The north of England is arguably defined by the twin dominant counties of Lancashire and Yorkshire, occupying either side of the Pennines, apparently great rivals, yet sharing many aspects that have defined England throughout the centuries.
Lancashire can claim to be both one of the most notable of English counties, yet also one of the youngest of the historical county areas. In fact, at the time of the Domesday Book, compiled on the orders of William the Conqueror in 1086, Lancashire wasn’t even mentioned.
This had changed by the end of the 12th century, by which point there was a clearly recognisable county of Lancashire, and the region has gone on to become one of the most important parts of England, most notably for its rich industrial and cultural heritage.
The area that we know as Lancashire was originally occupied by the Brigantine tribes of Celts, and at one time, during which it also included the settlements of Manchester and Liverpool, it was one of the biggest counties in England. It also became one of the most significant parts of the country when the third Duke of Lancashire, Henry Bolingbroke, seized the English throne in 1399, becoming Henry IV. In the period that followed, the red rose symbol of Lancashire was opposed to the white rose of Yorkshire in that bloody passage of English history known as the War of the Roses.
Always associated with trade, Lancashire dramatically increased its power and wealth during the first half of the industrial revolution, when the towns and cities located in the south of the county became thriving hubs of industry, most notably thanks to the thriving cotton trade, but also due to the extensive sea-going links that had always made the region a trading hub, an aspect of the county’s history that grew rapidly after the opening of the Manchester Ship Canal in 1894.
By the second half of the 20th century, Lancashire had become the most populous geographical county in England. Parts of the county were hit hard by the decline in heavy industry that characterised this period, but in the 21st century, many areas have been rejuvenated with new industries and with a greater recognition of the cultural heritage of the urban areas, particularly around Manchester, which rivals Liverpool in its musical history.
The county has always been a remarkably diverse melting pot of influences, with its ports bringing goods, people and ideas from all over the world, while at the same time, Irish, Scottish and Welsh immigrants have brought their own cultural influences to enrich the area.
The result has been a rich and thriving tradition in the areas of art, music and food. The gastronomic delights of Lancashire obviously owe a great deal to the industrial heritage of the county, as well as to the northern regions, whose contributions in terms of livestock and fishing are distinct. The result is a range of distinctively Lancastrian dishes and food products capable of satisfying any taste. Here are some of the best for your consideration:
This may not sound like a particularly healthy dish, but you shouldn’t take the name too literally! The butter pie is popular throughout the county of Lancashire, but particularly around Chorley and Preston. It is actually made from thin-sliced potato, onions and butter along with a pinch of black pepper and is wrapped in a pastry case. As is the case with another famous Lancashire dish, hotpot, butter pie is often served along with a side of pickled red cabbage.
The origins of the butter pie are not entirely clear, but it is possible that it may have been created by the county’s large Catholic population. There is a centuries-old tradition of abstaining from eating red meat every Friday, so local Catholics would be seeking alternative dishes by the end of the week. This tradition may have given us the fish supper and could also have produced the Butter Pie, which for obvious reasons was sometimes known as the Catholic Pie or the Friday Pie.
Perhaps one of the most famous dishes in Lancashire, in fact, one of England’s most distinctive contributions to culinary diversity, is the Lancashire hotpot. The ingredients for this hearty dish are simple. It is made up of lamb or mutton, onions and potatoes, but the combination makes for a warming and wholesome product. The dish originated in Lancashire, and not surprisingly, got its name from the pot that it is traditionally cooked in.
Different regions of the county will add other vegetables, such as carrots or leeks, but the key similarity in all these varieties is the thin slicing of potatoes that go over the top of the meat and onions. The result is a wonderfully tasty dish that is perfect for cold winter nights.
The Eccles cake, you won’t be surprised to discover, earned its name from the town of Eccles. It is a sweet cake, that is made from crumbly pastry and usually filled with currants or raisins, although sometimes other types of dried fruit are used. Although the origins of the Eccles cake remain unfortunately obscure, we do know that a man named James Birch was the first to put the cakes on sale, back in 1793, and they have proved hugely popular ever since. Eccles cakes are easy to make, and extremely tasty, and make for an ideal snack at tea time or as part of a picnic lunch.
Another traditional Lancashire dish, this developed from the availability of large quantities of black peas, traditionally eaten on or around Bonfire Night. This tasty recipe uses the purple podded peas that are usually left to dry on the pea plant. Once shrivelled up, the peas are then picked and packaged, before being left to soak. They can then be cooked and the result is a dish that has some similarities to mushy peas and is usually served with a simple dressing of salt and malt vinegar.
Lancashire cuisine has plenty to offer if you have a sweet tooth and the Manchester Tart is a particularly tasty example of the Lancashire fondness for confectionary. It is believed that they were invented during the Victorian era and have a distinctive appearance. Manchester Tarts are made from shortcrust pastry, to which is added a custard filling, followed by raspberry jam, coconut flakes and a Maraschino cherry, though there are other variations, including one that uses cream, that have proven equally popular. A tasty tea-time treat, they are quite messy to eat, so are best served formally.
Among the stranger traditions of England that have found their way into our cuisine is the Courting Cake. A Courting Cake is a sponge cake, though it usually has a firmer texture than a standard Victoria sponge and is quite similar to a shortbread texture. It was usually filled with strawberries and cream and then presented by a woman to her fiancé, as a token of their love. Courting Cake proved to be a big success and is still eaten today, and the good news is that you don’t need to be engaged to the baker to get your hands on a slice!
Morecombe Bay Shrimp
Morecambe Bay Shrimp are distinctively small, brown shrimp, that have a striking colouring, and a mild, almost sweet taste. They are caught in amongst the shallow waters, sands and mud flats of Morecambe Bay on the Lancashire coast. Sometimes they can be bought already cooked in the shell, but they are most often sold ‘potted’ which means they are boiled in sea water, shelled and then preserved in spiced, clarified butter. Usually they are served cold with thin toast.
The history of shrimping in Morecambe Bay goes all the way back to the 18th century, but the technique of preserving the shrimp in this way for sea journeys is said to date from Tudor times. The shrimping industry grew in the 19th century as the new railways enabled the product to be distributed around the country, and Morecambe Bay shrimps enjoyed another boost in popularity in the early 1930’s when they became fashionable with wealthy London diners.