Birmingham is officially the UK’s second city, and its position at the heart of England has made it a bustling hub for trade, industry and culture throughout the centuries.
The original village of Birmingham gained its first market charter in 1166, but it wasn’t until the 14th century that it became known as a settlement of any significance. Its lack of river transport had cut it off from maritime contact, which was an important driver for growth in the medieval period, and this delayed the growth of Birmingham from a small manufacturing town to a large city until towards the end of the 18th century.
The Industrial Revolution changed Birmingham’s fortunes dramatically. Although the revolution had begun to the west, in Ironbridge, Shropshire and then the Black Country, it was Birmingham that was to become the heart of England’s industrial growth. It’s population grew from 15,000 in the late 17th century to 70,000 a century later. The city itself established flourishing metal and gun-making trades alongside a thriving jewellery business, but it was also a place where great minds could meet.
The engineers James Watt (who invented the steam engine) and Matthew Boulton along with steam engine development pioneer, William Murdock, lived in Birmingham, along with the chemist Joseph Priestley and printer John Baskerville. Their inventions and ideas helped to drive Birmingham’s growth, while Boulton’s Soho Manufactory, which was most notable for developing the steam engine for industrial use, became famous throughout Europe.
Like many industrial areas, Birmingham was slow to earn Parliamentary recognition, and wasn’t able to send MPs to the House of Commons until the Reform Act of 1832. In 1838, the city was incorporated and in the same year, rail links to Liverpool and London were completed.
Another important stage in Birmingham’s history came during the term of Mayor of rich local industrialist Joseph Chamberlain. He took over in 1873 and in a three year spell, he launched many important reforms, including schemes for redeveloping the city centre.
The city subsequently became a pioneer in a variety of new initiatives, including town-planning schemes, one-way-traffic experiments and municipal airports. The effects of the Second World War left Birmingham devastated, but over the years, the ruins and the remaining slums were removed and replaced with tall blocks of apartments and office buildings. A new inner ring road system, a rebuilt central train station, and new shopping and commercial hubs helped to transform the city.
To this day, Birmingham remains the chief centre of England’s light and medium industry and has been described as “the city of 1,001 different trades.” The key to its economic success has always been the diversity of its industrial base, though in recent years, the city has also developed as a financial and service industry hub, as well as strengthening its cultural credentials.
Birmingham has developed a distinctive range of dishes that reflect the dramatic changes that have swept over the city, and these deserve to be recognised today.
Pikelets are an extremely popular snack in Birmingham, where they can serve as a pick-me-up when getting home from work or a fast and tasty breakfast.
A pikelet and a crumpet are actually two different things, locals use the word pikelets for both. Bakery experts say that the thick, spongy versions, made inside metal rings and with lots of holes in the top are crumpets, while the thinner type, produced by just dropping the batter straight into the pan are pikelets. Yeast in the dough causes the bubbles in crumpets, while ‘true’ pikelets have no bubbles, but both are enjoyed throughout Birmingham and the Black Country.
Arguably the most famous Birmingham dish, the Balti is a form of curry cooked and served in a two-handled steel bowl, which almost always comes with an accompaniment of naan bread to scoop up the spicy contents. The dish was invented by Mohammed Arif at his restaurant, Adil’s, using what he described as an exotic collection of herbs and spices distinctively blended in the style of Northern Kashmir. The Balti proved to be so popular that a number of Indian restaurants opened in the same part of the city, a region now known as the Balti Triangle.
Bad harvests in the late 18th century led to a food shortage and industrial pioneer Matthew Boulton, who lived at Soho House in Handsworth, created a nutritious broth for his starving workers, made with stewed beef and vegetables and served up with a slice of bread. Modern versions are more upmarket and take longer to prepare, often served with pikelets and foie gras butter.
Brummie Bacon Cakes
These distinctive snacks are effectively savoury scones that have had cheese and crispy bacon added. Tomato ketchup and Worcestershire sauce combined with milk are also often used to give an extra tanginess. This Birmingham recipe, which was apparently rediscovered in an old Women’s Institute cookery book, can be eaten hot or cold, either sliced in half and spread with butter, or served up for for breakfast with fried eggs and tomatoes.
Lambswool is a sweet, spicy punch with baked apples that was drunk in other areas, but was particularly popular in Birmingham. The name is said to derive from an ancient Celtic celebration known as La Mas Ubhal, the Day of the Apple, which was a November ritual held under the oldest fruit tree in the orchard, though it could also be linked to Lammas, the old Saxon word for the harvest festival. The drink is also known as wassail and was part of the Christmas custom of wassailing, when people sang songs and offered the drink in exchange for gifts.
Originally, the drink was made with ale, rather than cider, as well as baked apple, nutmeg, ginger and brown sugar. The drink was also associated with St Clement’s Day, which was a Christian festival on November 23 for the patron saint of blacksmiths.
On Mother’s Day, many local workers and staff were given a day off and would visit their mothers with a Simnel cake, which was a light fruit cake topped with balls of marzipan. In return they were treated to a bowl of frumenty, one of the oldest known dishes in England. Frumentum is latin for ‘grain’ and this meal consisted of a porridge of boiled wheat with various other ingredients, including milk, sugar, eggs, almonds, currants and plums, making for a glorious dish of comfort food.
These savoury pub snacks were likely first created in Birmingham and the Black Country, when working class families would keep pigs, and they date back to the times when no part of the pig was wasted. These highly-salted, deep-fried pig-skin snacks are not exactly a health food, but their taste and texure make them irresistible snacks with a pint or two.
Bread and Dripping
No working class Birmingham childhood was complete without the delight of a piece of white bread that was dipped in the Sunday roast meat pan before being sprinkled with salt and pepper. Bread spread with dripping (beef fat collected from the roasting tray and chilled in the fridge) has been a staple food since it began to be popular during the period of wartime rationing. The food fell out of favour during the 1970s and 1980s, but it is making something of a comeback in the 20th century.