Of all the old historic counties of England, Gloucestershire is one of our most famous and historically, has been an extremely important territory, lying as it does at the border between England and Wales and including one of the country’s most significant ports, Bristol.
The River Severn dominates the geography and topography of the county, dividing it from north to south, as it flows out from the county of Worcestershire before passing through the low-lying Vale of Gloucester. To the west of the Severn is found the high country of the area of the Forest of Dean, while the eastern edge of the river vale merges with the famous and picturesque Cotswolds, home of some of England’s most idyllic villages and tourist attractions.
This part of the country has long been considered important, and there is plentiful evidence of prehistoric activity in Gloucestershire, in the form of the fascination and widespread burial mounds. At the time of the Roman occupation of Britain, both Cirencester and Gloucester were considered significant towns and the area boasted an array of villas and military camps. After the Romans left, Gloucestershire was conquered by the Saxon Hwicca tribe, who forced out the native Britons, and the county eventually became part of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia.
Gloucestershire endured a significantly troubled history throughout the Medieval era and into the 17th century. It was the scene of many battles for the English crown and against the Welsh, as testified by the many major Norman castles in the region, including Berkeley, Bristol and Gloucester. It also came to be a key territory during the English Civil War.
Economically, the county’s fortunes were initially founded on the woollen textile industry from the mid-14th right up to the late 18th century, while at the same time, Bristol prospered as both a cloth-weaving centre and a major port. There was also ironworking and coal mining in the Forest of Dean during the Industrial Revolution, although not on the scale of that in the Midlands and the north, and the last mine in the area was closed in 1965.
To this date, agriculture remains the most important form of land use despite the fact that the traditional Cotswolds’ sheep farming industry has been greatly reduced and largely replaced by arable and cattle farming. In the north east of Gloucestershire, there are considerable holdings of fruit orchards, where the county forms part of the apple and pear growing heartland of the nation. Gloucester and Cheltenham are also significant areas of employment, and Bristol remains a major city, though it is no longer included within the geographical county of Gloucestershire.
The combination of arable, sheep and cattle farming with the county’s traditions of fruit processing and the thriving trade of the sea and the River Severn has produced a distinctive Gloucestershire cuisine, though the county is arguably most famous for its range of delicious cheeses. Here are some of the most notable Gloucestershire delicacies:
Traditional Gloucestershire Old Spot Pork
One of the county’s most famous agricultural contributions is the Old Spot breed of pigs. The pork from Old Spot pigs is considered superior to other, more conventionally produced pork, thanks to its higher tenderness, increased juiciness and strong flavour. It is sold throughout Gloucestershire and beyond and can be obtained in cuts ranging from legs and chops to shoulders and sausages. The key to the flavour of traditionally farmed Old Spot is that fact that these pigs are born and reared only in natural and organic environments in the Gloucestershire region.
Double Gloucester is arguably the county’s most famous product, a cheese that is produced with full fat cow’s milk that is drawn from the cream from one night’s milking and from the following day’s milking. This may be the reason for the name, although Double Gloucester cheeses are also traditionally twice the height of Single Gloucester cheeses, so that might also explain the ‘double’ element.
The texture of this cheese is buttery and smooth when young, but it is usually aged for at least four months, during which time the rind and overall texture develop a distinctive hardness. This is what enables locals to use rounds of the cheese for the famous Cooper’s Hill Cheese-Rolling event! Double Gloucester is a remarkably tasty cheese, made even more distinctive by the use of annatto extract to provide that famous colour, and it produces a flavour that is rich, nutty and even citrusy.
Gloucestershire Perry and Cider
Perry is a distinctively English drink, produced by fermenting the juice of pressed, local perry pears although a proportion of cider apple juice is also permitted, while cider is also a local speciality.
Gloucestershire ciders cover the full spectrum from sweet and medium sweet to dry and bitter, while the county’s perries, by contrast, have a soft, almost floral taste, and tend to be paler. Local cider and perry is made only from locally grown fruit, and along with Herefordshire and Worcestershire, the county is a major apple and pear growing centre.
Gloucestershire Squab Pie
There is a long tradition in many English counties of using scraps of food to make filling meals and Gloucestershire Squab Pie is a perfect example. The county has long been associated with the traditions of sheep farming, while woollen merchants paid for the building of many of Gloucestershire’s beautiful churches, so both lamb and mutton were a common source of meat in the county, and the desire to make the meat last led to this delicious recipe that involves using mutton or lamb leftovers and combining them with onions, potatoes, swedes and apples in a pastry case.
This local produced is not as famous as Double Gloucester, but Cerney Pyramid is a delightful modern English cheese produced only in the Cotswolds and deserving of national attention. The cheese is roughly similar to Valencay and is shaped into a pyramid, which is then coated with oak ash and sea salt. Produced using raw goat’s milk, Cerney Pyramid can be eaten after one or two weeks, and it has a fresh flavour and a mild, creamy texture that develops beautifully with age.
Despite the name, Hereford Hop is a cheese that is actually produced in Dymock in Gloucestershire. It was created in the late 1980s by Charles Martell, who also produces the famous Stinking Bishop (see below). This cheese is made using either raw or pasteurized cow’s milk and is easy to recognise as it is typically rolled in toasted hops. The resulting texture is both firm and creamy, and it has a strong, yeasty scent, as well as a slightly bitter aftertaste, thanks to the presence of the hops. It makes for a delightful pairing with a glass of ale and some rustic bread.
This soft, pungent cheese dates back to 1972 and is produced using the milk of the rare Gloucester breed of cow, although it is sometimes combined with the milk from Friesian cattle. The cheese rind is then washed with perry made from Stinking Bishop pears, which gives the cheese its strong smell and distinctive brown or pinkish colour. The cheese has a smooth and creamy texture with very strong aromas and strong flavours. It is perfect for spreading on crackers and had a burst of popularity back in 2005 when it was featured in the Wallace & Gromit move, The Curse of the Were-Rabbit.