Located in the heart of England, the old county of Staffordshire incorporated much of the region of the Midlands that has become known as the Black Country, where the Industrial Revolution became most strongly established. Yet the county has a much longer history.
You can find traces of Neolithic and Bronze Age settlements in the area, most notably in the northeast of the county, where visitors are able to explore a number of fascinating Neolithic burial mounds. Among the most notable Iron Age hill forts in Staffordshire are Castle Ring, based on Cannock Chase and Bury Ring, which is close to Stafford.
Staffordshire was considered a vital region by the Romans who laid roads through the ancient forests that covered most of the county, and the meeting point of two of their most famous roads, Watling Street and Ryknield Street, was later the basis for city of Lichfield.
After the retreat of the Romans from England, the area became important politically as it became the heart of the Anglo Saxon kingdom of Mercia, and saw much fighting throughout the 10th and 11th centuries, as first the Anglo Saxons and the invading Danes fought for supremacy, and later when the Anglo Saxons rose up against their Norman occupiers.
But the later history of the county is built around industry. In fact, coal and iron were being mined on the River Trent and in the region of Cannock Chase as early as the thirteenth century, but it was not until the late eighteenth century that the region developed into an industrial powerhouse. This was the period when the pottery industry based in northern Staffordshire rose to considerable fame through the efforts of Josiah Wedgwood, while the brewing industry based in Burton upon Trent also developed rapidly.
Above all, the expanding network of canals and railways led to the development of the southern areas of the county, where coal mining, steel mills and other industrial sectors flourished throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, contributing to the wealth of England. The county has not fared as well since the 1970s, thanks to industrial decline, but has continued to reinvent itself.
Although Staffordshire is best known for its industrial heritage, it remains largely agricultural, with the dairy farming industry being particularly prominent. The north of the county has long been known for the replanting of trees, while the ingenuity and industry of Staffordshire has seen it find new ways to survive. This has included making the most of its heritage, particularly in the Potteries region, but there has also been a renewal of interest in Staffordshire cuisine. The traditional food of this county has something in common with the hearty dishes of other English regions, such as Lancashire, but with an added agricultural flavour.
The most famous of Staffordshire food exports, the oatcake is a delicacy that has been around for hundreds of years, but while the production of oatcakes is a tradition passed down through the generations in the county, the history of the dish is shrouded in mystery.
The Staffordshire Oatcake is an unassuming product, with an ordinary looking appearance and texture, but it packs a delicious punch. Originally popular among pottery workers, who needed a filling basis for their meals during their long and arduous working days, Staffordshire Oatcakes are an extremely versatile and popular food, that can be eaten on their own or combined with a variety of fillings or toppings, including jam or bacon and cheese.
The Midlands has long been regarded as one of the best places to brew beer, thanks to the distinctive qualities of the water in that region, which makes it possible to produce some of the best IPAs and milds that you will find. Within the Midlands, the heart of the brewing industry was Burton-on-Trent, which is perfectly situated just an hour’s drive south of the spa town of Buxton, which is famous for its pure drinking water. This town has long been a thriving beer makers paradise, and is home to some of the oldest recognised beers, such as Bass Pale Ale, which was created by William Bass in 1777. Thanks to the beer makers of Burton-on-Trent, Staffordshire’s place in the pantheon of great English beer is secure.
Life for those who were employed in the pottery industry in the Victorian era was tough, and popular foods of the time were based on the principle of making the most of what was available. This tradition led to the development of a distinctive Staffordshire dish known as Lobby. Made from the leftovers of meals such as Sunday roasts, Lobby was essentially a form of stew, that used cattle or poultry bones for flavour.
As most families could only afford the cheaper offal and cuts of meat available at local butchers, these formed the basis of the stew, and on occasion the dish was also enlivened with a splash of ale. Those who were lucky enough to have a little land of their own on which to grow vegetables, could throw in some fresh carrots or potatoes to add to the mix. Lobby also became popular after the Second World War, when the easing of austerity in the 1950s led to a revival of the dish, this time with the addition of better cuts of beef, Marmite and pearl barley.
One of England’s most famous food products, and a staple of the Ploughman’s lunch and of countless packed lunches and picnics, Branston Pickle production started in the east Staffordshire town of Branston, during the 1920s.
The key ingredient in many a cheddar cheese sandwich or welsh rarebit, Branston Pickle was created in 1922, and consists of a unique mixture of cauliflower, carrots and swedes, all of which are grown locally, and which are further enhanced with the addition of tomatoes and spices, according to a closely guarded secret recipe. The result is one of the most enduring preserves in England.
A recipe that was popular in the southern part of Staffordshire, later known as the Black Country, Groaty Dick is a strange but tasty concoction, resembling a savoury porridge. It is made from beef, onions, leek and pinhead oats, along with some fried bacon. The whole mixture is covered with stock and cooked for several hours. It was traditionally served with boiled potatoes or bread and makes for a tasty and filling meal on a cold winter’s day.
Staffordshire Yeomanry Pudding
The Staffordshire Yeomanry was a unit that was originally part of the Queen’s Own Regiment, existing from 1794 until 1973, when it was amalgamated with the Queen’s Own Mercian Yeomanry.
It is believed the recipe for Staffordshire Yeomanry Pudding was first developed at the height of the Boer War, when wives would try to provide a luxurious welcome-home spread for their returning husbands, with as many cakes as they could provide. The Staffordshire Yeomanry Pudding is essentially an egg custard tart, which consists of egg custard layered onto jam, encased within pastry, and it has proven to be a popular dessert throughout the county and nationwide to this day.
The region’s strong dairy farming industry has led to the development of many forms of dairy product, and Staffordshire has the distinction of being one of a few English food products that has gained EU protected status, alongside Cornish Pasties and Newcastle Brown Ale.
There is a long and proud tradition of cheese making in the county of Staffordshire, dating back over 700 years, to a time when the moorlands of the north of the county, most notably in the region of Leek, were home to a thriving religious community of monks. Staffordshire Cheese is noted for its pale appearance and creamy texture, as well as a strong, mature flavour, and its unique taste is almost certainly down to the lush moorland habitat on which the local cattle are allowed to graze.