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A Roman Heritage: The Food of Cheshire

A Roman Heritage: The Food of Cheshire

Cheshire may be one of the smaller counties in England, but it is renowned as one of the most beautiful and it has a long history as one of the most important areas in the nation.

Effectively sandwiched between the West Midlands and the industrial hub of the south Lancashire and Manchester region, Cheshire has sometimes been overlooked, but this proud county has a distinguished history, which goes all the way back to the time of the Roman occupation.

Although the Romans left their mark in many locations around England, their presence in this part of the west of England produced some of the most remarkable structures and ancient history. The Romans were in occupation of the county of Cheshire for almost 400 years, from 70 AD, and while they were there, they founded one of their most important settlements, the town and fort of Deva Victrix, which is now known as Chester.

Following the departure of the Romans, Cheshire came under the control of Mercia, an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, but it was also subject to invasions from the Welsh and the Vikings, before it was finally occupied, together with the rest of the country by the Normans in the years after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Cheshire was later to play a key role in the English Civil War, when it was a Royalist stronghold, but the most profound changes came with the Industrial Revolution. The rise of new industries and forms of manufacturing led many farm workers moved north to the industrial centres of Manchester and Lancashire. These changes were offset to an extent by the arrival of the canals and then the railways that linked Cheshire with the Midlands and the North West.

This fascinating combination of influences, has helped to shape this predominantly rural county, that has long been known both for its dairy farming and salt mining. The county has developed a rich and fascinating culinary history, that enables it to stand out from its neighbours, and that is still celebrated with an array of food and drink festivals to this day, including the Chester Food and Drink Festival, held at Easter, the International Cheese Awards, the Nantwich Show and food festivals based in Arley Hall, Congleton and Tatton Park. But if your knowledge of Cheshire food is lacking, here are a handful of the dishes and food products that have helped to shape Cheshire’s cuisine:

Cheshire Cheese

It would not be possible to talk about Cheshire and not mention perhaps its most famous culinary production. Cheshire Cheese has been such a fixture of English cuisine that its fans can justifiably claim it to be the oldest cheese produced in England. Although the earliest recorded mention of this cheese comes in the Domesday Book of 1086, there is evidence to suggest that it pre-dates the rule of William the Conqueror. Some historians even believe that it was the Romans who first began to produce cheese in and around the county’s famous salt marsh hot spots. The theory is that the curd made from the milk of cows grazing in the area took on a rich flavour due to the salt.

Cheshire Cheese is a pleasant, attractive looking product, of a pale colour, with a delightful nutty and intense taste, which also packs a healthy dose of salt. Matured over eight weeks, this distinctive cheese is eaten all over England and it is also widely exported. In fact, it has the distinction of being one of the few English food products to have become popular in France.

The Cheshire Pork Pye

As a mainly rural county, Cheshire has been able to retain many of its old food customs, which includes the fascinating Cheshire Pork ‘Pye’. Everyone is familiar with the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie, a dish that has earned European recognition, but the Cheshire Pork Pye can claim to be an even older creation. It has the familiar appearance of the pork pie, but has a tasty filling consisting of prime pork loin, white wine, pepper, nutmeg and sugar.

The Cheshire Pork ‘Pye’ by tradition, is related to an original Roman dish which may have been called ‘cust’. It seems that cust uses a treated meat that is cased in a combination of oil and paste, which is then cooked slowly, retaining the moisture of the meat inside. The Cheshire ‘Pye’ traditionally involves shortcrust pastry and is usually served with garden peas for a cheap but wholesome and filling meal.

Chester Pudding

The story of the Chester Pudding is relatively complicated, as there are two separate dishes made in the county that bear this name. The most commonly known Chester Pudding, and the oldest, is a version of a steamed suet pudding, which is believed to predate its rival for the name by as much as 200 years. This Chester Pudding is a relatively simple dessert, which is made with breadcrumbs and suet but what helps it to stand out is that it includes blackcurrant jam. It was a staple dish for many years, as the simple ingredients made for a cheap and yet filling and tasty meal.

The later Chester Pudding is an invention of the Victorian era. This is a meringue-based dessert, with a shortcrust pastry base and a filling of sugar, butter, egg and ground almonds, with the meringue topping finished with a milk glaze to produce a golden-brown finish. Some prefer one type of Chester Pudding to the other, but both are worthy of a place in the English food Hall of Fame!

Rabbit Brawn

From traditional Cheshire recipes with plenty of modern appeal to one that might not be for everyone. Rabbit Brawn is not as widely eaten these days as it once was, although it retains a fascination for food connoisseurs. In essence, this is a meat stew, made with a simple recipe, from rabbit meat and pigs trotters, with some allspice thrown in.

What makes this stew stand out is the fact that traditionally, the rabbit was cooked whole, before being deboned and then added. The pigs trotters were also boiled before being added, producing a thick and distinctive stew, often served with home grown Cheshire potatoes and whichever vegetables were available at the time.

Cheshire Soup

Cheshire Soup is distinct from the common types of broths associated with other counties of England and was mainly regarded as a meal for the poor. The stew-like soup was based around vegetables, meat offal, oatmeal and tripe, and the mixture would then be reheated with cheese curdled into the pot, in order to thicken out the soup, making it more filling.

The tradition of adding cheese may also predate the widespread use of meat-curing and salting that began in the late 18th century, as a way to disguise the spoiled taste of the meat, and the ready availability of cheese in the county made it a good option. This may not be to everyone’s taste, but it is a distinctive and memorable dish.

Cheshire Ice Cream

Given Cheshire’s heritage as a dairy county, it is no surprise to find that there is a proud tradition of ice cream in the county. Cheshire ice cream is popular throughout the region, and there are a wide variety of Cheshire ice cream makers and attractions, including the Cheshire Ice Cream Adventure Park at the Ice Cream Farm. No summer trip to Cheshire is complete without sampling the local ice cream, and Cheshire ice cream makers supply restaurants and shops throughout England.


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