The county of Northamptonshire is an English region that is sometimes overlooked but it is one of the most beautiful regions of England, with an impressive cultural and culinary tradition. Much of the food that is distinctive from this area of the country reflects the local produce and history of the region, which has always been one of England’s most important and respected agricultural counties.
The county itself is relatively large, and has a wide variety of landscape, which range from the basin of the River Nene in the south to the Northampton Sands that lie on a ridge of low hills. There are woods and well-watered valleys in the county, which was an important early settlement in England, with evidence of pre-Celtic and Roman towns.
The archaeological evidence suggests a strong Anglo Saxon influence in Northamptonshire, with a number of churches in the county that date from the 7th century at the time when it was part of the kingdom of Mercia. Later, Northamptonshire was invaded by the Danes, who may have shaped the boundaries of the shire. These traditional boundaries have remained more or less unchanged since the time of the Domesday Book.
The main feature of the county’s architecture is the impressive variety of country houses and mansions, a group that includes Barnwell Castle, Sulgrave Manor, which was the ancestral home of George Washington and Castle Ashby. St Peter’s Cathedral, in Peterborough, which was once considered part of Northamptonshire, contains a famous Anglo Saxon sculpture, the Hedda Stone, which is 1,200 years old, along with the tomb of Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII.
Although the county was home to a variety of wealthy squires, it largely backed Parliament in the English Civil War, and was also the scene of one of the most decisive battles of the war, at Naseby, in 1645, which effectively ended the Royalist cause.
Although Northamptonshire was not affected in a major way by the heavy industry of the Industrial Revolution, it has developed a distinctive economy, which is notable for a range of smaller industrial centres, including a number of boot and shoe manufacturers, as well as its lace making industry. But the county has also retained its reputation as a rural idyll with several grand country estates, and many areas of pastoral land. This agricultural heritage has produced a variety of fascinating traditional dishes. Here are some of the best to look out for.
‘Ock and Dough
One of the county’s most popular dishes, this can be cooked in many different ways, and each family is likely to have their own twist on it. It was essentially a suet encased mixture made of pork scraps, onions and other vegetables. One method of adding more substance to it was to put the whole hock into the dish rather than just the meat, as the jelly from the hock had a thickening effect on the water and if allowed to get cold, would produce a similar texture to a pork pie. This dish was usually prepared at home and sent to the local baker for cooking in a big oven.
Northamptonshire has its share of artisanal modern producers, including Belflair chocolates. This company was founded in 2001 and represents the work of a Brussels-trained Master Chocolatier, Stefaan Moyaert and his wife, Mervi, who have established a luxury chocolate business in the south of the county, that has earned an impressive reputation for excellence.
Gourmet Spice Co
Another new local business, Gourmet Spice Co, was created by Mark Hughes in 2011, after he left corporate life to pursue his passion for food. Initially, he produced a range of new products and took them along to a local food festival, and his success there was only the beginning. The range of oils he has produced have proven highly popular in the county and beyond.
This is another famous dish from the south of England that comes in a range of varieties. The clanger was widely popular in Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire, particularly with farm labourers. Unlike factory workers, these men didn’t always work near enough to home to get back for lunch, hence the creation of the clanger. It is a pastry-encased pasty, with some similarities to a Cornish pasty, although it had two parts: a meat-based half and a sweet half, usually involving jam, producing two courses in one pasty.
Earls Barton Leek Pie
It has long been a tradition in the Northamptonshire village of Earls Barton to make a leek pie on Shrove Tuesday, a ritual in which the whole village takes part. The leeks were first washed and then fed into the chaff cutter on the village green, before being added with chopped pork and beef to a pastry case, built up in layers of meat and leeks. Gravy was added before the pie top and then the prepared pies were eventually taken to the local butcher for baking. The local pubs in the area still serve similar pies on Shrove Tuesday but these days they can also be enjoyed all year round.
Long Buckby Celebration Pudding
Made to mark the annual August feast day, this pudding could be made overnight and then served cold, so the cook could enjoy the celebrations. Celebration puddings are a rich product, using bread, suet, milk, eggs, dried fruit, mixed spice and candied peel. As with the Leek Pie, they were made annually in local bakeries, and they were often enjoyed by people who were returning to the village on the celebration day to spend time with their relatives and friends.
The recipe for Treacle Beer was created by a Dr James Stonehouse for the Northamptonshire Mercury and published in 1757. At the time there was a severe national shortage of wheat that led to widespread hunger, and Dr Stonehouse was famous for publishing recipes that were designed to help poorer families. Treacle Beer is brewed from barley, hops, boiled water and a substantial amount of treacle, and the result is a memorable dark, strong beer.
Lace making was a prolific cottage industry across Northamptonshire, and St Catherine was the patron saint of the lace makers, so on November 25, St Catherine’s day, lace-makers celebrated by eating rabbit casserole and by taking a drink from the ‘Cattern Bowl’. This feast was concluded with a few Cattern Cakes. Spiced with cinnamon, and lightly fruited, these cakes also contain caraway seeds and the recipe has changed little since Tudor times.
The Bad Boy Cider Company
Northamptonshire is not known for its cider, but this is a local producer that has been changing that reputation. Founded in 2016, the company uses 100% British apples, specialising in single varieties with the Dabinett apple being the basis for their main original cider. And in keeping with the times, their range of ciders are available to be delivered straight to your door.