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Cumberland’s Fine Food History

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Cumberland’s Fine Food History

Cumberland is a historic English county located at the extreme north west of England. Traditionally, it is considered to be the area bounded to the north by Scotland, and to the east by the historic counties of Durham and Northumberland, and in the south, it joins the counties of Lancashire and Westmorland. Since 1974, Cumberland has been incorporated into the larger county of Cumbria, though you will still often see references to Cumberland.  

The area is home to England’s highest point, Scafell Pike, a 978 metre peak in the Cumbrian Mountains, which serve as the backdrop to the famous and picturesque Lake District. The aptly named Vale of Eden is located at the centre of the county, and in the east of Cumberland, the county capital of Carlisle stands on the northern plain, beyond which are the Pennines, which mark the traditional border with neighbouring Northumbria.

The archaeological evidence indicates that Cumberland was of great significance in ancient times, with the noticeable being the Bronze Age stone circles that were discovered at Little Selkeld and Keswick. The region was also famous for being the site of one of the most remarkable and historically significant building projects of the ancient world, when the Roman Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of a wall that ran from Bowness on Solway to the settlement of Wallsend in Northumberland, primarily as a defence against invasion from Scottish tribes north of the border.

During the Roman era, Cumberland was occupation by an invading army and over the centuries, it continued to be the site of much upheaval. Christianity came with St Ninian at the end of the 4th Century, and the area of Cumberland continued to be a remnant of pre-Saxon Britain, populated as it was by Celtic-speaking Britons, known as the Cymry or Cymru, who gave their name to the county of Cumberland and later to the country of Wales. 

Cumberland was eventually conquered by the kingdom of Northumbria in the 7th Century, and also suffered badly at the hands of the Danes and Vikings, who attacked the region from their bases in Ireland and the Isle of Man. From the time of the Norman conquest, the county changed hands many times, belonging to the Earls of Northumbria, then the Scots.

Eventually, in 1177, Cumberland was established and incorporated into England, though the bloodshed continued. Wars between England and Scotland, followed by the English Civil Wars and the Jacobite risings of 1715 and 1745 produced regular battles and upheaval, but in the decades after 1745, peace came to the county. Roads were built or improved, and trade was boosted, as well as tourism, and the Lake District has become one of England’s most popular destinations.

The northern borders have a long and proud tradition of cultural mixing and the result of that is a fascinating culinary heritage, shaped by such factors as life on the rugged moors, hills and coastlines, along with the rural traditions of pastoral valleys, meadows and forests. In the case of Cumberland, that natural diversity combined with a long and turbulent history has led to the development of some tasty and memorable cuisine. Here are some of the highlights of Cumberland food.

Grasmere Gingerbread

There are many version of gingerbread in English cuisine, but the Cumberland version is no ordinary gingerbread. It can probably best be described as strongly ginger-flavoured shortbread which is topped with sugar and gingery crumbs. This delicious dish has been produced in the small Lakeland village of Grasmere since the 1850s, in fact it is still made in the same small building that was once the village school. The recipe itself is a closely guarded secret and this form of gingerbread is only available through the shop, but it is a delicacy to be savoured if you can get it.  

Kendal Mint Cake.

 Another famous Cumberland products, Kendal Mint Cake is a glucose-based sweet, that is flavoured with peppermint. According to this food’s legend, it is the result of a Kendal sweet maker taking his eyes off the cooking pan while he was making clear mints. The result was that the mint mixture became cloudy, rather than clear, and when this was poured out, the result was the first Mint Cake. It has been made in Kendal since 1918 and is extremely popular among climbers and mountaineers throughout the UK as a quick and easy source of energy. In fact, Sir Edmund Hilary and Sirdar Tensing, who became the first men to climb Everest, ate Mint Cake on top of the mountain, something that further increased its popularity as a snack among climbers.

Salt Marsh Lamb

Lambs that can graze on the salt marshes in the region of Cartmel, close to the edge of Morecambe Bay have the chance to eat the wild grasses and herbs including marsh samphire and sea lavender, which are untreated by chemicals. The result is a meat that has more flavour than traditional lamb that is sold elsewhere in the UK, and there is a strong demand for it throughout the UK.

Cumberland Damsons

The fertile valleys of Cumberland are particularly well known for their fruits and the Lyth and Winster Valleys between Kendal and Windermere are famous for the quality of their damson orchards. This is the home of the Westmorland Damson, which is used in a wide range of various damson products including Damson Gin. The Westmorland Damson is technically a member of the plum family, possibly a type of Shropshire Prune, but has been altered by the unique conditions in Westmorland and through pollination by wild plants. The result is a delicious fruit with a taste that is second to none.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Sticky toffee pudding is a quintessentially English steamed dessert that consists of a very moist sponge cake, made with finely chopped up dates or prunes, which is then covered in a toffee sauce and is often served with a helping of vanilla custard or vanilla ice-cream. The dessert’s origins are something of a mystery, but according to tradition, it was created by Francis Coulson at the Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel on the shore of Ullswater in 1960. This dessert is popular everywhere in the UK and the town of Cartmel is known to sell some of the best sticky toffee pudding.

Cumberland Sausage

Cumberland sausage is not just a popular Cumberland food product, but one of the best known of all English foods. The sausage is traditionally very long, and is presented as a flat, circular coil. The sausage itself is made with only natural ingredients and selected cuts of pork, and the meat is usually chopped rather than minced, so it produces a distinctive chunky texture.

The seasonings used in its preparation vary according to which producer is making the sausage, and the finished sausage meat is then put into natural pork casings. The Cumberland Sausage has such a reputation that in 2011, it became one of a handful of English food products to earn Protected Geographical Indicator status from the EU.

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