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The Fascinating Foods of Hertfordshire

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The Fascinating Foods of Hertfordshire

Those English counties that surround the metropolis of London can sometimes be overshadowed by the enormous cultural and economic influence exerted by the capital, but all of them can boast a rich and distinctive history, including the county of Hertfordshire, situated to the north west of London.

This is a county located in what is known as the London Basin and much of the area of Hertfordshire effectively drains south to the Thames River through the county’s two main rivers: the River Lea in the east and the River Colne in the west. Both rivers have carved out valleys that have been the setting for many settlements throughout history, including the early creation of water storage pits.  

Although the countryside of the county of Hertfordshire has been eaten away by the irresistible expansion of London, the scenery retains much of its gently rolling character and it also features some of the country’s most interesting archaeological history. There are a number of sites of historical interest in the county, including excavations dating from the Neolithic, the Bronze Age and the Belgic. Above all, the county was shaped in the early centuries by the Romans.

Many of the roads that the Romans built from London, including Ermine Street and Watling Street, went straight through the region and each was marked by a variety of important settlements, including St Albans, known as Verulamium by the Romans. The site was later developed by the Saxons for an important abbey, which was then rebuilt by the Normans and became St Albans cathedral.

Outside of the centre of St Albans, Hertfordshire developed in a familiar way that will be recognisable for anyone with a passing awareness of the southern English counties. The area was the base for a variety of country estates, which included Hatfield and Knebworth, as well as thriving towns Hertford and Hitchen, which were the bases for popular local markets.  

Although the county has always been a strongly agricultural region, Hertfordshire was not entirely able to resist the effects of modernisation and it saw some significant changes in the 20th century, most notably with the construction of two new cities: Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City, as well as four of the eight towns built around London at the end of the war. While this development continued, the transport links between London and Hertfordshire were growing rapidly, and as travelling became quicker and easier, Hertfordshire became a commuter hub.  

Like many rural and agricultural parts of England, the pandemic has impacted Hertfordshire significantly, but the resilience of Hertfordshire producers has been impressive and they will be a key factor in rebuilding after what has been a difficult eighteen months. The county of Hertfordshire has a long and proud history to draw upon and a distinctive variety of local foods.

Cure and Simple

The difficulties of the last few months have placed extra value on the ability to get your food delivered, and one local business in Hertfordshire has proved particularly popular. Located in Great Hormead, Cure and Simple are expert bacon and pork providers. Their pork is spiced with a host of home recipes and includes such mouth watering options as Black Treacle and Whisky Smoked.

All of their bacon is cured using traditional methods to produce streaky, back and steaks that require no additional water to make them bigger. The business operates on a club basis and can deliver your preferred bacon choices direct to your home.

Braughing Sausages

Hertfordshire’s long history of family food producers has not only provided valuable income for local communities, it has also produced some distinctive local food products.

A classic example is Braughing Sausages. This meat product was created in the early 1950s by the  butchers Douglas and Anna White. Their sausages proved to be so popular that they caught on throughout Braughing and East Hertfordshire and beyond the county. The recipe for Braughing Sausages remains a closely guarded secret, but apparently has not been altered since it was devised and even though the business is under new ownership, the sausages are still made in the old way.

Cream of Cucumber and Green Pea Soup

Bringing together cucumber and pea is not the most obvious option for soup, but in fact this dish was an extremely popular food with people in Hertfordshire at the start of the twentieth century, and in many ways it represents the proud agricultural tradition of the county and its farms and markets.

The recipe actually has its origins in a range of reforms made to the diet of those who lived in the county’s workhouses: notorious institutions set aside for the poor and homeless. In 1900, the Local Government Board reformed the diet of the workhouses, and in 1901, they published the first official workhouse cookery book, which included a range of new dishes for greater nutrition.

One of those dishes was pea soup, but individual workhouses were allowed to exercise some discretion over the addition of new ingredients, which is why cucumbers came to be added. Why cucumbers though? Well, Hertfordshire was one of England’s leading market garden centres and cucumbers were and remain a particular speciality. In fact, the county was famous for its fields of cucumbers and the crop is still a vital part of the agricultural economy of the Lea Valley. The combining of cucumber with green peas created a refreshing and nutritious soup that is still enjoyed in the county and across the south of England.

Pope Ladies

English cuisine is no stranger to unusual sweets, but few cakes are odder than the Pope Ladies of St Albans. These are sweet cakes that are distinctively flavoured with rose or almond water, and traditionally are made into the shape of human figures, complete with dark fruits for eyes.

The origins of the Pope Ladies are not clear, but in 1900, a Reverend Thomas Firminger Thiselton-Dyer suggested one possible source in his book British Popular Customs. He told the story of how a clock-tower light in the city led a wealthy lady and her servants to safety and out of gratitude, she paid the local monastery to make and produce cakes for the populace on the same day every year.

Another suggestion comes from the myth of Pope Joan. Legend has it that Joan was a woman who served as Pope for a number of years in medieval times, having posed as a man. The story has it that her true sex was revealed only when she gave birth and that the cake was made in honour of her.

Other suggestions include the idea that the dough cakes were originally eaten by Romans at their Saturnalia festival, while others maintain that they are a variant on the popular hot cross bun, yet made to resemble the Virgin Mary. Whatever the truth of their origin, Pope Ladies are a delicious sweet treat enjoyed throughout the county.

Veal Kidney Pie

England can offer many examples of offal-linked foods, and while these are not always popular with the modern consumer, you don’t have to go back far in history to find a time when they were enjoyed by people of all classes.

Veal kidneys are an unusual choice, but they are said to possess a rare and distinctive taste that includes more sweetness than you will find in the traditional kidneys used for pies. Veal kidney pie was often made with root vegetables such as turnips and potatoes, and as a result offered a rich and nutritiously valuable dish for agricultural workers and townsfolk alike.

Pork Plugger

Pork recipes are popular throughout England, but the Pork Plugger, although it has some similarities to the famous Clanger of the neighbouring county of Bedfordshire, is a distinctive Hertfordshire take on the always-popular combination of pork and pastry. The Pork Plugger is essentially a mixture of chopped bacon and onion that has first been steamed and then wrapped in a suet paste roll. It takes a while to prepare this dish, but as locals will tell you, it is well worth the wait! The Pork Plugger is particularly associated with Bishop Stortford, one of the county’s most important market towns.

Hasty Pudding

The Hasty Pudding is another dish from Hertfordshire that has a long and fascinating history. In fact there is evidence that a dish of the same name existed as far back as the 16th century. It was made using wheat flour that was first cooked either in water or boiling milk until it reached the consistency of porridge. The dish was remarkably versatile and it could be made with bread, eggs and sugar or with a blend of raisins, currants, butter and cream, and it was even famous enough to earn a mention in the first edition of Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary in 1755.

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