You would be hard pressed to find anyone from our fair isles who would consider a small leisure centre in the Calder Valley of West Yorkshire as, by definition, an arena of ‘exoticism’. But whilst in its main usage exotic means ‘of non-native origin’ it also denotes items which are considered ‘unusual’ or ‘novel’ within a culture; a food item which may not necessarily be prevalent in our society anymore; the Dock Pudding is certainly this.
When Forager’s Ali and Miles came across Mytholmroyd Community and Leisure Centre, near the town of Halifax, in the spring of 2007, there was a feeling of uncovering something long-forgotten; ‘witnessing this small surviving English outpost of traditional edible wild-plant use; it was a bit like discovering a tribal people living in Epping Forest’.
The World Dock Pudding Championships are held every year, since 1971, in this unassuming venue. If you haven’t heard of dock pudding, you’re not alone; it went unmentioned in Heaton's ‘Traditional recipes of the British Isles’, White's ‘Good Things in England’, and Hartley's ‘Food in England’, all of which are accounts of the cuisine of our small island. The pudding uses the leaves of the Bistort plant (Persicaria bistorta) and can include nettles and ramsons, all bound together with oatmeal. The first mention of dock pudding came in 1845 in Alexis Soyer’s text A Shilling Cookery for the People: ‘Sweet Docks, also a wild vegetable, or weed, are very good when done as follows, using about two-thirds of sweet dock, and one-third of nettles, boiled with a little carbonate of soda. When done, strain them, and to about one pint basin full, add one onion sliced and fried, a sprig of parsley, a little butter, pepper, and salt; put into a stewpan on the fire, stir, and gradually add a handful of oatmeal; when you think the meal has been sufficiently boiled, dish up and serve as a vegetable.’
Dock pudding became a staple Yorkshire breakfast in the years ensuing, whilst in neighbouring Cumbria it served more as a main meal and was called Easter Ledge Pudding. The word ‘pudding’ here is interesting to note, conjuring up thoughts of sweet after-dinner treats. Etymologically the word comes from the Latin ‘botellus’ meaning sausage or small intestine, which in medieval times came to be associated with meats cooked in a casing (for example; muslin) usually with a binding agent such as oatmeal or barley. At the end of Pink Floyd’s ‘Another Brick in the Wall, Part 2’ a narrator can be heard shouting; “If you don’t eat your meat, you can’t have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don’t eat your meat?!” The two were, for all purposes, intertwined. But for more recent times the pudding has been a sweet treat. This etymological-evolution may have started with the Jam Roly-Poly, which was nicknamed ‘Dead Man’s Arms’ due to the custom of it being boiled in an old shirt sleeve.
In years gone by the sight of ready-to-cook dock puddings in a Yorkshire larder would have been a commonality. The leaves would be collected in Spring when they are young and tender, and used throughout the year to stave off the ‘hungry gap’ of winter. In fact, during the Second World, the German propagandist William Joyce; otherwise known as Lord Haw Haw, tried to turn this tradition to Nazi advantage when he announced in glee that food rationing had gotten so bad in Yorkshire that people had resorted to eating grass. If only Lord Haw Haw were around today to see where foraged foods have gotten to; plated up side by side with the highest quality ingredients in some of the world’s most renowned restaurants...
But back in Mytholmroyd Community and Leisure Centre, the competition is all about tradition. When Robbie Coltrane, the actor and comedian, entered the competition as part of his TV series B-Road Britain, he courted controversy by adding stilton cheese to the recipe. Mayoress and judge Betty Ward said of one entry to the competition; ‘That was never cooked in a farmhouse kitchen, someone’s trying to be a chef!’ And in 2004, Jette Howard caused uproar when she entered a vegetarian version of the dish which is normally cooked in bacon fat and served with rashers on the side. ‘There are certain traditions you don’t tamper with!’ a former champion protested. ‘Whatever happened to the bacon?’ was the headline. However, despite the proclamations of heresy, Howard won the competition, highlighting a necessary acceptance to have one eye on tradition as well as one on innovation.
There is one thing you can’t fight with, however; the British weather. In 2013, the Championships were cancelled for the first time since their inception. ‘Mother nature has put her foot down and said ‘no’ this year’, said Julie Wilby, the centre’s manager. The Championships returned the following year, as resilient and tough as any dock plant. When 13-year old twins Clare and Kate Morrison won 1st prize for their dish, they dedicated their victory to Mary Knowles, a 79 year-old family friend who had taught them how to make dock pudding, and who had died not long before the tournament. In a small community leisure centre in the Calder Valley of Yorkshire, this traditional use of wild-plants is as strong as ever.