Many of the areas of the country that feature on this site have a deep and lasting rural tradition. Yet country life is only part of the English story. Go back 150 years and the heart of England could be found not in the fields and country lanes, but in the factories, furnaces and coal mines of the Midlands, South Wales and North England.
That industrial heritage has shaped England in profound ways and continues to do so to this day. It has also given rise to a distinctive and remarkable range of culinary traditions.
One of the most famous industrial areas of England is the West Midlands. This area encompasses both the Black Country and the Birmingham conurbation, as well as parts of Staffordshire. It was a grim landscape of smoke, soot and fumes, but the industrial activity in this region helped to propel England and the United Kingdom as a whole to the summit of global prosperity.
The West Midlands area, which can roughly be said to include south Staffordshire, the northern parts of Worcestershire and the western districts of Warwickshire, had always been an essential part of England, not least because so many roads and rivers pass through it.
At one time, it was the central territory of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia, a state that at one point was the most powerful Saxon territory of all. Later, as the fortunes of Mercia waned, the West Midlands was split between the English and the Danes, who occupied much of the east of England.
The territory was divided once again during the English civil war, when many of the towns and cities sided with Parliament, particularly in the east, yet rural areas and western towns tended to favour the King, and both armies manoeuvred extensively in the Midlands counties as they sought victory.
Yet the West Midlands is undoubtedly best known for its role in the Industrial Revolution. The shift from rural to industrial economy had many roots, but the most significant early developments took place in the county of Shropshire, at Ironbridge, a famous part of the Midlands, that is now a tourist attraction. As the industrial technology developed, the abundant geological riches of the West Midlands, together with the proximity of major roads, and the River Severn, made it an ideal location for the building and developing of heavy industry, which ranged from coal, gravel and stone mining, to iron working, smelting and ironmongery.
The precise boundaries of the West Midlands will depend on what context you are using the location in, but they are broadly considered to include two main regions: the Black Country (which was so named due to the heavy smoke that lingered over the whole region as a result of unrestricted industrial production) and Birmingham, which culturally was a very different territory.
As the relevance of heavy industry was reduced during the 20th century, the fortunes of the West Midlands fell. The area has experience hard economic conditions over the years, but in recent decades, new industries including a thriving food and hospitality sector have helped to lead a revival. Part of that revival includes a celebration of the unique food traditions of this vibrant area.
Chitlins is one of many dishes that come from a time when meat was relatively difficult to come by and all parts of an animal were used. In fact, chitlins is short for ‘chitterlings’ or pigs’ intestines. Preparing a dish of Chitlins was a time consuming business, and the smell during cooking is pretty powerful, but the end result is a surprisingly tasty dish, that is often served with onions.
Few English drinks can boast a stranger name than Lambswool. This sweet, spicy punch is produced from baked apples and may come from an old Celtic celebration called La Mas Ubhal, or the Day of the Apple, a November ritual that was held under the oldest tree in an orchard, though there are some suggestions that it may also be linked to Lammas, the Saxon word for the harvest festival. The drink was also part of the Christmas tradition of wassailing, when locals went door to door singing, and giving gifts in exchange for a drink. Lambswool was originally produced with ale, before baked apple, nutmeg, brown sugar and ginger were added to the brew.
Bread and Dripping
A regular feature of working class homes in the West Midlands, Bread and Dripping was nothing more elaborate than the use of a chunk of white bread to soak up the juices of the Sunday roast before being sprinkled with pepper and salt. Bread and Dripping became a popular dish in the Second World War, when rationing was imposed on England. It fell out of favour in the 1970s and 1980s as people were concerned about avoiding animal fats, but has enjoyed a resurgence in recent years.
Modern Birmingham has become synonymous with the Balti, a form of curry that is cooked and served in a two-handled steel bowl and traditionally served with an accompaniment of naan bread. Although it has clear South Asian origins, the Balti was created in Birmingham by Mohammed Arif, who owned a restaurant called Adil’s. The dish was made using a collection of spices and herbs combined in a traditional Northern Kashmir fashion, and it proved to be so popular that other Balti restaurants sprang up in the Birmingham area, creating the so-called Balti Triangle.
This dish comes from a time when the population of England were dependent on a good harvest for their sustenance. In the late 18th century, a series of bad harvests caused a severe food shortage. In response, Matthew Boulton, one of England’s foremost industrial pioneers, created a broth that was full of nutrients for his workers. The soup was made using vegetables and stewed beef, and then served with bread. The basic recipe has been tweaked over the years, and the modern version involves a long and complicated process, but the end result is a hearty, filling soup.
Pikelets are well known throughout the West Midlands and are an ideal snack or breakfast dish. Technically, there is a difference between a pikelet and a crumpet, and the pikelet is the most popular version in the West Midlands. Made by dropping batter into a pan, pikelets are thinner than crumpets, and they don’t contain the extra baking powder found in the yeast dough of crumpets, so they produce a flatter, more versatile, yet equally tasty option.
Brummie Bacon Cakes
Brummie Bacon Cakes are a relatively obscure West Midlands recipes: savoury scones that feature cheese and crispy bacon. Both tomato ketchup and Worcestershire sauce can be added to the mix, along with milk, to provide extra tanginess. A traditional recipe that was resurrected when it was found in an old cookery book from the Women’s Institute, the Brummie Bacon Cake can be cut in half and eaten with butter at tea time or as part of a hearty English breakfast.
West Midlands Mild
The rise of the artisan brewing industry in recent years has produced a renewed interest in a variety of beer genres, including Bitter, IPA and Lager. But in the West Midlands, Mild has always been the preferred beer. Mild is a low gravity, low alcohol, dark beer that comes in a surprising variety of styles from light thirst quenchers to darker, more subtle flavours. Mild can also be combined with bottled brown ale to create a drink known as Brown and Mild or a Boilermaker.
It was a tradition on Mother’s Day across England for workers and staff to get a day off and visit their mother, taking along what was known as a Simnel cake; a form of light fruit cake topped with balls of marzipan. Tradition had it that in return, they would be given a meal of Frumenty, one of the oldest dishes in England. The word is Latin for ‘grain’ and the dish itself was a form of porridge made from boiled wheat, to which were added a variety of ingredients including sugar, eggs, almonds, plums, currants and milk, making the perfect comfort food.
For those who found Frumenty a little too sweet, there was a savoury version, known as Pease Pudding. This was made using peas that had been boiled with bacon or ham, then seasoned with salt and a variety of spices. This was another popular dish in the West Midlands, and often served up on Mother’s Day. It was also sometimes known as Pease Porridge or Pease Pottage.
Faggots and Peas
Arguably the most famous culinary export from the West Midlands, Faggots and Peas (or ‘pays’ if you’re a local) is definitely a dish that can be described as an ‘acquired taste’. The ingredients are simple, as you’d expect for a dish eaten by impoverished workers in an industrial setting. Pork offal is combined with breadcrumbs, seasoning and onions, before being minced, then shaped into balls and cooked. Faggots are usually served with a rich, meaty gravy, mashed potato and mushy peas.
The humble Pork Scratching, the staple snack in many traditional pubs, are thought to have come from the West Midlands, at a time when it was common for workers to keep a pig or two as an alternative source of food; a remnant of the agricultural heritage that workers brought with them into the cities. It is also a reminder of the importance of the principle that no part of a carcass could be wasted. Highly salted and deep-fried, they go perfectly with a pint or two.
Another dish that will definitely divide opinion is Pigs Trotters. This has long been a classic dish served in the West Midlands and from time to time, it enjoys a revival in the more upmarket restaurants of the region. As well as the nature of the dish, the fact that it needs a long time to prepare can be a deterrent, but at the height of industrial England, this was a warming and filling dish that provided welcome nutrition to hard-pressed workers.
An obscure Black Country dish, Groaty Dick is a form of stew made from cereals, beef, onion, leeks, and stock, which is baked together for around 16 hours. Although the end produced wasn’t particularly appetising to look at, the taste was apparently worth the wait. Traditionally, this was a dish eaten in the winter, most commonly on Bonfire Night, and a good way to stave off the cold.