Black pudding is as old as the civilized world itself.
For as long as men have congregated in communities and kept animals to feed their bellies and clothe their backs, they have made a form of black pudding.
However what is more shrouded in the mists of culinary time is how the dish that we recognise today came to move across Europe, changing and developing as it traveled from east to west. One belief is that it was the Romans who brought it with them as they conquered land after land, passing through what we now call Spain, Portugal, France, Germany, Austria, Romania, Belgium and the British Isles, leaving a legacy of straight roads and black puddings.
Another popular theory holds that it was the Moors of North Africa who followed the Romans into many parts of Europe and introduced them to the delights of the blood dish, the ingredients of which were so readily available to them. Some even think that the Spanish word for black pudding (morcilla) and the French town which hosts the international black pudding festival (Mortagne) are among those that derive their names from the Moors.
The etymology notwithstanding, this view is prevalent in France where they credit the Moors with bringing boudin noir to ancient Gaul. There is no doubt that boudin is one of France’s oldest charcuterie preparations. A sausage-making tradition in France can be dated back well over 2000 years and there is evidence of the activities of the Gaulish charcutier – the lardarius - in cave paintings at Narbone, Bordeaux and Rheims where blood sausages are clearly identifiable.
The first known written mention of black pudding was as early as 800 BC when it appeared in Homer’s classic The Odyssey. In book twenty of his great canon, Homer wrote “As when a man besides a great fire has filled a sausage with fat and blood and turns it this way and that and is very eager to get it quickly roasted…”.
In the same epic work, Homer had Odysseus on his return to Ithica literally fight “around the sausage” for a prize of a stomach stuffed with pig blood and fat.
Although it is doubtful that one man can claim the glory of having created black pudding, it is sometimes attributed to Aphtonite, a cook of ancient Greece. No less an authority than Larousse Gastronomique, the self-proclaimed world’s greatest cookery encyclopedia, credits Aphtonite with being the first to produce the dish.
The oldest written recipe for black pudding is to be found in De Re Coquinaria (The Art of Cooking) – the oldest collection of recipes to survive from antiquity – edited by Apicius. His instructions call for lengths of intestine, rather than a stomach as a container. Apicius’ recipe uses no cereal, but instead calls for chopped hard-boiled egg yolks, pine kernels, onions and leeks.
On its journey across Europe, the make-up of black pudding changed as the local products and spices did. It was food for the poor, made up of the cheapest and most plentiful ingredients. Naturally they would use what they had most of and could pay least for. So in Britain they added oatmeal or pearl barley as filler, in Spain they put in rice. Where oregano grew rife it was used, where marjoram was easy to get hold it was added, where there was plenty of pimento or thyme then they too would be in the black pudding. As trade flourished and new spices like nutmeg or allspice became available then they also found their way into the recipe.
But black pudding was not just food for the poor, it was also food fit for a king. The extravagant Tudor banquets held by Henry VIII at Hampton Court included the likes of whale meat, peacock and spit-roasted meat but there was always black pudding on the table too. By the 17th century, it was also the stuff of controversy as a theological debate raged round it, with many Christian scholars, particularly Methodists, claiming it should not be eaten. At the centre of the great debates which dominated much of the late 16th and early 17th centuries, was Sir Isaac Newton. Those against the eating of blood products – stipulated, they claimed, by Acts 15:28-29 and repeated in Acts 21:25 where the Apostles ruled that Christians must not eat blood – highlighted Newton’s abstinence from black pudding as supporting their beliefs. By the time of Newton’s death, in 1727, the black-pudding debate had been running almost 100 years. In the “Triall of a Black-Pudding”, written in 1652, Thomas Barlow, a future bishop of Lincoln, asserted that God had specifically proscribed blood eating among the Hebrews. Barlow claimed that no meat was unclean in itself, but that black pudding was a violation of both Jewish law and the Christian exemptions as dispensed by the Apostles.
Literary references to black pudding are relatively few for such a splendid and time-honoured dish but the great French novelist Emile Zola made frequent mentions of it in his work The Belly of Paris, including a memorable description of the making of it and spoke of a charcutierie containing “strings of black pudding coiled like harmless snakes”.
In Silas Mariner, George Eliot wrote of “The odour of Christmas cooking being on the wind, it was the season when superfluous pork and black puddings are suggestive of charity in well-to-do families.”
One of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, The Juniper Tree, is a horrific tale of a stepson being murdered and turned into black puddings by the evil stepmother. “Presently the father came home and sat down to his dinner. He asked, ‘Where is my son?’ The mother said nothing, but gave him a large dish of black pudding, and Marleen still wept without ceasing.”
At the other end of the entertainment spectrum, black pudding also has the dubious honour of being at the centre of the only television comedy sketch known to have killed someone. On 24 March 1975, bricklayer Alex Mitchell, of King’s Lynn in England, literally laughed himself to death while watching a sketch about a Scotsman being attacked by a black pudding. His widow later sent the Goodies a letter thanking them for making Mr Mitchell’s final moments so happy.
From Moors and Romans, through country after country, surviving religious controversies and the disdain of the unenlightened, black pudding has flourished like never before. From the tables of the poor, it has graduated to the finest restaurants across continents as leading chefs finally realised what everyone else has known for over two millennia. From Aphtonite and Apicius to Heston Blumenthal, Franck Quinton and Anthony Bourdain, the black gold is finally getting the recognition it deserves.