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Foods from a Scholarly County

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Foods from a Scholarly County

Cambridgeshire, the home of the famous Cambridge University, has traditionally been considered part of the bigger region of East Anglia, an area of the country that has always been a strong rural storehouse, and a major source of much of the agricultural and other food produce that has sustained England through war and peace over the centuries.

The county was originally defined mainly by the arm of the North Sea that is today known as The Wash. At one time this extended much farther inland than it does currently and it regularly flooded, leaving deposits of silt, peat and clay, which ultimately helped eventually to form the rich and fertile soils that served farmers in the region so well.

The current county of Cambridgeshire includes much of the area of this old inlet, though most of the original Wash has long been drained and reclaimed, forming the flat area known as the Fens, which is dotted with low ridges that were once islands.

One of these islands, the Isle of Ely, was one of the most famous locations in English history, forming the safe hideout of a rebellious English army led by Hereward the Wake, which stood against the invading Norman king William the Conqueror, in the years after the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

Cambridgeshire is also partly defined by two major waterways, the Ouse and the Nene, along with a tributary of the Ouse, the Cam. A long process of redirection and embankment at the river basins helped to create even more fertile agricultural land, with cereal crops thriving on the chalky ridges in the east of the county, while vegetables have long grown well in the Fens and the slopes of the various former islands provide ideal locations for fruit growing.

Although the county is known for its agricultural heritage, it does have a manufacturing centre at Peterborough, which expanded a great deal in the second half of the 1900s, thanks to an explosion in population and the development of engineering and light industry. And of course, the city of Cambridge has long been associated with its famous University, which is regarded as one of the world’s foremost centres of education and scholarship.

The land reclamation process in the area actually began as long ago as Roman times, when the invaders first settled in the Cam valley. The region later became the ground on which the Anglo Saxons and the Danes fought for control of England.

The county became notable in the Middle Ages, with the founding of the University of Cambridge, which made the city one of England’s most important intellectual centres, and at the same time, the drainage of the Fens continued to produce new areas of land for cultivation, a process that continued until the mid 1600s. The county also became known for its many architectural achievements, including the impressive cathedral at Ely and the many university buildings in Cambridge.

Above all, however, Cambridgeshire remains a firmly rural location. It lies at the heart of the East Anglian region, which produces the bulk of England’s cereal and vegetable crops, accounting for more than 5,700 million loaves of bread and 2.5 million pints of beer every year!

Not surprisingly, there is a corresponding strong tradition of distinctive Cambridgeshire produce, which is celebrated at numerous farmers markets and festivals, including the Cambridge Beer Festival and the Strawberry Fair of early June. Here is a special selection of some of the foods and produce that have helped to define Cambridgeshire’s culinary reputation.  

Fenland Celery

Celery is widely eaten throughout England vegetable, and Cambridgeshire is known for producing more than its share of this familiar crop, although it is also grown in Suffolk and Norfolk. It is still grown and harvested in the traditional manner, and the crop form this part of the country is considered to be the finest in England, due to the unique Fenland soil structure and the method of growing, which ensures that much of the flavour-packed root is retained. Fenland celery is available from October to December, and is a tasty and versatile vegetable, working well in soups, salads or even drinks.

Cambridge Cheese Company

Cambridgeshire is home to many thriving artisanal food companies and one of the best known is the Cambridge Cheese Company. Set up in 1994, their shop can be found amid the famous old buildings of Cambridge and is full of a selection of the very best of cheeses, with over 200 varieties in stock. For foodies looking for an expertly curated selection of the very best cheeses, all drawn from sustainable and environmentally friendly producers, this is the ideal place to start.

Cambridge College Pudding

Sometimes known simply as College Pudding, this tasty English dessert is traditionally considered to be the first pudding in England to be made by boiled in a cloth. Packed with currants, raisins and candied orange peel, it has long been associated with Cambridge University and has been served up to students at the University since 1617.

Originally, this was a steamed suet pudding of dried fruit, dates, milk, eggs, spice, flour and breadcrumbs that was made in two rounds, which were then sealed together with butter, wrapped in cloth and baked or steamed before being served with a wine sauce. Over the centuries, the recipe has been altered with less spice involved and by the Victorian era, the puddings were usually being baked in ovens instead of being steamed in a pudding cloth.

Cambridge Burnt Cream

Essentially an English variation on the popular crème brulee, this Cambridgeshire classic is believed to have come from Trinity College, part of Cambridge University. It is made by baking a rich vanilla custard which is topped with sugar and burnt until crisp. We can’t be sure when this dish was created, but at some point during the 1800s, it became linked with Trinity College and began to appear in recipe books as ‘Cambridge burnt cream’ or ‘Trinity cream’. To this day the kitchens at Trinity still serve up a rich version of this dessert, which is perfect on a cold winter’s night.

Cambridge Cheese

This is a traditional cheese that is hard to find these days, but is still being made at home by enthusiasts and small producers. It was traditionally made inside a rectangle-shaped mould, roughly the size of a house brick, which was then stood on straw mats, which were woven from harvest straw. Commercial production of the cheese, which has a lovely soft, fresh taste, was hit by restrictions imposed during the Second World War, and it has not recovered commercially, but this is an old English cheese that is long overdue a revival.

Coolship Sour Ale

The extensive cereal farming, particularly in the eastern regions of the county, has given rise to a long established beer industry in Cambridgeshire and today there are numerous breweries continuing the tradition, including Elgood’s Brewery. This brewer operates from the North Brink Brewery in Wisbech, that was built in 1795 and they employ a process and range of equipment dating back to the early 1900s, producing a traditionally flavoursome range of beers.

There is something for every type of beer drinker in the Elgood collection, but one of their most interesting products is the Coolship range. The range consists of three varieties are in the Lambic style, making Elgood one of only a handful of breweries able to produce this form of beer. The beer is cooled in open trays which are known as coolship trays, which enables the growth of wild yeasts and flavours, after which, it is allowed to undergo spontaneous fermentation for up to nine months in special tanks, producing a distinctive sour English beer that is definitely worth checking out.

Cambridgeshire Gummburner

This extra-mature Cheddar-style artisan cheese is produced using unpasteurised cows milk from Holstein cows and actually starts life in Lincolnshire. A traditional Lincolnshire Poacher cheese is barrel aged for an initial period of between two and three years, and is then taken across the border to Cambridgeshire, where it is matured for another two years, adding extra bite and flavour. It is one of the many cheeses sold by the Cambridge Cheese Company (see above).

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