Shropshire is not often considered one of the foremost of English counties, but it has a long, deep history, and is actually one of the largest regions of England, stretching south to Herefordshire and north to Cheshire, and forming the bulk of the border between Wales and England.
Shropshire is first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086, but long before that, it is believe that the area was the territory of the Celtic Cornovil tribe at the time of the Roman invasion. Eventually, it was to become part of the Saxon kingdom of Mercia. Long regarded as an agricultural base, the rolling hills, rich pastures and flourishing river-side market towns were also the setting for one of the most important developments in human history: the birth of the Industrial Revolution.
Although that industrial culture eventually shifted eastwards to the Black Country and north to the mining towns and industry of Nottinghamshire, Lancashire and Yorkshire, the industrial heritage of the Coalbrookdale area of Shropshire remains a source of local pride and an attraction for tourists who travel in their thousands every year to see such sights as famous Ironbridge.
Being sandwiched between the heart of England and Wales, Shropshire has always been exposed to a variety of influences, and the busy traffic in goods and travellers along the River Severn has helped to bring other ways of life into the county, although the heritage of Shropshire remains largely rural.
This has led to the establishing and maintenance of a variety of culinary traditions, and Shropshire towns such as Shrewsbury, Ludlow, Much Wenlock and Bridgnorth are thriving culinary centres, where locals and tourists can enjoy a range of food festivals and local produce. Here are six of the most interesting contributions of Shropshire to English cuisine.
Shropshire is a rural country, and that culture has often found ways to make the most of the available wildlife, combining it with pastoral food sources for an interesting and hearty dish. Shropshire pie is a good example. It is a simple shortcrust pastry pie, filled with rabbit and pork, to which are then added balls formed of bacon, herbs, oysters and rabbits’ liver, the whole being backed, seasoned and served with artichoke, for a gamey, meaty treat.
Fidget Pie is an extraordinary and distinctive Shropshire contribution to English cuisine that started life 400 years ago as a similar dish to the well known Cornish Pasty. It was originally developed so that farm workers would have a portable lunch to take with them at harvest time.
The pie is made of a pastry case that is then filled with a mixture of gammon, potato, onion, cider, apple and cheese, and it gets its name either from the fact that the ingredients took a while to settle while it was being cooked, or to the distinctive and not entirely pleasant smell that is produced while it is cooking: a ‘fitchett’ being a name for a polecat.
But you shouldn’t let that put you off. Although the Fidget Pie has waxed and waned in popularity over the years, it has become increasingly popular among food connoisseurs, and bakers in Ludlow, Shrewsbury and elsewhere in the county are rediscovering the beauty of this tasty pie.
Market Drayton Gingerbread
The town of Market Drayton has long had an association with gingerbread, that was first documented in 1793 by a local baker. Gingerbread itself has an even longer history, dating back to 1390, when it was known as Gingerbrede. In the early years of the 20th century, this small town had no less than four specialist gingerbread bakers, and rum was widely reputed to be a key ingredient!
This long history of gingerbread expertise means that Market Drayton has a reputation for producing some of the country’s tastiest gingerbread snacks, and no trip to Shropshire is complete without sampling this spicy and delicious local delicacy.
One of the best known dishes from Shropshire, Shrewsbury Biscuits get their name from the county town of Shrewsbury. They are first mentioned in writing during the 1500s when they were noted for having a brittle and crisp texture, and they also earned a mention in a play by William Congreve in 1700, through the phrase, ‘short as a Shrewsbury cake’.
Tradition has it that the modern version of the biscuit was created by a Mr Palin and to this day, a plaque on a shop close to Shrewsbury Castle indicates that this was the area where Shrewsbury Biscuits were first baked according to Palin’s unique recipe in the year 1760.
The basic Shrewsbury Biscuit recipe is open to plenty of variation, and it can be baked with ingredients including nutmeg, rosewater, cinnamon, lemon, caraway seeds and orange peel, providing a different twist to the basic crisp, buttery biscuit. At one time these biscuits were sold as Palin’s Original Shrewsbury Cakes by a company called Thomas Plimmer and Sons, but these days are widely made by a variety of local and domestic bakers.
Shropshire Soul Cakes
Another Shropshire culinary contribution with a long history, the Soul Cake is associated with the Christian Festival of All Souls Day, the day after Halloween. The tradition associated with this day is that poorer neighbours would offer to pray for the relatives of their richer neighbours in exchange for either money or food. Later the tradition shifted to something like carol singing, in which children would sing and in return would receive a Harcake or Soul Cake.
Like Hot Cross Buns, the Soul Cake is marked with a cross, and the tradition held that each time one of these cakes was eaten, a soul was freed from purgatory. It was also common for Shropshire folk to leave Soul Cakes out on Halloween for the souls of family and friends who had died, with the cakes then distributed among friends and neighbours on the following day. In appearance, the Soul Cake looks like a cross between a scone and a rock cake, and if served with butter or jam, provides a hearty and filling snack for tea time or dessert.
Shrewsbury Simnel Cake
The Simnel Cake is another cake with a long established link to holidays. Traditionally, the cake was baked in the spring, for Mothering Sunday or for Lent. In the case of the Mothering Sunday tradition, the cake was often made by daughters making the cakes for their mothers, usually girls who had been working as servants, who then took the cake home with them when they visited their mother.
The cake itself is essentially a form of light fruit cake, with the addition of saffron, a central layer of marzipan and then a decoration of icing or paste balls to top the cake. Traditionally, the cake was also boiled before being baked, giving it a distinctive taste and texture.
Shropshire Mint Cakes
The Shropshire Mint Cake is one of the more unusual Shropshire delicacies and as a result, it can be tricky to find, but is worth sampling if you can get hold of one. In appearance, it looks a little like an Eccles Cake, being made from flaky pastry with a rich dried-fruit filling. But the addition of fresh local mint gives it a distinctive flavour. It may sound as though these flavours would not go well together, but they make for a pleasing, refreshing take on the traditionally heavy butter pastry and fruit combination and are definitely worth trying if you get a chance while you’re in the county.