I caught up with food historian Emma Kay recently to discuss her latest books which champion Britains delicious heritage. In this first post I find out why Worcestershire has so much more to offer on the food and drink front than merely the eponymous sauce.
You will always find a bottle of Worcestershire sauce on the condiments shelf in my larder. With its distinctive orange and black label it is an ingredient I would never be without. Until I read Emma Kay’s book, More Than A Sauce, it was the only product I really associated with the county. Perhaps this is because Worcestershire is one of the smallest counties in England or maybe the culinary traditions have just slipped away over the decades and have simply been forgotten. Emma’s latest book is doing for Worcestershire what Dorothy Hartley and Florence White did for food in England. Having lived in the county until she was 18 she was more than happy to help showcase its rich landscapes and fascinating agricultural history.
“Every county has its own unique history but some are better than others at promoting themselves,” explains Emma. “Worcestershire focuses a great deal on the Battle of Worcester (1651), so the narrative of food becomes quite secondary within that arena.
“I find it quite difficult to understand why culinary heritage is not more of an academically recognised field in Britain” she continues. “In the United States they have cultivated a wealth of information in this area and it poignantly reflects and symbolises America’s many cultures. Food – the customs of it, cooking of it, eating of it, sharing of it, production of it, retailing of it and so on, is integral to all of our identities.”
It turns out that we have a lot to thank Worcestershire for in terms of food and drink. Malvern spring water; cider; Evesham pies – originally made from pigeon; and an array of vegetables, like asparagus, and fruits notably pears like the Worcestershire Black Pear which 17th century diarist John Evelyn believed to have been introduced to our shores by the Romans.
“There exists a well documented legend that during a visit by Elizabeth I to Worcester in 1575 she saw a black pear tree at the entrance to the city gates. Taking a shine to the tree, Elizabeth decreed that three pears should be added to Worcester’s civic arms.” (More Than A Sauce, 2018)
One of the most surprising revelations was the importance of salt production in Droitwich. Despite having a statue dedicated to the salt workers even the locals Emma interviewed seemed unaware of its historical significance. At it’s peak in 1872, Droitwich produced 12,000 tonnes of salt. By the turn of the 20th century the town had exploited its salt brines to become the only salt water spa town in England. Sadly the last saltworks closed in the town in 1922.
Another reason I find this book so endearing is the chapter on tradition and legend. It’s lovely to read about age-old customs such as the practice knocking on the beehive and declaring: ’the master’s dead, but don’t you go; your mistress will be good mistress to you,’ to ensure the bees wouldn’t scarper after the owner’s death. Or the practice of ‘catterning’ on 25th November (Saint Catherine’s day) where children would call on their neighbours for a gift, usually an apple. Oh how I wish this was still the custom rather than the tasteless candy infested ritual of Halloween. The book is also peppered with sayings like ‘scrogglings’( undersized apples left on trees) or ‘porket’ (a young pig fed for killing) which surely deserve to be revived.
“I hope the readers will discover some fun and interesting facts about food legends and customs of Worcestershire,” says Emma. “I think it’s important to remember how significant the seasons and the land once were to our everyday lives. Modern society has a largely disposable, instant high-demand attitude towards food and we might all benefit from learning about the more simple process of eating seasonally and frugally. I hope the book also pays homage to some of the many food and drink businesses in Worcestershire that were once world leaders, alongside the innovative producers of today.”
Emma Kay is a food historian and author of five books, including one on Vintage Kitchenalia. She has a large collection of objects relating to the traditions and practices of the British kitchen which began when a friend bought her a Denby Greenwheat dinner service from the 1950s 15 years ago. She has also just launched a range of historical food courses. For more information on her books and courses please visit her website https://museumofkitchenalia.com.