Few English counties have been as significant in the history of the nation as the county of Sussex, which has been the site of so many invasions and attempted invasions, with the most famous of all, in 1066, being one of the most momentous events in English history.
The importance of Sussex to England is underlined by the history of the Paleolithic settlements marked by a range of materials found in raised beaches in the region of Slindon and in the river sediment near Pulborough. The county was once home to primitive agricultural communities which endured from the Neolithic era right up to the time of the Romans, particularly on the higher chalk hills, with Whitehawk Hill near the coastal city of Brighton being a particularly notable example.
Sussex can also boast its share of Bronze Age history, including the distinctive round burial mounds which are known as bell barrows and which can be found in sites in the area of Treyford and Worthing, while there are also many Iron Age hill forts near Goodwood, Cissbury, and Lewes. It seems that both timber supplies and iron-ore deposits were the motivation for many of the early settlements, and as the local economy and society grew, Sussex later became an important base of operations for Celtic chieftains, including Cogibdubnus, who was later rewarded by the Romans, with whom he made an alliance, with a kingdom based around Chichester.
After the departure of the Romans, Saxon invaders were the next to arrive in England, coming ashore near Selsey and fighting their way eastward across the region in the 5th century. These South Saxons, from whose name the county title is derived, were later conquered by the neighbouring kingdom of Wessex, but six hundred years later, in 1066, the Anglo Saxon era was ended by the dramatic events of that year, culminating in the arrival of William of Normandy, who fought what is arguably the most important battle in English history, at Hastings following his landing at Pevensey.
Subsequently, the Normans built numerous abbeys and castles in Sussex, including Arundel and Pevensey Castle, and the county flourished with many towns including Chichester, Lewes, Hastings and Rye becoming wealthy, and that trade growth was boosted by the iron industry of the Weald which also flourished. Sussex was largely left untouched by the Industrial Revolution, but in recent centuries, the county’s growth has been driven by coastal development, particularly with tourism, and the resort towns of Bognor Regis, Eastbourne, Worthing and Bexhill have thrived.
This fascinating and distinctive history has given rise to a unique range of local foods, many of them dating from the earliest period of English history. Here is a selection of the best of Sussex cuisine.
The word churdle apparently means pie and it is believed that this derived from the phrase ‘to churn’. The Churdle is a hearty pie that is usually filled with liver and bacon and that was regarded as the ideal lunch for agricultural workers who often needed something nutritious to keep them going throughout a hard day’s work in the fields.
The dish may date back as far as the seventeenth century, and it is made with hot-water crust pastry, which is derived from strong flour. The pie itself is filled up with a distinctive mixture of chopped, lightly cooked liver, bacon, and herbs, and is often supplemented with the addition of apple or mushrooms.
The filling is then placed in a circle of pastry and the sides are pulled up around it and pinched together, before they are topped with a mixture of grated cheese and breadcrumbs. The dish is then allowed to rest in the fridge for a couple of hours and in some versions, overnight, before it is baked and can then be enjoyed hot or cold.
Sussex Bacon Pudding
Sussex Bacon Pudding is another of the county’s hearty traditional local dishes that is believed to date all the way back to the Anglo-Saxon period. The dish is made up of a tasty combination of bacon, onions, sliced apple and a rich, smoky gravy, all of which is encased in a suet crust. Historically, this dish was served along with cabbage as a meal that would keep the agricultural workers of the county warm during the long winter, as it brought together a number of cheap but homely ingredients in a single filling dish that would provide both sustenance and warmth.
There are a number of local variations on the hotpot throughout England, and Sussex also has its own take on the dish, which is named after the town of Chiddingly. Tradition has it that the dish was first created there in 1917, by a man named Edward Shoosmith, and this country dish has continued to be a favourite with diners in the county and the wider south coast region. Essentially, this is a luxurious stew, made out of a combination of cubed beef, sliced potato, celery, olives and spices, which is finally topped with potato slices and then baked.
Sussex Pond Pudding
Every English county has its take on the English dessert tradition and Sussex is no exception. The Sussex Pond Pudding is an extremely unusual steamed or boiled pudding that is made from a rich suet pastry filled with a combination of brown sugar, butter, and a whole lemon.
As the pudding cooks in the oven, the lemon softens and adds its sharp flavour to the butter and sugar which then form a sharp sauce that drizzles from the pudding when it is cut open. Often served at the end of a Sunday lunch, the Sussex Pond Pudding combines a hearty and filling texture with the sharp taste of the lemon for a memorable and delicious dessert treat.
Steak and Kidney Pie
This satisfying and comforting dish is among the most famous of British foods, featuring beef steak and kidneys cooked inside a flaky, buttery pastry shell, and Sussex has a strong claim to be the place where it originated. It was first recorded in 1861, in the famous Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton, and was attributed at the time to a Sussex local.
Originally prepared with a suet pastry, these days the steak and kidney pie is usually produced with butter pastry, and using beef, lamb, or pork kidneys. The combination of soft beef meat, earthy-flavoured kidneys, and rich gravy inside the delicate pastry case have made this pie one of the favourite traditional English delicacies enjoyed throughout the country and overseas.
Sussex is not as well known as other counties when it comes to cheese making, but this is a pity because you can find some delicious examples of this dairy craft in the county. Sussex Slipcote is a particularly popular type of soft fresh cheese that is available in a variety of flavours, while Sussex Charmer, which has a similar texture to cheddar, also has its fans. The most successful Sussex cheese is probably St Giles. This is a mild and creamy cheese with a distinctive edible orange rind. Produced by the High Weald Dairy, it made the top five at the 2009 World Cheese Awards.
Sussex Plum Heavy
Sussex Plum Heavies were originally made using plain flour, which presumably gave rise to the name, and are essentially a form of scone that was once popular with shepherds, farmers and woodmen. The original version of the Heavy may have employed prunes, and sour milk was also sometimes used, although these days, the main addition to the basic mix is likely to be currants.
Banoffee pie is a relatively modern English dessert concocted from cream, bananas, and toffee on top of a pastry shell or a base made from crumbled biscuits. The name of the dish is a simple combination of the words banana and toffee, and it was created in the 1970s at the Hungry Monk restaurant in East Sussex, by Nigel Mackenzie and Ian Dowding. The dish soon became extremely popular with their regular customers, and that popularity spread throughout the country and the world.