A to Z Recipes

by Marion Watson

It is known as the ‘Garden of England’ and, even today when so much of our food is imported, it is still an important supplier of much of our fruit, not to mention hops to flavour beer. Its low rainfall, mild climate and rich soil makes it ideal for horticulture and since at least Tudor times apples, pears, plums, cherries and soft fruits have been grown there.

Cherries were introduced into this country by the Romans and have always thrived in Kent, there are two types, the sour ones such as the Morello and Kentish Red, used for cooking, canning, bottling and making cherry brandy and the sweet or dessert varieties. Sadly during the last half century production has declined because harvesting is such a highly labour-intensive business. However traditional cherry dishes still survive such as Cherry Batter which probably came from France with the Normans.

Apples, however, continue to thrive. The famous Cox’s Orange Pippin and Bramley’s Seedling were propagated in this area, but besides these popular varieties it is still possible to find more old-fashioned varieties such as Worcester Permain and Miller’s Seedling. These old apples may not be as perfectly shaped and uniform as the ones we find in the supermarkets but their distinctive flavours and textures should be savoured and cherished. It would be a great shame if we lost them forever because of the supermarket’s inclination to stock such a limited number of varieties.

The round cob-nuts and elongated filberts grow well in Kent as do hazel nuts. These can be gathered and kept to eat at Christmas or shelled, dried and ground for dishes such as Hazelnut Meringue.

Hops have been grown in Kent for centuries. The Romans introduced them and they were originally used as a vegetable, the young shoots being eaten in salads or blanched and buttered, but by the sixteenth century they were being introduced into the brewing industry. Before then the British drank an unhopped brew known as ale, made from malt and flavoured with honey and herbs. It is thought that hops were re-introduced by Flemish settlers and at first their use in beer was regarded with suspicion although they gradually came to be accepted because they helped to preserve and clarify the brew. Soon drinkers began to appreciate their bitter flavour and aroma. The hop is a type of vine which produces new shoots each spring. These have to be trained up a framework of poles and strings and may grow up to twentyfive feet (about 8 metres) long. Hop-stringing is a skilled art, originally carried out by tossing the yarn or by balancing on stilts, now it is done from a type of chair-lift fixed to a tractor. Until World War II hop-picking was a kind of holiday when, each September, whole families from London’s East End, gypsies, students and others in search of casual work descended on Kent for the harvesting season. It was back-breaking work but now there are machines to remove the drudgery. George Orwell wrote about his hop-picking experiences in 1931 inVolume 1 of his Collected Essays

"At about quarter past six in the morning we crawled out of straw, put on our coats and boots (we slept in everything else) and went out to get a fire going - rather a job this September, when it rained all the time. By half past six we had made tea and fried some bread for breakfast, and then we started off for work, with bacon sandwiches and a drum of cold tea for our dinner. If it didn’t rain we were working pretty steadily till about one, and then we would start a fire between the vines, heat up our tea and knock off for half an hour. After that we were at it again till half past five and by the time we had got home, cleaned the hop-juice off our hands and had tea, it was already dark and we were dropping with sleep. A good many nights, though we used to go out and steal apples . . .carrying a sack and getting half a hundred-weight at a time, besides several pounds of cobnuts. On Sundays we used to wash our shirts and socks in the stream and sleep the rest of the day. As far as I can remember I never undressed completely all the time we were down there, nor washed my teeth and only shaved twice a week."

But beer is not the only alcoholic drink provided for in Kent. Its climate and soil makes it good for grape-growing and vines have been planted since Roman times to produce a light German-type wine. Cider-making was first introduced into this country from France to Kent in the twelfth century from whence it spread to the West Country.

Sheep have been farmed on the downlands since ancient times but along the coast the drained Romney Marshes produce very special variety. These large animals are hardy enough to withstand the cold easterly winds that blow in from the sea and because they graze on the salty marshes their meat has an extra fine flavour. Lambing begins early in Spring so that they have time to graze on the rich summer pastures. Since lowland sheep had their tails docked Lamb’s Tail Pie was a traditional Kentish dish, only made at lambing time because the meat had to be fresh. The tails were scalded, skinned and cooked with root vegetables, then the whole was packed into a pie dish together with green peas and sliced hard-boiled eggs, (and sometimes with mint or parsley) covered with short-crust pastry and baked until golden brown.

Being a coastal county fish is plentiful. Flatfish are caught, especially of course the aristocratic Dover Sole. Although not exclusively found in this area it is thought to have got its name because Dover was a port where they were landed in quantities and quickly transported to London. One of the most expensive of white fish its delicate taste is so good that it needs very little in the way of additional flavouring or accompaniment; grilled or cooked gently in butter and served with lemon wedges it is delicious. In many seaside places you can buy fish direct from the harbour wall or beach. Whitstable is one of the main oyster centres of England. The original Wheeler’s Oyster Bar was started there. Native oysters are only available when there is an ‘r’ in the month and many people think that they have a more intense full-bodied flavour than imported varieties. A Whitstable Dredgerman’s Breakfast consists of streaky bacon fried until the fat runs, then shelled oysters are placed over the bacon and cooked for 3-4 minutes. The whole lot is served with thick bread and butter washed down with strong tea.

Traditional baked dishes from this region include Huffkins which are flat oval cakes similar to teacakes found in other parts of the country. They have a hole in the middle which can be filled with hot, stoned cherries making it a delicious dessert. They are rarely found in shops nowadays although there is no reason why an enthusiastic cook shouldn’t try making their own version. Flead Cakes were made after pig-killing. The flead is the inner membrane full of bits of lard. The dish is a bit like Lardy Cake (see Wiltshire), The flead is beaten with flour and salt to make a savoury mixture, or with sugar and spices for a sweet cake. It is not easy to get flead nowadays and so it is difficult to find this dish. Wafers were another speciality. They probably originated in France and the word may have come from the French gofer meaning to flute or crisp. They have been made in Kent since the twelfth century and continued to be popular until a few years ago. To make them you need extra-fine flour which is mixed to a batter with sugar, butter and milk, perhaps flavoured with nutmeg or rosewater. The batter was cooked in special round, or square, wafer irons which had long handles so that they could be held over the fire.

Biddenden cakes are made in the village of that name and distributed each Easter Monday as part of an ancient charity known as the Biddenden Dole. More like hard biscuits than cakes each one bears a picture of two females who appear to be joined on one side. This is a representation of two sisters reputed to have bequeathed money for the Dole of beer, bread, cheese and cakes. Legend has it that their names were Eliza and Mary Chulkhurst who were born in 1100 joined together at the shoulder and hip. When one of them died at the age of 34 the other refused to be separated from her and she, herself, died six hours later. They bequeathed 20 acres of ground called Bread and Cheese Lands to provide money for this Dole to the needy. The beer ceased to be distributed in the seventeenth century but the bread, cheese and cakes are still allocated. As well as the picture of the sisters on the cakes their names appear and on the apron of one is written the number 34, the age when they died. Even if it is only a legend, or the dates are wrong, it is still a nice story.

Another delicacy is Kent Lent Pie, sometimes known as Kentish Pudding Pie which is rather like a baked cheesecake. It originates from the time when Lent was strictly observed and cooks strove to find interesting dishes which did not break the Church’s rules. It is still found in the Folkestone area..

It has been said that Kent will make a pudding, either sweet and savoury, out of anything. Basins lined with suet pastry can take all manner of fillings such as chicken, rabbit, game, pigeon, pork, shellfish as well as those plentiful fruits. Two favourites are Ashdown Partridge Pudding and Kentish Chicken Pudding. Fruit and meat is always a good combination and one traditional dish from the area is Kentish Pigeons in a Pot with Plums.

Fruit, fish, meat and other good quality products have been available in Kent since the earliest times and the inhabitants have certainly been resourceful and imaginative in the way they have used them.