The county of Leicestershire has long been one of the most important parts of England, lying at the heart of the East Midlands region, where cultural influences from the Saxons and the Danes to the Celts and the Romans have mingled.
The most populated part of Leicestershire is the valley of the River Soar, which cuts north across the county before joining the River Trent. But there is also a significant upland area to the east of the Soar valley, which gives rise to some spectacular views and scenic settings.
To the west you can find the beautiful Charnwood Forest, where some of Britain’s oldest rock formations are exposed, while the forest also borders on the famous Leicestershire coalfield, which was the site of some of the earliest developments in canal and rail transport that helped to fuel the Industrial Revolution, though the mining industry in this part of the world declined in the second half of the last century and was more or less exhausted by the 1980s.
There is considerable evidence, particularly from the Charnwood Forest area, showing that the county was inhabited for many centuries long before the arrival of the Celts. The area was later settled by the Romans, and the county capital of Leicester lies on the remains of a key Roman settlement.
The region was invaded by the Angles in the 6th century, and then became part of the Kingdom of Mercia until the arrival of the Danes, who settled the area and merged with the Anglo-Saxon population. Later the area was under the control of Norman nobles and various religious orders and in 1485 the county was the scene of one of the most important battles in English history, the Battle of Bosworth, that ended the Plantagenet era and saw the rise of the Tudors.
Leicestershire has mainly been associated with agriculture, and with pastoral and livestock production in particular. It has produced a variety of industries, but hosiery has always been of special importance. Framework knitting was introduced to the county in the 1640s, while in the Soar valley, which includes the towns of Leicester and Loughborough, both engineering and the manufacture of machinery have long been important sources of employment and wealth.
This combination of industries and the underlying rural nature of the county have bestowed Leicestershire with an abundance of popular and tasty local foods.
Melton Mowbray Pork Pies
If there is one dish that the county is best known for, it is the Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. One of the most famous food products in England, only pies that have been made within a designated location in or near the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray can carry the official name. Another requirement is that Melton Mowbray Pork Pies have to be made using uncured pork. If you’re wondering what the fuss is all about, try a genuine Melton Mowbray pie. They are made with a hand-formed crust and feature a much higher meat content than the typical pork pie you might find in a supermarket .
The main rival to the Melton Mowbray pork pie for distinctive Leicestershire product comes from the region’s most famous cheese product. Originally known as The Leicestershire Cheese, the name was altered to help people distinguish this food from the less popular White Leicester.
Its distinctive red colour came about thanks to the addition of vegetable dyes to the milk that was used to make the cheese in the 1700s, which helped it to stand out from the cheeses of surrounding counties. As with the county’s pork pies, true Red Leicester is a completely different product to the bland cheeses of that name found in some of the nation’s supermarkets.
As well as Red Leicester, the county also has a reputation for producing some of the most delicious Stiltons in England. In fact, Leicester has the honour of being one of only three counties officially allowed to produce this distinctive and famous cheese. This striking blue cheese is best enjoyed paired with crisp flavours such as pear or celery, but it is also delicious when crumbled into soup. And if you don’t fancy the original version, you can also find a white version of Stilton that is sometimes made with various fruits to produce tangy and delicious combinations.
Red Windsor cheese is another traditional English product, produced by the Long Clawson dairy in the Vale of Belvoir. Essentially a cheddar cheese, it is produced from cow’s milk but is then laced with either a red wine from Bordeaux or with a combination of port and brandy. The result is a visually striking marbled look, in addition to a lovely blend of flavours, with the richness of the fortified wine combining with the smooth creaminess of the cheese. Possessing a natural rind, Red Windsor has a firm and crumbly texture and is delicious when eaten with grapes and port.
If you’re looking for something local to wash down your cheese or pork pie, then a glass of Leicestershire Sloe Gin could be just the thing. The drink is made from the wild fruits that grow naturally throughout local hedgerows and is left to infuse for several months. Some of the most popular Sloe Gin is turned out by Two Birds in the town of Market Harborough. All of this producers’ spirits are made in small batches of 100 bottes and they offer a rich and refreshing tipple.
Another distinctive Leicestershire cheese that deserves a mention is the Huntsman. Made by Long Clawson Dairy, it is produced from two pasteurised cow’s milk cheeses: Double Gloucester and Stilton. The cheese itself is built like a layer cake with layers of Stilton complemented by Double Gloucester. The finished cheese looks hugely impressive on a cheeseboard and the contrasting textures and tastes create a delicious blend. Huntsman is dense yet creamy, with a sharp and salty edge and a dash of nuttiness. It makes for a versatile cheese that can either be sliced or added to salads, melted on hamburgers or steaks, or simply eaten with bread and grapes as a snack.
The Melton Cheeseboard
If you’re looking for a starting point in exploring the many fascinating cheeses of Leicestershire, the Melton Cheeseboard, a small shop in the heart of Melton Mowbray, is a good option.
The shop showcases over 150 varieties of cheese, including many local options, such as Stiltons from Long Clawson and Cropwell Bishop, Lincolnshire Poacher, Cote Hill Blue and many more. You will also find varieties from further afield including Bath Soft Cheese, Cornish Yarg, Five Mile Town Goats’ Cheese and Ribblesdale Superior.
The shop also stocks a healthy selection of Hambleton Bakery bread, award-winning pork pies from Leeson’s of Oakham, cured meats from Melton Charcuterie, gins from Burleighs Distillery, and yoghurt from Manor Farm of Thrussington. It is the perfect doorway onto the world of Leicestershire cuisine and well worth a visit if you’re in the area.