The south of England is sometimes regarded as an undifferentiated mass of quaint villages, wealthy landowners and heritage sites.
Yet each of the counties in this part of the world has its own culture, history and character, and Buckinghamshire is no expection. Bordering on seven other counties, it has connections with all of them and boasts some spectacular scenery, thanks to the River Thames and the chalky uplands of the Chiltern Hills. A largely rural county until the early 20th century, its proximity to London means that it is also one of the best connected regions in England, with multiple rail and road links.
Lying in such a central position at the heart of the south, Buckinghamshire has inevitably been involved in many of the most important aspects of English history. There is some evidence of settlements in the area dating back to Neolithic times, and by the time of Saxon rule, it had become a prosperous part of the kingdom of Mercia.
That prosperity came at a cost, including the clearance of the heavily forested Chilterns which were largely gone by the early 17th century. In later decades, the county also saw the creation of some of the most beautiful country homes and parks in England, including the Stowe and Cliveden estates.
In the modern era, Buckinghamshire has made a significnat contribution in a number of areas, including the world renowned Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Aylesbury, which is well known for its treatment of spinal-cord injuries and which has the distinction of hosting the forerunner of the Paralympic Games, the World Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games since 1948.
The Industrial Revolution didn’t have the same dramatic impact on Buckinghamshire that it had elsewhere, although there were printing firms and light manufacturing in the Aylesbury area during the nineteenth century and the town of Wolverton was known for its railway workshops.
Yet in the second half of the twentieth century, the county had an economic boost thanks to the development of the new town of Milton Keynes. This town absorbed some of the smaller towns in the vicinity and developed into a significant economic hub, as well as being the home of the Open University, which was launched in 1971.
Despite these modern changes, however, Buckinghamshire retains a distinctly rural feel and that is reflected in the variety of traditional dishes that the county has become known for.
Traditional English cuisine is particularly well known for its unusual names and few are stranger than Buckinghamshire’s very own Bacon Badger!
In many ways, this dish is similar to the neighbouring county’s Bedfordshire Clanger, but is an altogether more substantial product. It gets its unusual name from the strangely domed appearance of the finished product which is said to resemble the profile of a badger’s back.
You will be relieved to hear that there are no badgers in the Bacon Badger! The dish is made from a dough that is formed from suet, which is then filled with a mixture of bacon or gammon, potatoes and onions. The whole thing is rolled up and steamed for several hours until it is ready to it. This is a surprisingly versatile dish, and can be eaten warm or cold and as a result, it is ideal for a picnic or summer lunch.
These days the dominant English cooking apple is the Bramley, but prior to the supermarket era, there was a much wider choice when it came to cookers, and one of the most popular of these was the Grenadier, grown in many places throughout Buckinghamshire, the county where it originated.
The Grenadier, which ripens by the middle of August, was first discovered during the middle of the nineteenth century but fell out of favour commercially as it doesn’t store well and has an unattractive appearance, with a ribbed effect to its surface. But when it comes to producing apple-related recipes, the Grenadier has few equals. It has a subtle, but delicious apple flavour, and is perfect for apple jam or an apple pie or crumble.
It also benefits from being fairly easy to grow in the garden, and is resistant to most apple diseases, making it a popular variety in English gardens. The fact that it is an early ripener means it can be harvested gradually, while the weather is still good, overcoming the fact that it is a relatively poor performer when it comes to storage.
This is another of those English suet-based savoury dishes. The Buckinghamshire Dumpling is essentially a distinctive but tasty pasty that would have been ideal for agricultural workers returning home from a hard day in the fields.
It is made by rolling out some suet pastry and then piling it with a combination of bacon rashers, onions, and pigs liver, along with seasonings such as sage, parsley and pepper. The pastry is then folded up into a parcel which has to be steamed for up to three hours. Best served hot, it offers a nourishing warmth and rich taste that makes it a firm favourite among meat eaters.
Buckinghamshire is among other things, famous for its cherry orchards, so it is no surprise to find this cherry dessert speciality hailing from the county.
The turnovers are made using a very light pastry, which is then wrapped around rip and tangy cherries. Cherries tend to peak between July and August and this is a recipe that calls for the freshest fruits that can be found, so is best enjoyed in those months. Cherry turnovers can be eaten warm, with cream or custard, or cold as part of a picnic, and are always popular with guests.
Aylesbury is the county town of Buckinghamshire and it has been known for its duck rearing since the bird that has taken the town’s name was bred in the early 18th century. In fact, the duck has become so well associated with Aylesbury, that it features on the town crest.
Just 40 miles from the well known meat markets of Smithfield, Aylesbury was the ideal place to raise ducks as they could be easily driven to market without losing condition on the way. The duck was one of the most popular breeds in England, thanks to its fleshy characteristics and its pleasing appearance, and its white feathers were in strong demand for pillow filling.
In terms of its meat, the Aylesbury is less fatty than the Peking duck, which was introduced towards the end of the 19th century, while its flesh is less tough and stringy than some rival breeds. It is also known for laying plenty of eggs, which was another attractive feature for farmers.
The Aylesbury is perfectly suited to a range of traditional British duck dishes. It can be stewed with peas, served with onion sauce, added to a pie, or served with a cherry sauce that helps to complement the fattiness of the meat. In fact one family in the Vale of Aylesbury still rear ducks as their ancestors did, allowing them to feed naturally among their cherry orchards.
Stokenchurch Pie is an unusual traditional English dish as it uses macaroni, although pasta was known to English cooks from the Plantagenet era. It is another example of the versatile approach of English cooking, as it can effectively be made with any sort of meat.
The dish is made by lining a layer of pastry with cooked macaroni, followed by chopped meat, hard boiled eggs, and another layer of macaroni and meat. The top is then covered and the pie is backed. Taking its name from the old village of Stokenchurch, it is a carb-heavy dish that is almost a meal in itself!