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by Anne Epicure


This modern county, in existence since 1974 consists of the old county of Cumberland, parts of Lancashire and Westmorland (which no longer exists as an administrative county). It is famous for containing the Lake District - an area of outstanding natural superb beauty and a National Park.

Blea Water, Cumbria

Much of Cumbrian cooking is based on dishes suitable for a hard-working community living in a bracing climate. Simple, cheap and tasty meals were designed to feed hearty appetites and keep working families well fed for the least possible cost

Meat and Meat Products
The most famous dish from the county is probably the Cumberland Sausage, a special sausage sold coiled up and bought by length rather than weight. They can be up to four feet long. Cumberland hams, although hard to come by, are also worth looking out for. They are dry-cured, salted and rubbed with brown sugar. They are usually sold unsmoked.

Huge numbers of sheep are reared on the hill farms and moorlands of Cumbria. The sheep population of Cumbria is around three million. Hardy breeds are favoured, which can withstand the cold winds and bitter winters. The North Country Mule is a cross breed common in Cumbria. Sheep produce their lambs in spring and the youngest tenderest meat is available from June to August. Lambs born later do not reach the shops until further on in the year and have a more mature flavour. Mutton, the meat of a fully grown sheep, once staple fare throughout the country but no longer produced in any quantity, can still occasionally be bought in the Lake District, where it comes from Herdwick sheep. Many regional dishes use lamb. Shepherd's Pie is one national favourite that originated in the North.

The hard life of the North meant that Northerners developed a thrifty approach to food that still exists today. No part of the animal was wasted and butchers' stalls are arrayed with all kinds of offal that are seldom, if ever, found further south.

The wild moors and mountains are home to all sorts of game. Derwentwater duck is delicious served with piquant Cumberland sauce.

Food from the Dairy
On the lower fields of Cumbria, dairy cattle are kept in large numbers. Butter production is important in the county. Cumberland rum butter is a delicious local speciality of butter flavoured with rum, Barbados sugar and spices. It was traditionally served to celebrate the birth of a baby, and coins were placed in the empty butter bowl, where they stuck to the remains, to ensure a happy and prosperous life for the newborn.

Goats and sheep are widely farmed for their milk too. This milk is being increasingly used for yogurts and cheeses.

Fish from Sea, River and Lake
The tradition of fishing is well-established in Cumbria. A tasty herring recipe for fish stuffed and served with mustard sauce comes from Cumbria. Freshwater fish, such as trout and salmon, inhabit the Lakes and many of the rivers that flow down to the sea from the Pennines and Cheviots. One particular method of fishing still survives in parts of the northwest, where an enormous net called a "heave" or "haaf" is used. The nets can be as much as 18 feet wide and the fishermen have to stand in the water rather than on the bank to handle them effectively. Fish farming is a growing business, with trout being the most commonly produced variety.

An unusual freshwater fish which is found in the deep waters of the Lake District is the char. A relative of the salmon, char was left behind in the inland lakes after the glacial waters of the Ice Age receded. The fish has a delicate flavour and pink-tinged flesh, and was generally served in pies or potted. Char are caught with long lines, which plunge deep into the waters, weighted by bright metal spinners made of bronze, copper or even silver. It is sometimes possible to buy these fish locally.

Delicious Damsons
The climate of the North is generally unsuitable for fruit growing, although damsons, known locally as witherslacks, are grown around Lake Windermere. The damson is a type of plum, much smaller than the standard cultivated plums and quite sour.

These fruits have a tart flavour, but can be used very successfully in cooking, in dishes such as Damson and Apple Tansy. Originally the Tansy would have included the herb tansy which has a bitter-sweet flavour. The name "Tansy" is given to a number of egg-based puddings.

All Sorts of Sweet Things ...
Comforting cakes to cheer up chilly afternoons are a speciality all over the North of England. Kendal Mint Cake from the Lake District is not a cake at all but a peppermint flavoured sweet, which is said to be very sustaining and ideal for climbers and walkers trekking across the hills.

Gingerbread is popular all over the North and perhaps the most famous comes from the Lake District village of Grasmere. The Grasmere Gingerbread Shop still exists and the cake is baked on the premises. It has been made to Sarah Nelson’s secret recipe since 1855.

Rum features as a flavouring in many Lake District dishes, because the liquor was brought over in ships from the West Indies during the 18th century. Cumberland Rum Nicky is a traditional dessert from the area, which is like a mince pie flavoured with rum.

One of Westmorland's most famous "bakes" was the Westmorland Pepper Cake. The pepper adds an unusual spiciness to what would otherwise be a fairly ordinary fruitcake.