The famous old county of Worcestershire lies at the intersection between the West Country, the picturesque scenery of Cotswolds, the industrial areas of the West Midlands and the border with Wales, and it is this varied heritage, together with the variety of agricultural environments that can be found in the county that have given it such a fascinating culinary history.
At the heart of Worcestershire you will find a fertile lowland plain, which is drained by the rivers Avon and Severn, as well as by their tributaries, the Teme and the Stour. In the west the county of Worcestershire borders Herefordshire, and in the south west, touches on the Forest of Dean. To the south is the neighbouring county of Gloucestershire, and this region is known for its clay soil that is ideal for both market gardening and fruit orchards. To the south east lie the Cotswolds, while the north of Worcestershire borders on the heart of industrial England.
In prehistoric times, this part of England was heavily wooded and as a result it has produced fewer sites of prehistoric settlement than many other counties, although exceptions exist, most notably the Iron Age earthworks discovered among the Malvern and Bredon Hills.
The Romans settled in the county, mainly around the town of Worcester, and after they departed, Worcestershire was occupied by the Anglo-Saxon Hwicce tribe. The tribe eventually created its own diocese, based on Worcester, which over the decades developed into a crucial trade and military hub between Wales and England, as well as one of England’s most important ecclesiastical bases. Eventually, it was absorbed into the Mercian kingdom and was the scene of prolonged conflict between the Danish invaders and the Anglo-Saxons.
During the Middle Ages, monastic life was central to Worcestershire, which included as many as thirteen monastic establishments by the 13th century. The monks of Evesham and Pershore may have been responsible for starting the traditions of growing flowers, fruits and vegetables in the fertile Vale of Evesham. At one point, the church owned more than half the land in the county, which helps to explain why landed aristocracy was not as entrenched in the county as it was in some regions.
To this day, Worcestershire is known for its heritage of architecture dating from the Middle Ages, which include the ruins of Benedictine abbeys in both Pershore and Evesham, along with a remarkably well-preserved priory church in Malvern, while Worcester Cathedral, which was completed in the 14th century, draws visitors to the city from all over the UK and beyond.
Worcestershire has had its share of English history. Two of England’s most important battles were fought in the county. In 1265, at Evesham, Simon de Montfort was killed by the forces of Edward who then became Edward 1, and it was at Worcester in 1651 that a Parliamentary army commanded by Oliver Cromwell defeated the Scottish army that supported Charles II, ending the Civil War.
Up until the 17th century, the city of Worcester and much of the south of the county were responsible for its prosperity, thanks to the production of wool and woollen cloth, but coal and iron had long been mined in the north, and as the new canals and then railways opened up the region, the northern borders of Worcestershire were affected by some of the dramatic change of the Industrial Revolution.
Although there are several large commuter populations in the north of Worcestershire, and some light industry in Redditch, Kidderminster and Worcester, the county has a flourishing agricultural sector. Fruit and vegetables are grown throughout the south, together with cereals and dairy. Fruit canning, cider production and milk processing are also widespread, and there is a thriving farmers market and farm shop sector, along with artisanal producers of beer, cheese and wine, all of which exemplify the diversity and richness of Worcestershire’s culinary heritage.
Vale of Evesham Asparagus
The south of Worcestershire is famous for its fruit and vegetables, and Vale of Evesham asparagus is among its main exports. Grown exclusively in this area, and produced only between April and July, this sough after vegetable is shaped like a spear and can be harvested at lengths of up to 22 cm. It can be eaten raw, when it has a brittle, crunchy texture, but it is particularly tasty when cooked. The vegetable is so important in Worcestershire that there is an annual festival, called Asparafest, held every June, in order to celebrate the Asparagus harvest.
St Oswald Cheese
St Oswald is a traditional English cheese made in Broadway, in the Cotswolds. This tasty product is made using cow’s milk and is left to age for as long as three months. The result is a cheese that has a sticky rind but underneath is soft and supple. St Oswald has an array of pungent aromas and rich, full flavours, including a strong hint of onions. As the cheese ages, the flavours become stronger, and this is a perfect food to match with a full-bodied red wine.
Over the last few decades, Worcestershire has become famous for its plums and the Vale of Evesham in particular is synonymous with plum growing. Several plum varieties originated in the county, including the Pershore plum. It came from a chance seedling found in Tyddersley Wood near Pershore around 1871 and went on be a widely propagated plum, admired for its hardiness and disease resistance.
It is oval in shape with a very firm, dry, yellow flesh that has an almost mealy texture and is ideal for cooking, jam making, canning, pies and tarts. At one time it was the main plum of the jam and canning industries around Evesham. It has a short shelf life, but is well worth seeking out.
Double Worcester Cheese
Double Worcester is basically a Worcestershire version of the famous Double Gloucester but with a fresh taste of its own. This cheese is made from pasteurized cow’s milk together with annatto and is usually aged for up to seven months. Underneath the hard natural rind, the cheese has a firm and flaky texture and it has an array of complex flavours including citrus and nuts. Double Worcester has become a big favourite in England and won a silver medal at the 2001 British Cheese Awards.
This is a traditional English cheese made in the Severn Valley close to Malvern. It is made using raw sheep’s milk and has a texture that is semi-hard and dry, that stays creamy and dense on the palate, with a mix of intriguing sweet, herbaceous flavours. Generally aged for up to four months, it has a relatively high fat content, so is best eaten sparingly, but is delicious grilled or grated over salads and pastas, and won a silver medal at the British Cheese Awards back in 1997.
Perhaps Worcestershire’s most famous export, Worcestershire sauce is a pungent and savoury sauce that is made mainly from anchovies fermented in vinegar. To this base is added a range of other ingredients, including chili, garlic, sugar, onions and salt. It was created in Worcester by chemists John Wheeley Lea and William Perrins who were asked by Lord Sandys, the Governor of Bengal, to produce a recipe he brought back from India. Their attempt to recreate the sauce was regarded as a failure and the results were kept in a cellar, but when they subsequently tasted it, they were amazed at the distinctive flavour and began selling it in 1837.
To this day, the precise recipe remains a secret, but bottles are sold all over the world, and the sauce is used in everything from Bolognese sauce to Bloody Mary cocktails.
England is known for its many varieties of apples and Worcestershire is home to many orchards and fruit varieties. One of the county’s most popular apple varieties is the Worcester Pearmain. This is an early season apple that was cultivated by a Mr. Hale of Swanpool, back in 1874. It was once the most popular of the early autumn harvest apples in England and is still popular today.
Used widely in apple breeding, this red fruit has a taste that is almost strawberry-like and its smooth, sweet taste makes it perfect for eating fresh or for use in stewed apple recipes, while the trees also produce beautiful blossoms. The Worcester Pearmain earned national recognition in 1993 when it was granted the Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.
Malvern Gold Cider
The proud orchard heritage of Worcestershire has led to a thriving cider industry, and the county has created one cider in particular that has been enjoyed around the world. Malvern Gold, created by the Malvern Cider Company, which owns an orchard at Crumpton Oaks Farm, to the north of the town, won first prize at the World Cider Awards in 2019. A medium-dry style of cider, produced from a combination of Yarlington Mill, Dabinett and Three Counties apples, it offers lots of depth and flavour and is completely organic, made without the use of any artificial ingredients.