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Essex: An Underrated Culinary County

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Essex: An Underrated Culinary County

The south eastern county of Essex doesn’t have the best reputation in the UK, but the brash stereotypes the county is associated with don’t reflect the reality.

Essex occupies a vitally important position geographically, making up the coastline from the Stour to the Thames estuaries, and the traditional county capital at Chelmsford, located roughly in the middle of the county, is itself an important historical site.

Essex extends all the way to the River Lea in the west and southwards to the confluence of the Lea and the Thames, and many areas now considered part of London were historically considered to be in Essex, including the areas of Havering, Newham and Waltham Forest.

The county is essentially flat, a low-lying region, with a coast that is made up of a variety of islands and tidal inlets. The clay soils that predominate in Essex originally supported a huge hardwood forest and early settlers found the soil hard to work until as late as the Iron Age. There is a remaining trace of that forest heritage that can be found today in Epping Forest.

Essex became hugely important to English life when the Romans arrived. It was the home of the Trinovantes, regarded as the most powerful British tribe in the country at the time of the Roman invasion, and the Trinovantes were pivotal in the famous revolut of Boudica in 60AD. After the native tribes were subdued by the invaders, the Roman settlement at Colchester became one of the most important in the newly conquered territory, and there were additional major Roman sites situated at Great Chesterford, Rivenhall and Chelmsford.

Essex’s position also made it a key region during the subsequent invasions of the Saxons and the Danes, and these two sides fought a famous battle at Maldon in 991. The county has also produced many famous historical characters, perhaps the most notable being the former priest from Colchester, John Ball, who was a pivotal character in the 1381 Peasants’ Revolt.

Colchester was the key economic force for Essex, as it became a vital cloth-weaving centre during the Middle Ages, but agriculture become increasingly important to the county’s economy as the marshes to the south east were reclaimed, for this new land proved particularly fertile. With the arrival of the railways, Essex also became a major holiday and retirement destinations, while in modern times, the county has been a popular base for commuters forced out of London by high house prices. Sailing fans enjoy the inlets and coastline of the county as the ideal location for their pastime, while tourists are drawn to the historic market towns of the interior.  

The geological reality of Essex produced a scarcity of stone, making timber the key material used in building in the county during the Middle Ages. This has left a legacy of many remarkable timber-framed houses that survive to this date. From Tudor times, brick was increasingly the material of choice, and the popular Audley Manor is a great example of Tudor Essex architecture.

Over the centuries, Essex has been increasingly affected by the expansion and development of London, particularly as the port of the capital has expanded eastwards, as far as the lower Thames at Tilbury. Major petrol refineries have been built on the Thames marshes, two of which have since been converted to deepwater container ports, while the port of Harwich, in the north east of the county is a vital shipping hub, conveying goods and traffic to Germany, the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

Yet despite this closeness to the capital and the extensive development, Essex has kept its rural character, including a wide variety of crops and livestock farms, while numerous market gardens, nurseries and food festivals display the county’s culinary variety.  

Ongar Ham Cake

This is an unusual old English recipe and is rarely seen these days, but it has a long association with Essex. The first available references to the Ongar Ham Cake mention a ‘Veal and Ham Mould’ which is said to be a traditional dish enjoyed in Ongar, Essex.

The original recipe uses minced ham, which is thickened with bread and ale and then bound together with egg. It is variation on the traditional ‘potted’ meats that can be found in various parts of England. The mixture of meat, which was probably also seasoned with pepper, mace and dry mustard, was then pressed into a ceramic pot and baked in a water bath, creating a meat loaf that could be enjoyed  hot or cold and that was a great way to use up scraps and leftovers.

Wilkin and Sons Preserves

The combination of a proud and diverse agricultural base and easy access to shipping has made Essex an ideal exporter of food, and among its most successful local producers is Wilkin and Sons, a company that has been exporting its range of preserves since 1885.

They now export their jams, marmalades and other conserves to over 60 countries, and the company’s mini jars can be found in many of the world’s leading hotels and restaurants, including in China and the Middle East. Their success is rooted in their use of the best quality fruit and their focus on the quality of the final product. The fact that they have held a Royal Warrant from the reigning monarch since 1911 has also helped to boost their reputation. Among their many products worth sampling are Tiptree Honey, Wild Blueberry Conserve and their Salted Caramel Spread.

Maldon Salt

Essex is an perfect location for the production of sea salt, and Maldons has become one of the country’s best known food producers. At one time, Maldon Salt was regarded as such a luxury that it was only stocked by Harrods and Fortnum and Mason. These days it is sold all over the world, an expansion that was boosted by the award of a Royal Warrant in 2012.

Maldon Salt is known for a distinctive appearance and a particularly soft and crumbly texture, which is very different to the standard hard rock salt. It also has a mild and slightly sweet quality that differs from the harshness associated with regular salt, which makes it a more subtle additive when used in most dishes, and which helps to bring out the flavour of your food.

Kelly Bronze Turkeys

Named after owner Paul Kelly, this company has won awards for its remarkable success in developing a thriving export business. The East Anglia region is known for its poultry farming and the company founder learned the traditional methods of turkey farming, before using them to build a brand that exports around the world.

The company focuses on the production of high quality meat, with a distinctive flavour that is completely different to the bland turkeys often found in supermarket shelves, and this focus on quality has ensured a dedicated following and a large global customer base.

Colchester Native Oysters

Colchester has long been seen as one of Europe’s most important areas for oyster production. It is thought that the Romans were the first to farm oysters on a significant scale in Essex, and stocks remained high until the late 1800s. These days, care has to be taken to preserve the supply and oysters are only harvested from September to May from the shallow creeks off Mersea Island.

Colchester Native Oysters are famous for their flat shell and their firm flesh, which offers a rich, salty taste, due to the marsh-dominated environment where they are bred.

Essex Apple Dowdy

English cuisine has plenty of recipes that make use of the abundance of apples produced by the large number of orchards in parts of the country and the Essex version is the Essex Apple Dowdy.

This is a dish made of stewed apples beneath a crust that is broken during the cooking to enable the juices to make a semi-caramelised topping. The apples are then combined with bread and butter, as well as sugar, nutmeg and golden syrup and the top is finally covered with a lid or a plate before it is baked. The result is a delightful, warming dessert that can be served cold or warm.  

Swish Swash

There is a long tradition of mead production in England and one of the most distinctive versions of this sweet alcoholic beverage is Swish Swash, an Essex version of the drink. This particular mead is made with a combination of honeycombs and water, which is then further flavoured with pepper and spices. The result is a delicious warming drink that is perfect on cold winter nights.

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