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Food from the Heart of England

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Food from the Heart of England

For many overseas visitors, Oxfordshire is the quintessential English county. This picturesque region sits at the centre of the south of England. Consisting of a broad vale, which divides two upland areas, the North Oxfordshire Heights, and the Chiltern Hills, it is located almost entirely within the Thames basin. That famous river runs north-eastward and then southward beyond the city of Oxford, winding slowly in the direction of London, passing through some idyllic English towns.  

The area is notable for many sites of historical significance. Archaeologists have found evidence of Paleolithic and Mesolithic settlements, and you can find a number of Neolithic structures, including the famous Rollright Stones, which are on the border with Warwickshire. The county was an important strategic area for the Romans, and was later settled by the Saxons, who built many settlements in the Thames valley. The county formed part of the kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex, and then it fell under the control of the Danes, before the Norman invasion.

By that time, the city of Oxford was already known as a centre of learning, and throughout the medieval period, Oxford was the site of many beautiful and grand buildings, including the famous Iffley Church, just south of the city. During the English Civil War, the county was staunchly Royalist, particularly the cities of Banbury and Oxford, which were both besieged by Parliamentarians.

Although Oxfordshire has undergone a degree of industrialisation, including thriving sites such as Cowley, which is famous for its production of cars, the county has been essentially defined by its agriculture and by its association with learning. It is also famous for its wool production, as well as its dairy herds, and for the produce from a variety of fertile orchards. 

Often described as the ‘Writer’s County’, Oxfordshire has of course been the home to many gifted scholars and writers, including Seamus Heaney, T.S.Elliot and Lewis Carroll.

And it has also earned a reputation for the quality of its dining and cuisine. In fact Oxfordshire can claim several famous food producers, including Frank Cooper, who created the popular Oxford Marmalade, and the baking firm Brown’s of Banbury, who devised the Banbury Cake. Here are some of the highlights of Oxfordshire cuisine:

New College Pudding

This is one of the oldest of Oxfordshire’s dishes. Developed in the 17th century, it is a luxurious old fashioned dessert that retains its popularity with those who live in the county in the 21st century. The original recipe, which started with a mixture of sherry, flour, suet and eggs, has been updated to include nutmeg, candied peel and currants. The dough has to be left to rest for up to 20 minutes before it is shaped into spheres and then shallow fried in butter, which turns the outside brown. Traditionally eaten along with jam, marmalade or butter, these cakes are delightful.  

Frank Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade

The Grand Café that stands on the site of 83, The High, Oxford, is a destination for many curious tourists, who are keen to take a look at the old greengrocer shop of a man called Frank Cooper. His fame was quite unexpected and the credit belongs to his wife Sarah-Jane, who drew up the Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade recipe while experimenting with different techniques. Having made a huge quantity of marmalade, the Coopers sold the excess produce and it proved so popular that by 1900, Frank Cooper had developed a factory. These days, the rich, tart flavour of Frank Cooper’s marmalade can be found across several varieties and is a regular feature of the English breakfast table.

Oxford Artisan Distillery

The Oxford Artisan Distillery is one of the most successful whisky, gin and vodka producing operations in England. Their range of traditionally distilled drinks is made from grains that are grown in organic and sustainable ways. The distilling process is carried out in specially made copper stills, and the result is a range of drinks known for their caramel flavours and malty qualities.

Banbury Cake

Full of delicious mincemeat and wrapped in flaky choux pastry, Banbury Cake is a traditional winter alternative to the standard mince pie, but is much older, perhaps by as much as 400 years. The recipe may have been created during the Crusades as a hearty pudding that could provide a filling meal, yet could also be stored for transport on long journeys. The filling, which features currants, sugar, all spice and lemon rind, was sometimes also flavoured with cinnamon for an extra kick and then wrapped in a round of flaky pastry. The recipe itself was first published in 1615 but it may be derived from the Holy Cakes that were eaten in the Middle East as early as the 7th century.

Hook Norton Brewery

Situated in the Cotswold Hills Hook Norton is an independent family business that takes traditional brewing techniques and combines them with modern innovations to produce a range of real ales that have proven extremely popular. Hook Norton’s full range has won numerous awards, including prizes for its Hooky Gold, Hooky Mild, Haymaker and Flagship brands.

Oxfordshire Sausages

Sometimes known as Oxfordshire Skate, though we cannot be sure why, Oxfordshire Sausages were developed in the 18th century by a butcher called John Nott. His inspiration was to use lean veal and combine it with fatty pork, along with numerous herbs and nutmeg. The sausage meat was then shaped into a ‘C’ shape, using the stomach lining of a Gloucester Old Spot pig, which is thought to add to the texture of the sausage. His recipe was very popular and to this date, Oxfordshire Sausages remain a frequent feature of Oxfordshire farmer’s markets.

Oxford Bishop

A warming winter drink, Oxford Bishop became popular after writer Charles Dickens who featured the drink in A Christmas Carol. It is on occasions compared with mulled wine and is just as rich and strong smelling, though usually served in a steaming mug, with a touch of brandy. The name comes from the purple colour, which is caused by the addition of port, which is similar to the purple of a bishop’s robe. The drink is ideal for cold winter evenings and is often enhanced with allspice berries, lemon rind, cinnamon or cloves.

Cotswold Dumplings

Savoury dumplings that are shaped from balls of dough have long been a part of English cuisine. By tradition, they are formed from a combination of self raising flour and suet, bound together by cold water and seasoned with salt and pepper. But unlike ordinary dumplings, which are dropped into a stew or a soup, Cotswold dumplings are mixed with breadcrumbs and cheese, with the dough rolled in breadcrumbs and then fried. Crunchy and light, these dumplings are a perfect accompaniment to many meals, but are a delicious snack on their own, or served with a salsa or similar sauce.

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