Dorset can claim to be one of the oldest of English counties, and has a long and proud legacy as the site of multiple important events in English history. Evidence of this heritage can be found throughout the county. Dorset features plenty of examples of burial mounds some of which go back as far as the Early Bronze Age.
Up until the arrival of the Romans, the region now known as Dorset was dominated by the Celtic tribe the Durotriges, who emphasised their dominance by building over 27 hill forts, including the impressive Maiden Castle, which can still be found near Dorchester.
The Romans subsequently left their mark on the county, with many important buildings, including the Roman House in Dorchester, but when they left England, it was the turn of the Saxons to shape the county of Dorset. Their early rural settlements in fact determined the layout of the county, and Dorset later saw one of the most significant battles in English history, when King Alfred, the king of Wessex, defeated the Vikings, with the help of a storm, in Swanage Bay.
The Norman conquest also had an impact on the region, most notably due to the construction of a series of Norman castles, including surviving examples of their architecture that stand at Corfe and Sherborne. The historic legacy of Dorset is underlined by the fact that most of the county’s current towns and villages had a mention in the Norman Domesday Book of 1086, which was famously written to provide the new king, William, with a complete inventory of the land he had conquered.
In the early years following the Norman invasion, the county drew considerable wealth from the wool trade, which was associated with Dorset’s many monasteries, initially. These centres of learning and craft were appropriated by Henry VIII when he declared the foundation of the Church of England but Dorset’s prominent role in the wool trade continued.
The county subsequently played an important role in the English Civil War, although it was divided between Parliament and King, while the Monmouth Rebellion, which followed the ascension of King James II also took place largely in this region. Smuggling also played a role in the economy of the county in this time, with the Dorset coast providing access to smugglers, traders and even pirates.
Dorset missed out on the Industrial Revolution, with the result that the county was less wealthy than many neighbouring regions, but this also helped to ensure that it has retained its rural nature, enabling it to become a fashionable tourist destination, with tourism increasingly taking on a significant place in the Dorset economy.
Naturally, this rich and varied history has had a fascinating influence on the county’s culture, including its food. Many towns across Dorset host food and drink festivals throughout the year including the popular Dorset Seafood Festival, which takes place in Weymouth every July. Here are some of the most delicious and enduring examples of classic Dorset food.
Dorset Blue Vinney
Dorset Blue Vinney (sometimes known as Vinny) is a traditional crumbly cheese that is widely known across the south west of England. The name drives from a Dorset term related to the old word “vinew”, which means ‘to become mouldy’, although some traditions suggest that ‘vinny’ is in fact a corruption of ‘veiny’ as a reference to the blue veins that run throughout the cheese. The cheese fell out of production for a while but was revived in the 1980s thanks to the efforts of Woodbridge Farm, and it has now earned the distinction of European Union Protected Geographical Status.
Dorset Apple Cake
The county of Dorset is well known for its apple cake, which is a delicious sweet cake often made with a range of different spices including cinnamon. Dorset Apple Cake appears on the menu of every tearoom in the county. It was traditionally considered a useful way of using up the plentiful supply of autumn apples produced by the county’s orchards and is often served with a hearty dollop of clotted cream or custard.
Leakers Bakery in Bridport is one of the county’s best known bakeries, with a proud tradition of baking going back to the 18th century and produces some of the county’s best apple cakes. It has been known as Leakers since just before the First World War, when Master Baker G.S. Leaker took over the premises, and the business was then continued by his son John, who set up the current ovens back in the 1940s. The bakery is still family owned, and to this day, produces Dorset Apple Cake using traditional ovens.
Dorset Jugged Steak
Jugging is an unusual method for the slow cooking of meat which has the effect of retaining the meat flavours while adding in the taste of a variety of other ingredients. This traditional Dorset dish was often prepared to be eaten on days when the fair visited the county, as it is durable enough to keep until after the fair goers returned home. Real Jugged Steak is a relatively rare dish to find these days, but is well worth seeking out as it is a tasty and distinctive Dorset treat..
This popular dish is sometimes known as Royal Pudding. It’s an indulgent dessert that is a legacy of the county’s links with royalty, and in particular, with King George III, who regularly visited the county and was said to love the food on the tied island of Portland.
The King was a frequent visitor to the Royal Portland Arms, where he took a liking to a particular pudding that had been devised by a local cook. The Portland Pudding is a rich dessert produced with dried fruit and candied peel that can be eaten both hot or cold.
Dorset Knobs are one of the county’s most famous dishes. They are made from bread dough which is mixed with extra sugar and butter, before being rolled out and shaped by hand and then baked three times. Once cooked, they have a crumbly texture, which has been likened to dry stale bread or rusks, and as they are so hard, it is traditional to eat them by first soaking them in tea.
They got their name thanks to their resemblance to Dorset knob buttons or doorknobs and are typically only made during the winter months of January and February.
A favourite of famous writer Thomas Hardy, Dorset knobs are sometimes eaten with cheese, particularly the Dorset Blue Vinney, although the traditional methods of producing the Dorset Knob are time consuming. The process includes three separate bakings and can take up to ten hours. They have become such a settled part of the county’s heritage that every year on the first Sunday in May, there is a Dorset Knob throwing competition!
Dorset Sea Food
Dorset is particularly famous for its delicious range of seafood. The county is fortunate to have a long stretch of coastline and that has always meant a steady supply of local fish. The seafood heritage of the county is celebrated every year with the Dorset Seafood Festival, which is held in Weymouth, and which brings visitors from all over the world. It is possible to find a huge variety of local seafood dishes, but two of the most popular are mackerel baked in cider and haddock casserole.
Portland sheep are a breed that is local to Dorset, although at the time of writing there are only about 20 registered flocks in the county. Tradition has it that the original Portland sheep swam ashore to Portland Bill after the sinking of the Spanish Armada.
At one time these sheep were common all over Dorset, and although the breed came close to extinction in the 1970s, it has survived and multiplied thanks to the work of dedicated breeders and the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. Unlike most sheep breeds whose ewes usually produce twins, the Portland ewe gives birth to just one lamb per season, and they take longer to mature, which has made them less popular among some farmers, though Portland Lamb has a sought-after taste.