A to Z Recipes

by Marion Watson

Corfe castleA while ago I wrote about Wiltshire, my native county, but for over twenty years I have lived in beautiful Dorset. It has a magnificent coastline, with high chalk cliffs and lovely beaches. It has the second-largest harbour in the world at Poole and inland the countryside is luscious and abundant with wild flowers. There are picturesque villages hidden away between folds in the hills, with ancient churches and many houses with thatched roofs and there are historic towns such as Sherborne, Shaftesbury Dorchester, Bridport, Wimborne, Corfe Castle (pictured left) and Blandford.

The food of Dorset reflects its coastline and rich dairy pastureland, although in times past it was not plentiful for everyone. In the last century Dorset’s farm labourers had the lowest wages in the country and it was from here that the Tolpuddle Martyrs were deported for daring to hold a meeting with the object of forming a trade union. There was little industry in the county apart from agriculture and fishing although Portland stone was being shipped to London for the magnificent building work being done there. Button-making had been a thriving cottage industry until the introduction of machinery to do the job at the Great Exhibition of 1851, after which the trade vanished almost overnight. Rook pie was a favourite cheap dish for low-paid labourers and if there was any meat at all it had to be eked out with plenty of root vegetables and dumplings. Rabbits made tasty casseroles and pies. As well as the wild variety tame ones were bred for meat. The hedgerow was raided for extra food, blackberries, crab-apples and sloes and from the edges of the fields sorrel could be gathered to be served as a vegetable, made into soups or pureed to go with poultry or meat. Sea cliffs provided sea kale and samphire and the root of sea holly was candied to make a sweet which was considered an aphrodisiac. The chalk streams provided ideal growing conditions for wild watercress and it has been grown commercially here since the last century when it was sent by rail to major cities. It is still grown at Spetisbury although now it is transported by road. Watercress makes delicious soup.

Talking of soup, lettuce soup is traditional in Dorset and is a good way of using up a glut of lettuces in the summer. It has a light, delicate flavour, not unlike asparagus.

And did you know that Dorset was the first county in England to cultivate cabbages? Sir Anthony Ashley of Wimborne St Giles introduced a type of cabbage from Holland to his estate. His effigy in the village church has something resembling a cabbage at his feet. So there are early recipes for cabbage soup too. Almond soup is a variation on the chicken noodle theme whilst summer Green Pea Soup was made with garden peas, the pods put in the stock, and the winter variety was made with dried peas and flavoured with bacon.

Today there is a thriving tourist industry in Dorset and we have our share of fast foods, franchises and international cuisine - Bournemouth University has a large catering and hotel management department. But there are still plenty of local specialities if you know where to look.

Quays along the coast have stalls selling freshly-caught fish such as haddock, red and grey mullet, mackerel, turbot and sea bream. They also supply local crabs and shellfish such as scallops. Unfortunately most of the lobsters are exported to France. Haddock makes a very good casserole, cooked with tomatoes and mushrooms and topped with breadcrumbs and cheese. Red Mullet can be covered in melted butter, sprinkled with lemon juice and herbs and baked to bring out its full flavour. Mackerel is so delicious that it is best cooked as simply as possible, some people serve it with a gooseberry sauce and it is very good baked in cider, but however it is cooked the quicker it gets from sea to pan the better the flavour.

The mild climate means that Dorset sheep can lamb early so they are ready for market before most other parts of the country. The Dorset Horn is famous for its tender meat as well as its woolly coat. Lambs tails were traditionally made into pies. Dorset Lamb Crumble is a good way to use up left-over roast meat. Long Puddle Lamb is a casserole containing Worcestershire sauce to enhance the flavour. The word "Puddle" is found as part of the name of many Dorset villages, such as Puddletown and Tolpuddle. The River Piddle runs through the county but the Victorians thought the name rather vulgar and so they changed it to "Puddle", although the original still exists in such names as Piddlehinton and Piddletrenthide There is even a Piddle Bacon Cake although the Victorians renamed it Puddle Bacon Cake.

Beef cattle too thrive on the rich, inland pastures. A traditional way of cooking beef is Dorset Jugged Steak which was often prepared when the fair came to town since it could be made in advance and would not spoil if it had to wait for the merry-makers to come home. Forcemeat balls are added at the last minute. Hare can be prepared in the same way. Beef Olives is a very old recipe, thin slices of steak rolled around stuffing. They are sometimes served on the Swanage Steam Railway’s special "Wine and Dine" evenings. Venison was part of the meat supply in earlier times and it has made a comeback and is available at many butchers shops, either as joints, diced for casseroles or made into sausages. As in Wiltshire the pig was an important part of the rural cottage economy. Dorset Sausage is a misnomer because it is really a meat loaf. Made a day in advance and left to chill it is ideal for slicing and taking on a picnic, served as a starter with toast or as a substantial supper dish with a salad.

Blueberries are grown on a commercial scale and sent all over the country. They are delicious in muffins, ice-cream, fruit salads or cheesecakes.

Another fruit used in a traditional dish is the gooseberry which goes into Blandford Pudding. Blandford is a delightful market town and is unique in that it was completely rebuilt in the eighteenth century after a disastrous fire so has a uniformity of style. Apples can be substituted for gooseberries if desired. This leads me on to another favourite traditional dish, the Dorset Apple Cake. As with Cornish Pasties everyone has their own favourite recipe. Having judged a class of apple cakes at a local show, where no single recipe had been specified, I was amazed at the variety which confronted me. However most of the traditional recipes are based on the rubbed-in method mixed with milk to give a rather scone-like mixture and most use diced cooking apples. Some add spices, eggs or butter. William Barnes the celebrated Dorset poet who wrote in the local dialect refers to a cake baking on the fire:

Another way with apples was Frumenty. This was often sold at travelling fairs and it was ‘Furmity’ with added rum which eaten by Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge. Another traditional dish is the Sweetheart Cake traditionally eaten on Midsummer’s Eve. Blackmoor Vale (Hardy’s "Vale of the Little Dairies") has its cake which is half-way between a rich fruit cake and a gingerbread; whilst Dorset’s highest cliffs, The Golden Cap near Seatown has a pudding named after it, a steamed one flavoured with marmalade and the rind and juice of an orange. With plenty of milk it was often made into Junket, a delicious, refreshing dish for a warm summer’s day although skill is required to make sure that the milk is just warm and the mixture should not be chilled until it has been thickened by the rennet.

Another product which people from other parts of the country may have heard of is Dorset Blue Vinny. This was a very firm, white cheese said to have been made in the county for centuries using partly-skimmed cow’s milk. It was marbled with veins of blue mound. The word vinny comes from the Old English fyne, meaning mould. Legend has it that this mould was encouraged by immersing bacteria-rich old harnesses or shoes in the milk. The cheese almost disappeared but made a comeback in a more hygienic form as Dorset Blue. It is now being marketed again as Blue Vinny although some enthusiasts think that it bears little relation to the original cheese.

It is, however delicious eaten with another speciality, Dorset Knobs. These are light, crisp roll-shaped biscuits produced by Moores of Morecombelake. They are shaped by band, baked at a high temperature then left in a low oven until they are completely dried out, giving them a very good shelf life. About the size of a golf ball, they have a rusk-like texture and can be spread with butter, or eaten with cheese or soup. Some people even dip them in their tea.

Of course all this lush pasture produces creamy milk and Dorset Cream Teas rival those of Devon and Cornwall with thick clotted cream and strawberry jam. Debate rages about whether one should put the cream on the scone first and top it with jam, or vice versa. Some really dedicated cream-tea eaters put cream on first, then jam and then more cream. Some even spread with butter before starting on the cream. But whichever way you eat it the cream should be plentiful. Sadly some tea shops, in an effort to make maximum profit, are giving very mean portions and charging an exorbitant price for this poor offering. Having got fed up with this rip-off I have taken to doing my own cream teas for visitors. A lavish spread can be prepared for less than a pound a head. So, whilst some tea shops provide an excellent spread, (treasure them when you find them), why spend over three pounds a head for an inferior one when one can easily be prepared. Scones are quick and simple to make, Clotted Cream can be bought from the milkman or supermarket and with so many Pick-Your-Own farms in the area it is easy to make your own strawberry jam too.