Made in Britain: The histories behind our food

Two food experts spent 12 years documenting regional specialities across the British Isles - and then embarked on the equally marathon task of trying to find a publisher for their work. Terry Kirby reports on a culinary labour of love

In France, they venerate regional dishes like bouillabaisse, the Provençal fish stew, and their infinite local varieties of cheese, Italy is renowned for Parma ham or Genoan pesto sauce and Spain has given the world Valencian paella and the marmalade orange from Seville. And now, finally, it is time to celebrate the great British culinary heritage, perhaps with a meal of Somerset wallfish, Yorkshire elder and Welsh laverbread, followed by Scottish clootie dumpling ...

These are just some of the more unusual foods that feature in a new book to be published this month which lists more than 400 different foodstuffs from every corner of Britain. It includes the huge variety of cakes, puddings, cheeses, pies, ciders and beers that are still made, sometimes by single producers, and the speciality breeds of pigs, geese, sheep and cattle that are lovingly reared on farms and smallholdings.

The publication of The Taste of Britain, by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, is both a remarkable publishing story and another sign of the revival in traditional British foods and cooking - endorsed by chefs such as Simon Hopkinson and Fergus Henderson. Hopkinson, a former cookery columnist for The Independent, who has done much to champion traditional British foodstuffs, welcomed the publication yesterday. "This is the kind of thing everyone should read and keep for reference. I well remember some of the things from my youth in Bury in Lancashire, when the market stall sold elder among other bits of innards and extremities.''

The story of what its publishers describe as a "culinary Doomsday Book" began more than 12 years ago when the two authors, established but not high-profile food writers, were commissioned by the European Commission to locate, define and list as many British foods with regional affiliations as they could find. They had to have been produced in one town or region for three or more generations.

Similar schemes were launched in seven other European countries, all with the aim of linking the food of these nations to their terroir - literally the soil. The idea was that foods should be a property of a place and a community. With the advent of such products as Danish feta cheese or even British parma ham, many felt it was necessary to have something more concrete set down on paper.

Embarking on a project more suited to rural southern Europe than industrialised, urban Britain provoked some interesting questions, the authors acknowledge in the book. "How do you link Yorkshire relish to the soil? What are our traditional foods? What is the character of British taste?''

During their research, they say, they discovered many rural treasures that had survived against the odds. Meanwhile, other foods with traditional and regional affiliations, like the tripe beloved of Simon Hopkinson, languished unloved.

Ms Brown added: "What was so special for us was going to places and discovering, say, the one baker who is the only person still making a local speciality. It was like finding a treasure. We would implore them to keep going as long as they could.''

Perhaps controversially, the book also includes a number of commercially made products, such as Marmite, the soft drink Tizer and Fishermen's Friend throat lozenges, which many might think stretch the definition of a regional speciality. However, the authors argue they have a historical importance which makes them as distinct as a rare breed of sheep or a hand-made cheese.

Each entry carefully describes the product, its history, uses and where it can be found. The book is full of details likely to delight food lovers - the discovery of rhubarb and apple Cumnock tarts, of which 800 are made each week by a Glasgow bakery, and the fact that Black Bullets, a boiled sweet made only in Sheffield and Whitley Bay, derive their name from the French word boule.

Their work completed and submitted to the EU by the end of 1996, the writers hoped that it would be published by someone like the then Ministry of Agriculture or Food from Britain, the marketing body. Frustratingly, their work began to gather dust in Brussels, while their equivalents in other parts of the EU became big sellers. After several years, during which it was also rejected by several major publishers, the book was published in 1999 by Prospect Books, a small firm specialising in food books , as Traditional Foods of Britain. A word-of-mouth success among foodies, it sold more than 4,000 copies and became one of Prospect's biggest successes.

But even then the book was likely remain no more than a curiosity had not Paul Baggaley, head of Harper Perennial paperbacks, part of the Harper Collins empire and something of a foodie himself, not spotted a copy on the shelves of his parent's home in Yorkshire last year. The book was taken up by the firm's hardback division and the new edition, renamed, revised, re-ordered and with added recipes by other food writers and a foreword by television presenter Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, hits the shops later this month.

Ms Brown said she believed the climate in which the book is being published is a much more beneficial one.

Restaurants now commonly cite the local and seasonal sources of their food on menus - something actively sought by Michelin inspectors - while supermarkets such as Waitrose, under pressure from environmentalists over "food miles", run advertising campaigns celebrating their individual British producers. Despite the revival, there remain doubts about some of the more arcane foods resuming their place on the nation's tables; a recent survey suggested many young people had little or no idea about the origins of calves' foot jelly or Bedfordshire Clanger [a kind of sweet and savoury pasty] while the future of many of the smaller producers remains precarious. Tom Jaine said: "Much as I believe Britain has a great food heritage and this is a wonderful book, I think a lot of these kind of foods are essentially working class food, and have never been dinner party material. That was why Elizabeth David was so successful because French food has always dominated the middle class tables.'' But he conceded that a meal of say, Somerset snails and Welsh lamb was enticing. Simon Hopkinson also sounds a note of caution: "This is a most laudable book, but at the risk of sounding like a pessimist, I wonder whether it will get to the right kind of reader. There are still a lot of people who cannot be bothered to cook.''

Ms Brown remains optimistic: "I think the British food culture is equal to anything in Europe, no question. It is part of our heritage and has strong connections with the soil. That is what makes it so different.''

The Taste of Britain, by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown, is published on 23 October by Harper Press, priced £25.

Nine regional UK specialities

Ashbourne gingerbread, DERBYSHIRE

One of many cakes made around Britain to celebrate holidays and feasts, this type of gingerbread dates from at least 1820 when it was first made by the firm, Spencers, that is making it still in the town of Ashbourne in Derbyshire, in the Peak District. Made distinctive by the addition of lemon peel, the exact recipe remains a secret.

Aylesbury duck, BUCKINGHAMSHIRE

These gamey-flavoured white ducks, normally less fatty than other varieties, were originally produced on smallholdings in the Buckinghamshire area and celebrated by Mrs Beeton. Competition from hybrid ducks and strict regulations have reduced the number of producers to one commercial enterprise, in business since the 18th century.

Cotherstone cheese, DURHAM/YORKSHIRE

A pasteurised cows' milk cheese made in a village on the Durham-Yorkshire border. A hard, creamy yellow cheese, made only by one small company, it is part of the cheese-making tradition of the Yorkshire Dales, particularly Wensleydale, further south. However it is a distinct cheese in its own right and has been made for about 100 years.

Kendal mint cake, LAKE DISTRICT

Made by only four companies in the Lake District town, the first of which was established in 1869, the precise recipe remains a secret, but is essentially boiled-down sugar, mint and oil. It became hugely popular with Victorians and supplies were given to Ernest Shackleton's polar expedition

Tayberries, SCOTLAND

This is one of the many hybrid berries produced in Scotland, a tradition that dates back to the 1860s with the loganberry. The tayberry is a modern cross between a raspberry and a cultivated American blackberry and is widely grown and very popular. Tummelberries are now also being grown, a cross between two types of tayberry.

Laverbread, WALES

A dark green-brown puree made from a type of seaweed common in western Britain but which is only used for food in South Wales and to a lesser extent in parts of Devon and Scotland. Gathered at low tide, it is washed and soaked before being stewed for seven hours. It is mixed with oatmeal and fried in bacon fat for breakfast.

Plymouth gin, DEVON

Distilled in Plymouth since at least the 18th century, the gin was once only made for the Royal Navy. Coates, now part of Allied Lyons, is the only company still allowed to use the name. Gin is distilled grain alcohol to which a number of "botanicals" - such as juniper, citrus peels, cardamom, angelica and orris root - are added.

Lardy cake, OXFORDSHIRE AND WILTSHIRE

Made from pigs' lard, dough, sugar and mixed fruits, this peasant food originated in Oxfordshire and Wiltshire and adjacent counties, but rapidly became widespread in areas with large numbers of pig farms. Round or rectangular and flat cakes, they are also known as sharley cakes or dripping cakes.

Polony, YORKSHIRE AND BATH

Popular since the 17th century, the name is believed to derive either from Polonia, an early name for Poland, or Bologna, the Italian town with a strong sausage tradition. Polony is a speciality of northern England, particularly Yorkshire, although it was also produced in Bath, close to the Wiltshire pig producing area.

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