Made in Britain: The histories behind our food - Features - Food + Drink - The Independent

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.

News
Paper trail: the wedding photograph found in the rubble after 9/11 – it took Elizabeth Keefe 13 years to find the people in it
newsWho are the people in this photo? It took Elizabeth Stringer Keefe 13 years to find out
Arts and Entertainment
Evil eye: Douglas Adams in 'mad genius' pose
booksNew biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Sport
FootballFull debuts don't come much more stylish than those on show here
News
i100
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Life and Style
Kim Kardashian drawn backlash over her sexy swimsuit selfie, called 'disgusting' and 'nasty'
fashionCritics say magazine only pays attention to fashion trends among rich, white women
Arts and Entertainment
TVShows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Arts and Entertainment
Hit the roof: hot-tub cinema east London
architectureFrom pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
Travel
travel
News
The ecological reconstruction of Ikrandraco avatar is shown in this illustration courtesy of Chuang Zhao. Scientists on September 11, 2014 announced the discovery of fossils in China of a type of flying reptile called a pterosaur that lived 120 millions years ago and so closely resembled those creatures from the 2009 film, Avatar that they named it after them.
SCIENCE
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Matisse: The Cut-Outs exhibition attracted 562,000 visitors to the Tate Modern from April to September
art
Life and Style
Models walk the runway at the Tom Ford show during London Fashion Week Spring Summer 2015
fashionLondon Fashion Week 2014
News
Kenny G
news
News
peopleThe black actress has claimed police mistook her for a prostitute when she kissed her white husband
Life and Style
techIndian model comes with cricket scores baked in
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    USA/Florida Travel Consultants £30-50k OTE Essex

    Basic of £18,000 + commission, realistic OTE of £30-£50k : Ocean Holidays: Le...

    Marketing Executive / Member Services Exec

    £20 - 26k + Benefits: Guru Careers: A Marketing Executive / Member Services Ex...

    Sales Account Manager

    £15,000 - £25,000: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity has arisen for ...

    VB.NET and C# developer (VB.NET,C#,ASP.NET)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: VB.NET a...

    Day In a Page

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week