Kent has long been one of the most significant regions of England, and has played a major role in English history, agriculture and our food and drink.
The name of the county comes from the ancient Celtic tribe who once occupied the region from the River Thames down to the south coast. Their lands at one time included all of modern Kent along with parts of Surrey, Sussex and even London. To the Romans this tribe was the Cantii or Cantiaci.
Following the departure of the Romans, the county became one of the first to be settled by a new wave of invaders from Germany. The Angles occupied the west of the modern county, and the Jutes claimed the land to the east of the Medway. Kent was also later regarded as a key county by the Normans and they built a variety of castles and other buildings in the years after the Battle of Hastings. Kent was also considered an area of religious significance and the county featured two of the most famous cathedrals in England: Canterbury and Rochester.
Though a bustling centre of military, religious and trade activity, Kent has remained a remarkably beautiful county with an impressive diversity of scenery. In fact, thanks to its strong farming heritage, it has earned the title of Garden of England. It includes coastlines teeming with fish and oysters as well as hop farms, orchards and woods.
Thanks to its mild climate and minimal precipitation during the key growing seasons, Kent was long regarded as the ideal location for the introduction into England of Mediterranean and South American fruits, which first arrived in England during the 1600s. Some of the most popular fruits to flourish from this period were the Kentish Red and Morello Cherry, which were enthusiastically enjoyed by wealthy homes as a rich accompaniment to white meats such as duck and turkey. Kent was also at the forefront of the rise in popularity in fruity jams, some of which earned royal approval.
That farming tradition is still going strong. In fact, the county of Kent has been estimated to supply as much as 40% of England’s organic fruit and vegetables, as well as a large proportion of the hops that fuel microbreweries in Kent and throughout the country.
Cider making also continues to thrive in the county of Kent, and the region provides homegrown apples and pears to supermarkets and other providers throughout the country. And although it is sometimes overshadowed by the success of Kentish beer and cider, the county has a proud tradition of desserts, due in part to the combination of flourishing grain and fruit farms. Kentish food is both rich and homely and has given us some memorable English dishes:
The Canterbury Tart is a fulfilment of the produce of the flourishing orchards of Kent. It is a delicious apple tart made using grated apple and lemon filling, which is then further decorated with sliced apples. The tart has remained popular to this day, although its origins may date back as far as the fourteenth century, as it is said that the recipe for the Canterbury Tart was first written down by Geoffrey Chaucer, the famous author of the Canterbury Tales.
Whitstable Dredgerman’s Breakfast
Whitstable, on the north coast of Kent is home to a thriving fishing community, and has given rise to one of Kent’s most distinctive dishes. The seas off Whitstable were farmed by dredgermen, but the work was known to be tough, and to help them cope with the demands of their job, they often enjoyed a breakfast rich in protein, hence the Whitstable Dredgerman’s Breakfast.
This is a hearty and delicious combination of bacon and succulent local oysters served with thick bread. The oysters were caught locally, as they were a huge part of the Whitstable economy. In fact, these much sought after shellfish can only be found in the seas off this coastal town, and have been highly regarded ever since the Romans first began to harvest them. The Whitstable Oyster Company has been selling oysters since the 1400s, while every year, the Whitstable Oyster Festival is a colourful and memorable celebration enjoyed by locals.
Folkestone Pudding Pie
A good example of the rich tradition of desserts from Kent, the Folkestone Pudding Pie is a hearty and delicious pudding. It is also sometimes called Kentish Pudding Pie or Kent Lent Pie and there is room for plenty of variation in the way that it is made, but the essence of the pie usually remains the same. First a pie crust is used as the base for a rice pudding filling, then sultanas, currants, spices and lemon zest added to the filling and used as a topping for extra flavour.
As mentioned above, Kent is famous for its apple production and at one time, orchards covered vast swathes of the county, supplying huge quantities of the fruit to London and wider throughout England every year. To this day, the apple growing industry continues to thrive, and it makes a contribution to one of Kent’s most distinctive foods.
Kentish Rarebit is a version of Welsh Rarebit, that at one time was enjoyed by the fruit pickers who worked in the Kentish orchards. It is made using a mixture of melted cheese and sliced apple, which is then spread on bread and grilled. For an even more distinctively Kentish taste experience, Kentish Rarebit can be made with a Kentish Huffkin (see below).
Kentish cherry batter pudding
Another tasty dessert-time treat, the Cherry Batter Pudding has something in common with the well known French dessert, cherry clafoutis. The traditional Kentish Cherry Batter Pudding is made through the addition of cherries to a thick batter that leads to a dessert with a texture almost reminiscent of the Yorkshire pudding. This dessert has its origins in the abundance of cherries that resulted from the activity of tens of thousands of acres of cherry orchards created in the county at the order of King Henry VIII. There are fewer cherry orchards in Kent these days, but this delightful dessert is a tasty legacy of the heyday of the Kent cherry.
Ginger cobnut cake
Cobnuts are a distinctive cultivated version of the hazelnut and at one time they were extremely popular throughout the county. In fact, in 1913 it was estimated that there were more than 7,000 acres of cobnut orchards throughout the county. This recipe is one of the tastiest uses of the cobnut. It is a crumbly-textured dessert, with a nutty flavour that features roasted cobnuts, which helps to bring out their distinctive taste. A blast of ginger contributes both warmth and spice to this lovely dish.
Every region of England has its version of the humble read roll and Kent is no exception! Huffkins are soft rolls that are traditionally pressed with holes in their centre before the dough is cooked. The Huffkin slow-rise dough features a small amount of lard which helps to produce a fluffy crumb and a golden crust to the roll, which is traditionally wrapped in a cloth after baking to make sure that it doesn’t harden. Huffkins were sometimes eaten for tea with pitted cherries pressed into the hole and remain popular in Kent to this day.
Kentish strawberries are famous for being some of the best in England, as the fertile soil and temperate climate make for perfect growing conditions. One of the main producers of strawberries, the Hugh Lowe Farms in Mereworth, Kent, have been supplying strawberries to the Wimbledon Tennis Championships for more than 25 years: a competition that coincides with strawberry season and leads to around 35,000 kg of the fruit being consumed every year.
Biddenden is a village in Kent that is perhaps best known as the home of Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst, the conjoined twins who lived there for 34 years during the early 1100s. When they died, they left land known as the Bread and Cheese Lands, as a way to support the poor. The generosity of the Chulkhurst sisters is remembered in several ways, including the traditional Biddenden Cakes. These are hard biscuits that are made from flour and water in a mould that depicts the two sisters. Traditionally Biddenden Cakes are given to the poor in the area during Easter.