If it’s October, it’s time to make plum pudding. I learned how to make this traditional English Christmas treat in a cooking class in 1977 and I have made it every year since. If I do the math correctly, this is my forty-third year. I can still hear the voice of the cooking instructor, a British version of Julia Child, at the demonstration room of the Emporium department store in San Francisco:
“Be sure to get the freshest of ingredients, which you will find in bulk at OH’S on Mission Street. It is of the utmost importance to find the highest quality dried fruits possible!”
I went to the Mission District, found the hundred-year-old store called OH’S short for…umm…I don’t remember what the letters stand for. I used to know but not only can I not remember, Google never heard of it either. I didn’t make this up, there really was such a place, now gone the way of the buffalo.
I was so shocked when my then ten-year-old son, Tyler, and I made the trek from San Mateo on a Saturday in October 1993, to not find the store. I stopped a fireman on the street to ask where it was and he turned to me and said, “Lady, we’re in the middle of a fire here. I can’t talk to you!” and he ran down the sidewalk—hose in hand.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t…”
Tyler tugged on the sleeve of my fox fur jacket which, at the time, my husband warned me against wearing to the Mission District—too ostentatious, and he said, “Mom, ask those ladies,” as he pointed to the old women getting their hair done at the beauty parlor next to where the store was supposed to be.
The first time I went to OH’s I marveled at the large burlap sacks sitting on the floor throughout the store containing everything from bulk flour to loose nuts, and, of course, the raisins, currants, dates, and sultanas required for the plum pudding. By the way, there are no plums in the recipe, unless you count the dried prunes. For many years I made the trip to the mom ‘n pop institution no matter where I lived. It seemed I moved frequently from San Francisco to Marin County to San Mateo County. No matter what, I was going to OH’S in October.
Turns out the old couple passed away and the kids didn’t want to continue operating the famous store. I had to adapt and buy the ingredients at health food stores, which were abundant throughout California in the nineties. Even chain stores such as Safeway and Whole Foods carried them.
Well, not in 2020! On October 10, I carried my yellowed and stained recipe into Whole Foods to gather the ingredients, knowing my biggest challenge would be the mixed candied peel. In England, this is an easy ingredient to find, along with treacle and beef suet. My jaw dropped when I saw all the bulk bins empty and plastic containers stacked on a shelf above where all the bulk items were packaged, weighed, and labeled.
Adapt to the “new normal” is what we all have to do during the pandemic, and so I gathered everything except the mixed candied peel. I was determined to find it so, off I went, to Nob Hill. No luck. They usually get it in November in time for folks to make the dreaded fruit cakes nobody likes. Five stores later, I remembered a specialty store in Capitola called Jones and Bones.
It’s a boutique, unique and eclectic, located in the upper village section of the seaside town, catty-corner from Gayle’s Bakery, and carries high-quality olive oils, vinegars, and spices as well as hand-crafted jewelry and unusual kitchen items.
After checking Capitola Produce for the candied peel, instead of turning right on Bay Avenue, I went straight and turned into the driveway of Jones and Bones. I wandered about the store perusing the fabulous array of items on display. “Hello?” I said. No answer. “Yoo hoo!” I trilled. Nobody came. I scoured the shelves looking for a container of multi-colored citrus rinds. Just as I was about to leave, a delightful lady came through the door and asked if she could help me find anything.
“It’s a long shot, but…I’m making plum pudding and I need mixed candied peel.”
“You are? My mother used to make plum pudding,” she said as her face softened and her eyes became misty. “I have the bowls here but no candied peel,” as she pointed to the specialty bowls that most Americans would not recognize.
We got to chatting and reminiscing about the traditions that very few people maintain in today’s world. Turns out the lady, named Jennifer Jones, and I are the same age and share many memories of the olden days including making our own candied peel. The light-bulb went on!
I raced to my laptop and pulled up a recipe posted by Tricia Curtis On October 7, 2011, titled, “Making your own MIXED PEEL is a breeze.” I gathered the ingredients and set about the task. No, not a breeze—more like a gale! Tricia said, “It hardly takes any time at all…”
So far, I’ve been working on it for three days! I’m not complaining, and the good news is I can stop obsessing over the search. No more daily-darting to the produce sections of Nob Hill and Safeway looking to see if it came in during the night shipment.
Like the Guinness Stout and brandy, the recipe calls for only four ounces of peel for a large pudding. Considering a single bottle of Guinness Stout contains twenty-two ounces and I am instructed in the recipe to drink the remainder once the pudding is the right consistency ( the only way to get a smaller bottle is to buy a six-pack), I opt for the single bottle since I’m not crazy about it in the first place.
I will have plenty of candied peel left over. I sampled it and, yeah, it does taste like it’s supposed to, but eating it straight leaves a slightly bitter taste. There’s only one thing to do about that—dip it in chocolate! I’ll have to go to Nob Hill and buy some Ghirardelli dipping chocolate. Yeah, that’s it. Or maybe Nutella.
The question is, will I be flambéing my plum pudding alone while sheltering in place, or will I be allowed to be in a small, intimate group? The numbers will determine that. It’s only October. Let’s get through November and see. Anything can happen.
So, for now, eat candy and be happy.