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Gloucestershire, Worcestershire & Herefordshire
by Marion Watson


Having written about the north Midlands it is now time to move the other end of the region and look at the counties on the southern edge. Sometimes referred to as the "heart of England" it has rich, fertile soil, a glorious red colour in Herefordshire, is well watered by the river Severn and its tributaries, and has a temperate climate.

The rich soil is ideal for cattle and milk from the Old Gloucester breed was used to produce Double Gloucester Cheese. This is a cheese with a long history and barge- loads of it used to be carried up the Thames from Lechlade to London. Until 1945, it came in two varieties, Single Gloucester and Double Gloucester. Double Gloucester was made between May and September and used the morning’s milk with some from the evening. A cheese weighs between fifteen and twenty five pounds and takes several months to mature. Single Gloucester was made from either the morning’s milk or skimmed evening milk and was much smaller, between nine and twelve pounds. It did not need ripening and was mainly eaten on farms. It is not made nowadays but Double Gloucester is still very popular although there are only a few herds of Old Gloucester cattle left Other milk can be used but theirs had very small fat globules ideal to give the cheese a very special fine texture. It is a good golden colour with a mellow flavour. Its texture means that it melts easily and is excellent for cooking.

A traditional dish using Double Gloucester is Gloucester Cheese and Ale which is a variation on Welsh Rarebit. The cheese is thinly sliced and arranged in the bottom of a large shallow dish, English mustard is spread over it and enough brown ale is poured over to cover the cheese. The dish is baked at 190C or mark 5 for about ten minutes until the cheese is soft. The mixture is then poured over toasted wholemeal bread. It also makes a very good Potted Cheese when equal quantities of unsalted butter and grated cheese are mixed and moistened with port or sherry, add a little cayenne pepper to taste. Beat until smooth then press into little pots and coat the top with clarified butter.

A traditional celebration at the spring bank holiday in some Gloucestershire villages is ‘cheese-rolling’. A cheese is packed in a strong wooden case and rolled down a steep hill with the competitors chasing after it. The winner gets to keep the cheese. Attempts to ban it for safety reasons have been overridden by local enthusiasts.

It is also ideal land for fattening beef cattle and you still see some of the beautiful white-faced Herefords grazing on the lush pasture. This is one of England’s oldest breeds being a cross between the British Red Longhorn and Cattle from the Netherlands, they go back to the seventeenth century. Unfortunately you do not see as many of them as you used for their meat is tender but full of flavour. On a recent visit to New Zealand I was amazed at how many thousands of Herefords we saw, the meat there was delicious, it melted in the mouth and tasted wonderful. What a pity we see less of them in this country now. Hereford meat is ideal for that traditional Victorian dish, Beef Olives, thin slices of topside wrapped around a stuffing mixture and cooked in stock in a casserole.

The Cotswold Hills have always been famous for sheep rearing, indeed many of Gloucestershire’s magnificent churches were built by prosperous woollen merchants. Lamb dishes are commonplace but one has an interesting name, Gloucestershire Squab Pie. Whereas in other parts of the country a squab is a young pigeon here the pie is made from lamb flavoured with spices and sliced cooking apple.

The soil is also good for apple and pear orchards and plums are grown in the Pershore and Evesham areas. A drive through the district at fruit blossom time provides a wonderful sight. Pigs used to be turned loose to eat the fallen apples in the autumn although this is not done so much now but pork products are among local specialities and there is a ‘Midlands cut’ of bacon. The ease with which apples grow led to the establishment of cider farms and factories in the Hereford area. Perry is also produced, being fermented pear juice. Only some types of pear are suitable, many of which were introduced at the time of the Norman Conquest. Unlike cider, which is often a blend of juice from different varieties of apples, Perry is always made from one type of pear. Most perry is produced on a fairly small scale. Soft fruits grow well and gooseberries grown in the area may find their way into Oldbury Tarts. These are similar to Nottingham Pies (see Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire). Gooseberries are baked in a raised pie crust but here they are sprinkled with Demerara sugar instead of being set in apple jelly. They can be eaten hot or cold and served with custard or cream.

The soil suits vegetables, especially asparagus, which is thinner than the varieties grown in East Anglia. The Romans brought this vegetable to England and it has always been prized for its delicate flavour. It is expensive because of its limited season and because it occupies land which cannot be used for anything else once the shoots have been cut since the crop is permanent. It cannot be harvested by machine but must be cut manually which makes it very costly to produce.

The soil is also good for growing hops and this area comes second only to Kent for the amount produced.

The river Severn and its tributaries provide salmon, eels and elvers or baby eels who make their way up the river every spring. Elvers have been a local delicacy for hundreds of years and one speciality is known as elver cakes, a sort of pie. They can be floured and deep-fired like whitebait or cooked with bacon and served in an omelette. Elver fishing is a tradition with its own history. The fishermen usually use a fine-meshed net and each has his special look-out point along the river. They work at night with a light to attract the elvers. Easter Monday is a special day for elver fishing and some Severn-side villages have an elver-eating contest. One champion managed to eat a pound of elvers (about seven hundred) in half a minute. Today many of the elvers netted by fishermen are exported to Europe and Japan to be grown on to full-sized eels.

Traditionally salmon were caught in the Severn using a special net on a Y-shaped frame known as a ‘lave net’. They were also trapped in funnel-shaped baskets placed across the estuary although this is a declining craft. Lampreys are sometimes caught in the Severn. These are primitive eel-like fish which use a powerful sucker to latch on to other fish and get a free-ride up the estuary. Lampreys are sometimes known locally as ‘nine eyes’ because they have seven gill slits along their side which look like extra eyes. They are sometimes also called ‘the prid’ or ‘the pride’.

We cannot leave this region without mention of the eponymous Worcestershire Sauce. It is world famous and is not really a sauce but a flavouring. It originated when Lord Sandys, a native of the city of Worcester, returned from a tour of duty as Governor of Bengal. He had brought with him an Indian recipe which he asked the local chemists, John Lea and William Perrins, to make up for him. The result tasted so dreadful that it was abandoned in their cellar. Some months later they rediscovered it and when they tasted it again found that it had matured beautifully. The recipe is a closely guarded secret and the sauce is still made in the same way and left to mature in oak barrels for several months. A dash of Worcestershire sauce gives a lift to almost any savoury recipe, especially casseroles, soups, grilled meats and cheese dishes. Of course it is also an important addition to tomato juice and to that celebrated hangover cure the ‘prairie oyster’.

The south Midlands bring us a wide variety of high class produce and the dishes produced from them are amongst the best in the country.