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Gastro Britain: Eat your way around the UK

rhubarbBritain has a wealth of gourmet offerings from every corner of the country – let our guide inspire your appetite!

From north to south, east to west, there are foods in the UK that are unique to their area, and renowned – even protected – for their one-of-a-kind taste and flavour. So come on a tour of our proudly British culinary delicacies and be prepared to have your tastebuds tempted…

Yorkshire: Rhubarb
Forget the beauty of India’s Golden Triangle and the mysterious goings-on in the Bermuda Triangle in the Atlantic. It’s the Rhubarb Triangle – a nine-square-mile area in West Yorkshire that sits between Wakefield, Leeds and Bradford – that foodies should trek to. Growing forced rhubarb is a method of food production that’s almost as mysterious as that Bermuda Triangle. Special forcing sheds enable rhubarb growers to produce the distinctive large-leaved, pink-stemmed vegetable out of season. The plants start life outdoors for two years, absorbing sunshine and storing energy in their roots. They are then moved to the forcing sheds, which are dark and warm, so the plants use energy reserves in their roots to grow longer stalks – this process results in sweeter, more tender rhubarb. At its peak, the Rhubarb Triangle produced 90% of the world’s winter rhubarb. Very few growers open the doors to their secret growing havens, but it’s an awe-inspiring sight – the sheds are lit with candles and the mass of pink stalks is a sight to behold. And the silence is remarkable – if you’re lucky enough to visit one, you may hear the rhubarb popping as the buds open.

Lancashire: Morecambe shrimps
It says something when a town’s football club is nicknamed after its most renowned culinary delicacy. Local fishermen have been farming shrimps in the huge expanse and shallow waters of Morecambe Bay for centuries – indeed, the industry drove the local economy for decades. Baxters, the company that first began farming these tiny, brown shrimps in 1799, still shells its catch by hand (other suppliers now use machinery for this laborious task), once the tiny crustaceans have been boiled in sea water. They are then cooked briefly with hot butter that’s spiced with mace and nutmeg, left to cool, then packed into tubs and sealed with a layer of butter. It’s these characteristic tubs that inspired the name ‘potted’ brown shrimps – potting is, in fact, a very old British way of preserving the shelf life of foods.

Sadly, the demand for Morecambe Bay potted shrimps is fading, but to try and prevent this traditional food dying out, the family-owned Northern supermarket, Booths, has gone into partnership with the British Slow Food movement to promote its ‘Ark of Taste’ which celebrates traditional and regional food. Marco Pierre White describes Morecambe shrimps as ‘the finest shrimps in the world’ – reason enough to give them a try and do your bit to help protect a fine food heritage. In a truly traditionally English way, they’re best served with finely sliced brown toast and a steaming hot cuppa!

Scotland: Haggis
On paper, only the brave would go near this Scottish delicacy. It’s made by mincing sheep’s ‘pluck’ – that’s the heart, liver and lungs – with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices, salt and stock, all of which is simmered for three hours in the sheep’s stomach. It may not sound appealing but it is devoured year round by locals and tourists alike, particularly on January 25th, Burn’s Night, when Scotland’s national poet Robert Burns is celebrated. It’s traditionally served as the main meal with neeps and tatties – swede, yellow turnip and potatoes, boiled and mashed separately – and a wee ‘dram’ which is a glass of Scotch whisky. If you’re squeamish, try not to think about the ingredients, because the taste is surprisingly nutty and spicy!

A modern take on the traditional meal, and a significantly less healthy option, is offered in fast food restaurants. Known as a Haggis Supper, you’ll be served deep fried battered haggis with chips. For a healthier option, try a Flying Scotsman – chicken breast stuffed with haggis. But if haggis is really not your thing, don’t waste it, hurl it! Haggis hurling involves trying to throw a haggis as far as possible. The record stands at 52.12m and hasn’t been broken for 27 years!

ecclescakeGreater Manchester: Eccles cakes
Named after the town of Eccles, these small parcels packed with currants are made with flaky pastry and butter, and sometimes sprinkled with demerara sugar. Despite the area-specific name, the cakes do not actually enjoy protected geographical status (unlike the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie, see below) so can be made anywhere in the country and still be named, and sold as Eccles cakes. However, they began life in 1793 when James Birch began selling them from his shop in Eccles – they were an instant hit and sold like hot cakes! Traditionally served with Lancashire cheese, Eccles cakes have accumulated many nicknames over the years, due to their appearance – examples include Squashed Fly Cake, Fly Pie, even a Fly’s Graveyard. Despite the rather unappealing monikers, the traditional recipe for Eccles cakes remains a closely guarded secret – when a local says ‘the secret dies with me’, everyone knows the elusive baking formula is what they’re referring to.

Nottinghamshire: Cropwell Bishop stilton
Ironically, the pungent-smelling, blue-veined cheese which took its name from the village of Stilton in Cambridgeshire, cannot actually be made there. Protection laws passed in 1996 decree all Stilton must be made in the counties of Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire. In the 18th century, the village of Stilton and its coaching inns were apparently where the cheese was sold but no recipe has been found linking the village to the cheese.

Cropwell Bishop in Nottinghamshire, however, has been churning out Stilton cheeses for decades, which win countless awards and are revered by many. With a slim crust, evenly distributed blue veins and around 78 litres of fresh local cow’s milk in each cheese, its blue Stiltons are hand-made using methods that haven’t changed much since the 17th century!

Meanwhile, the village of Stilton celebrates its heritage by holding an annual cheese rolling contest every May Day. The event draws hundreds of spectators as teams compete to be crowned Stilton Cheese Rolling Champion.

Derbyshire: Bakewell pudding
Is it a pudding? Is it a tart? Well, apparently it can be both! A Bakewell pudding consists of a flaky pastry case with a layer of jam and an egg and almond filling, while the tart is a variation of the pudding, made with shortcrust pastry, a layer of jam and a sponge filling with almonds. It’s often covered with a layer of fondant, too.

The town of Bakewell in the Peak District has bakeries that make and sell both, however, it’s the pudding that is exclusive to Bakewell. Legend has it that the original recipe for the pudding was made by accident at a Bakewell inn back in the 1860s. The mistress of the inn requested a strawberry tart, but her inexperienced cook misunderstood and instead of stirring the egg mixture into the pastry, spread it on top of the jam. Tart or pudding debate aside, it’s a winner of a pud and is best served warm with custard or cream.

porkpieLeicestersire: Melton Mowbray pork pie
So protective (and rightly so) is the Leicestershire town, Melton Mowbray, of its pork pies that the nine manufacturers of the pork pie in the area formed the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Association, to protect the name, reputation and authenticity of their product. Only pies made within a designated area around Melton Mowbray are allowed to carry the name on the packaging.

Baked free-standing and not in a mould, exactly as it was at the end of the 18th century, the meat is always uncured, chopped pork – not minced – and is slightly grey in colour. Beware of imitators.

Norfolk: Cromer crab
Food-lovers claim it’s the tender flesh, slightly sweet taste and high proportion of white meat to dark that makes the Cromer crab stand out from the rest. Developed in the Victorian era, the North Norfolk seaside town of Cromer has had fishing at the centre of its economy for centuries. Fishing boats used to crowd the coast – nowadays the fishing fleet is no more than a dozen boats looking after about 200 crab pots, making their catch even more of a speciality!

West Country: Cider
When supping your next pint of cider, take a moment to raise your glass to the Normans. With the great changes of the Norman Conquest came the introduction of cider as the ‘people’s drink’, with traditional cider apple orchards framing West British countryside. By the 18th century it was customary for farm owners to pay part of a labourer’s wage in cider, with the manliness of the labourer determined by the amount of cider he could guzzle.

The bountiful production of cider is perhaps down to another historic factor, rooted in Paganism. Cider apple trees have to be protected from evil spirits during the annual ritual of wassailing, especially in Somerset, the home of British cider. During the evening, a ‘guardian’ tree is selected to represent the whole orchard. Pieces of toast soaked in cider are then placed in the tree and cider is poured around the base of it. Shotguns are fired into the top-most branches and buckets are beaten to scare away evil spirits and wake the sleeping trees. Some believe that if the trees aren’t wassailed there will be no harvest. There is also the draw of mulled cider and apple cake to encourage locals to participate in the tradition.

Wales: Leeks
This relative of the onion, with its more subtle flavour, is Wales’ national vegetable and emblem, worn every year on St David’s Day on the lapels of the patriotic. Some people now prefer to wear the decidedly more aromatic daffodil but, interestingly, one of many Welsh names for the daffodil is Cenhinen Bedr or Peter’s leek.

The leek has always been an ingredient in cawl, a traditional Welsh broth. Referred to by the French as ‘the asparagus of the poor’, this root vegetable is said to have many healing properties and has long been regarded as a cure for the common cold, so, as autumn sets in, now’s the time to get cooking some cock-a-leekie soup.

Wiltshire: Wiltshire ham
Originating in Wiltshire and the town of Swindon, which originally meant ‘Swine down’ or ‘pig hill’ after the herds of pigs that used to graze there, Wiltshire ham is renowned around the UK. Today you can buy it smoked, honey roasted or breadcrumbed – to name a few – however, it was traditionally cured with bacon and molasses to produce its mild, sweet taste. During Saxon times, every part of each Wiltshire hog was used, the fat being the most prolific piggy part. Combined with bread dough, sugar and dried fruit, the lard made the ‘delicious’ local favourite, lardy cake. To get the full flavour experience, Wiltshire residents recommend you try several recipes, as each chef has their own special ingredients. Though you can seek out this alleged toffee-tasting treat, we recommend laying a couple of slices of Wiltshire ham in a fluffy white bread roll with lashings of pickle and a cheeky bit of Cheddar.

oysterKent: Whitstable oysters
Dating back to Roman times, Whitstable oysters, or the ‘pearls of Kent’, did not always hold such ‘gourmet’ status in the food chain. In fact, paupers of the 19th century hailed the pale bivalves as a diet staple. Beef and oyster pies, a Victorian classic, were packed full of oysters, with only the wealthy elite able to afford a substantial amount of meat to encase in the pastry.

A snapshot of Whitstable Bay in 1860 showed three oyster companies, more than 100 fishing boats and over 500 employers – a hotbed of shellfish activity. Yet a combination of cold winters, two world wars, the great flood of 1953 – not to mention the introduction of the popular prawn cocktail – saw an unhappy decline in the pearly morsels.

Whitstable doesn’t let poor fishing seasons deter it from showing visitors a good time at the annual Whitstable Oyster Festival though. Locals celebrate the Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status of the once abundant aphrodisiac with live music, artisan craft markets and champagne masterclasses. Crisp whites are sipped, shellfish are tossed back and if the fishermen keep their lips sealed about the source of the shells, then we won’t tell either.

Devonshire: Custard
The image of lashings of creamy goodness being poured over a crumble or sponge is synonymously British. The country loves its custard, but as the slogan goes, only ‘Devon knows how they make it so creamy’. The Ambrosia brand has been capturing the goodness of Devon and nourishing families with its creamy products since 1917. Originally established as a dried milk factory, the Arundell Arms Creamery used to distribute huge 17 gallon churns of fresh milk daily to the troops in the First World War.

A custard-inspired team are constantly at work in the creamery creating new products and flavours, such as the new individual twin pots combining Ambrosia custard with Britain’s favourite desserts. Given how accessible they are, it would be rude not to try one, wouldn’t it?

Cooked-and-uncooked-pasties---03---croppedCornwall: Cornish pasties
We’ve all heard the chant, ‘Oggie, oggie, oggie!’, and maybe even shouted it ourselves at some point. But did you know that what you’re hollering actually translates as ‘pasty, pasty, pasty’? Tin miners’ wives or pasty sellers used the expression to notify miners that the pastry-based goods were ready for eating. The response of the hungry miners, as one can guess, was ‘Oi, oi, oi!’ 

Carried to work in a tin bucket, the pasty was the perfect portable lunch for 19th-century miners. The chunky texture of minced or roughly cut beef (no less than 12.5%), swede, potato and onion acted as hearty sustenance to fuel their labour, and could be heated by burning a candle underneath the bucket. Pasties were identified between household members by an initial in the corner of the thick pastry crust. And to avoid being poisoned by tin or copper dust from the miners’ fingers, the pastry crusts were thrown away afterwards.

While there’s no exact origin for the Cornish pasty – Henry VIII’s third wife, Jane Seymour, is said to have enjoyed a pasty or two – the pastries are known worldwide thanks to Cornish settlers taking the tasty home favourite overseas. To enjoy the authentic Cornish snack today, you have to visit Cornwall itself though. Nine years’ worth of campaigning, fought by the Cornish Pasty Association, has stamped Cornwall’s pasties with the illustrious PGI status. If your pasty is a distinctive ‘D’ shape and is crimped on one side (never on top!), you can rest easy knowing you’re about to eat a slow-baked treat, free from additives and full of chunky Cornish goodness.

This article was first published in at home with Marco Pierre White in October 2011. [Read the digital edition here]

Images: Getty, Istock, Shutterstock

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