding a spirit of your choice. Any thoughts?

Fay said...

Hi Catherine,
I've always thought Hard Sauce was the butter, sugar beaten with grog like in TOF's post. Yours sounds like a beautiful light grog custard - almost sabayon-like. I hope you removed your Mum's 'hard sauce' from your tactless guest's vicinity and offered her plain cake.

The Old Foodie said...

Hi Catherine, as Fay says - i usually think of it as spreadable rather than pourable. I agree with Fay too, on the sanctions to apply to the ' friend' who dissed your Mum's recipe. If she called hard sauce, then hard sauce it is. Anyone so pedantic about a dish that someone has cooked for them does not deserve the honour.