Food, glorious, food. Who doesn’t like it? We need to eat to survive but there is so much more to food than mere sustenance. I started writing about food on this blog when researching for my Romans vs Aliens novel (preliminary title: Children of Phobetor). The article on Roman street food remains rather popular. I also wrote several seasonal articles on food at Christmas.
See these articles on Saturnalia, Medieval Christmas and Tudor Christmas for further information. For a writer, authenticity is all important, especially so for historical fiction – but not just for this genre. When writing work set in the past, food is representative of the seasons and of climate. But there is another element of food and that’s its expression of cultural identity.
I have lived most of my life in England’s west country. I was born in Swindon (a large town with industrial heritage), spent five years in Exeter in Devon (a small city with medieval and later history) and now live in a small town in Cornwall. I have many wonderful memories of Dartmoor and Exmoor, of the Somerset Levels and the landscape of these five wonderful counties – some of them deeply inspiring. I have not spent much time in Dorset but what I have seen does have the same sort of feel to it.
There is a strong sense of regional identity the further west you go and although there doesn’t seem to be a sense of West Country pride in the way you might get in the north or in Wales or Scotland, this region does feel quite distinct, even from areas that occupy the same region.
That is no more apparent than between Devon and Cornwall which both have their own flags (see left and below). There are two areas where the region expresses that pride – the first is the industrial heritage. For Devon and Cornwall, that’s clay and tin mining, for Bristol that’s the maritime history, for Swindon that’s the railways – including Isambard Kingdom Brunel who did so much for region.
But the one thing they all have in common is how food is an expression of pride and cultural identity. I’m sure every region of the UK has it, but having lived here most of my life, I live it every day.
The Pasty (pah-stee)
Here in Cornwall, there are several types of food you will not get elsewhere or that they simply cannot do as well elsewhere. The most obvious is a type of pie called the pasty. Any hot food bakery will sell Cornish pasties but you haven’t a real Cornish pasty until you have had one here. You will get them in Devon too but they are likely made in Cornwall if they are called “Cornish pasties”. Like Feta cheese, Cheddar cheese, Scottish haggis, champagne and a multitude of others – this unique type of pie has European Union PGI (Protected Geographical Indication). That means if it isn’t produced in Cornwall, you can’t call it a Cornish Pasty.
Other Distinctly Cornish Food
Other foods common to Cornwall include the saffron bun. This is a bit like a hot cross bun but with saffron instead of cinnamon, giving it a sweet and floral flavour. It’s a rather tasty sweet bun, usually served in mid spring and is distinct for its yellow colouring due to the spice. I first tried one on May Day last year at a town fete.
Who has heard of Hog’s Pudding? It’s rather like white pudding in that it’s made of pork, which itself is a derivative of black pudding but does not contain congealed blood. Hog’s pudding is effectively a type of rich sausage meat with spices. It’s common to Cornwall but also seen in Devon. Lightly fry it in slices and it goes well in a roll with a sauce or chutney of choice.
Devon is known for its sweet sauce known as custard made from milk or cream and egg yolk, sometimes with added vanilla. In France, I believe it is called Creme Anglais (English cream). However, modern varieties such as Bird’s and Ambrosia don’t use egg at all making it not technically custard. Nevertheless, Devon is renowned for its custard. Like “Cornish pasty” it’s a mark of quality but is not protected.
Nobody does cider quite like The West Country. Although you would associate it with Somerset, in truth every county in this area has a cider tradition. Although all of the West Country produces cider, some would argue that Somerset produce stands head and tails above the rest. You will not be spoilt for choice and there are signs for cider farms everywhere. One of my favourites is at Washford, just behind Cleeve Abbey. Somerset, from Exmoor to the Somerset Levels, is largely rural with a strong apple growing tradition.
But cider is a strong feature of all five of the West Country food culture. Other regions grow it (most notably, Hereford and the Welsh border) but this region is known for it.
Devon and Cornwall share many culinary similarities – both are famous for cream teas. A cream tea is a scone, a pot of tea, a pot of jam (usually strawberry) and a pot of clotted cream. If you’ve never had clotted cream then you are missing out. It’s a thick, gooey, tasty cream. You will get them elsewhere but only in these two counties will residents claim to be the source of the original. Which do you put on first? Wars have been fought over less than whether the clotted cream or the jam goes on first. In Devon, the cream goes on the scone (spread like butter) and jam on top of that. In Cornwall, the jam goes on first and the cream dolloped on top of that.
Why Does Food Matter?
Food matters for many reasons. If you’re a stickler for detail, it’s arguably one of the most important ways of building your environment, your world and even the season – especially for a rural community or period piece. Food creates a sense of realism in so many ways – pointing to a sense of shared identity, regionality, ethnicity and even as a country. For those places where food builds a strong sense of cultural identity, you can help convey that by good research and references to what people eat. You don’t need to be anal about it, but for an audience who live in that area, they will feel you have made the effort to understand part of how they perceive themselves.
Food can also help to explain the geographical limits of the culture. Island cultures live primarily on seafood (and you will find the coastal regions of the West Country have strong fishing industries) for example. Landlocked areas will eat mostly livestock meat and whatever crops grow in that area as they have little access to the sea. Again, you do not have to be anal about this, but food is often an extension of topography and adds realism when you demonstrate that you understand the climate.