Many English counties are known for a particular industry, food or historical event, but in the case of Berkshire, it is best known for its links with royalty. The presence of the Royal residence of Windsor Castle within the county borders has long given Berkshire an association with the aristocracy, and that reputation has been strengthened over the centuries.
Although known as a rural region, the county has a surprisingly varied landscape. At the eastern end, Berkshire is shaped and defined by the Thames and by acres of forested land, including the famous Windsor Forest. In the west, there are beautiful chalk downs, which reach a height of nearly 1000 feet in some places. The county’s proximity to London has also meant that it is connected with multiple railway and road networks to the capital city and is home to many city commuters.
The significance of the county goes all the way back to prehistoric times, when the Berkshire Downs supported a number of prehistoric settlements, many of which were linked by ridgeways, including some that led to Stonehenge in the neighbouring county of Wiltshire. Berkshire also has a major archaeological monument of its own in the Iron Age Uffington White Horse, a dramatic shape that was carved into the chalk of the White Horse Hill.
Archaeologists have also uncovered plenty of evidence of settlements in the river valleys to the east of the county, which date from the Iron Age, while there is a famous Belgic site at Silchester, which later became an important point in the Roman road network through the south of the country.
Berkshire was fiercely contested in the years after the Romans departed, and was alternately claimed by the great Saxon kingdoms of Mercia and Wessex with the latter also having a link to Berkshire through Alfred the Great, the first king of England, who was born in Wantage in 848.
After their conquest of England, the Normans understood the importance of the Thames when it came to the economy and to strategic position and this led them to build the original Windsor Castle, which subsequently became the principal residence of the British royal family outside of the capital. Towns such as Wallingford and Abingdon thrived during the Middle Ages, and the famous private school of Eton was founded in Berkshire in the 15th century.
While Berkshire was minimally affected by the Industrial Revolution, its proximity to London has always meant the county has been influenced by events in the capital and over the last two hundred years that has included the various waves of new urban development. The county town of Reading was the centre of much of that development, while Slough became an important industrial location following the end of the First World War. At the same time, a number of towns in the county became significant commuter bases and centres of high technology and software development.
Yet despite these changes, the western half of the county has retained much of its agricultural nature, along with its history of horse racing, associated with the Newbury and Lambourne areas. Cereal crops in particular are an important part of the county’s economy and there is a flourishing food trade, which includes many high-end restaurants promoting the best of Berkshire cuisine.
Perhaps the most famous of Berkshire’s culinary contributions is a delicious summer dessert that was named after the prestigious public school where it was reputedly created. The story has it that during an Eton versus Harrow cricket match in the late 19th century, strawberries, meringue and a cream pudding were dropped and when the resulting ‘mess’ was scooped up, the result was an extremely delicious and refreshing dessert. Whether that story is true or not, the Eton Mess has become one of England’s best loved sweet treats and the archetypal summer dish.
Windsor Pudding may not quite have achieved the same level of fame as the Eton Mess, but it has plenty of fans in England. It is not clear whether it gained its name purely for being created in Windsor or for the Royal connection, but either way, it is a delicious comforting foods made from breadcrumbs and suet, to which is added chopped apple, currants, raisins, sweet wine and eggs. The whole thing takes around three hours to cook and traditionally it was boiled in a cloth bag, before being served with sugar and white wine sauce.
This is a delightful, creamy, crumbly cheese that is made in the village of Riseley, on the outskirts of Reading. It’s a semi-soft cheese created from unpasteurised ewe’s milk, and crafted using traditional methods for hand-washed curd cheese, with the result being a vegetarian, natural rind
The curd is handwashed, which means that whey is reduced and the acid minimized, helping the cheese to keep its characteristic smooth texture and gentle taste. Wigmore can be quite crumbly early on, but with age it mellows and matures to a velvety texture, which is similar to Brie, though without the tendency to become runny. Delicious when sampled with a glass of Burgundy, Wigmore has won numerous prizes at the British Cheese Awards.
Faggots are one of those English dishes that can filed under the heading ‘acquired taste’ but they have been enjoyed by generations of workers all over the country. It is fair to say that the most famous version of the faggots recipe comes from the West Midlands, but the county of Berkshire has its own faggots tradition. Berkshire faggots are made using off cuts of pork, which are then seasoned with sage, pepper, salt and chopped onions, shaped into balls and then baked or stewed, producing a nutritious and filling meal.
Berkshire Bacon Pudding
Sometimes known as Berkshire Bacon Rolly Poly, the Berkshire Bacon Pudding is a tasty made from bacon and onion, which is then wrapped in suet pastry and steamed. There are some variations in the additional ingredients that can be used, with some cooks preferring to add sage to provide a more complex taste, but this stodgy yet filling pastry treat is usually prepared simply and served as a lunch time snack.
As well as the award winning Wigmore, Berkshire is home to another popular cheese, produced by the Two Hoots cheese making company. They produce a range of high quality cheeses, having started their business as a hobby, but their most famous is undoubtedly the Barkham Blue. This is a rich, salty blue cheese classic, that has built up a strong following, not just in Berkshire. It has also won several awards including the award for Best Blue Cheese in Britain.
Poor Knights of Windsor
Bearing a similarity to French Toast, this is a dish with a long history. The origin of its name is unclear although similar dishes in other parts of Europe have also earned the name ‘poor knights’. The basic dish is produced with white bread that is soaked in cream and fried with eggs and nutmeg until it is golden, before being served with cream and sugar. The first example of this dish appeared in a cookbook of 1658, which suggested serving it with rosewater, butter and sugar, although there is a later version, from the middle of the nineteenth century that recommends eating it with a wine sauce.
There are few more unusual foods in English regional cooking than Reading Sauce. Technically known as Cocks’s Reading Sauce, it was created by the fishmonger James Cocks, who opened his shop in Reading in 1789. By 1802, Cocks was supplementing his fish selling business by marketing the new sauce that he had created with his wife, Ann.
It is roughly in the same tradition as Worcestershire sauce, with a distinctive combination of unusual ingredients, though the taste is entirely different. Reading Sauce features shallots, walnut pickle, anchovies and cayenne pepper, as well as chillies, garlic, mushroom and soy sauce.
Remarkably, this combination of ingredients became a household staple in England and around the world, before it began to decline in popularity in the first half of the 20th century. It famously featured in Jules Verne’s 1872 novel Around The World In Eighty Days, in which the hero, Phileas Fogg, breakfasts on broiled fish with Reading sauce at the Reform Club in London. The sauce has largely fallen out of favour, but it remains part of Berkshire’s distinctive cuisine.