Traditional Food In Cumbria
In Carlisle, in the “hungry” 1840s, more than 6,000 people, over a quarter of the population, lived on under three shillings a week.
A poor family could afford oatmeal for breakfast, potatoes and dripping for dinner and a little bread with small beer at a penny a gallon or adulterated tea for supper.
Peter Brears’s account of traditional food in Cumbria is far, far more than a compilation of wonderful (and less wonderful) old recipes, it is a detailed and extended social history of Cumbrian food.
The Cumbrian ‘statesmen’ kept sheep and cattle and grew small crops of oats, barley and potatoes. An old rhyme tells of how they had “poddish at mworn / And taties and point at neun” and the poddish (porridge) again in the evening.
The better-off might have come home from the fields at lunchtime to a fried rasher and savoury pancakes but Peter’s concern is with the whole culture of food among the ordinary people.
In Traditional Food in Cumbria (Bookcase, £20) he writes of a cuisine where: “Dinners of meat, meat-stock broths and oatmeal puddings all boiled in the same pot, along with a pan of potatoes, were both easy to prepare and good to eat when cooking was carried out over an open peat, wood or coal fire.”
And he provides beautifully observed drawings of farm kitchens, of oak boards and hams hanging from the rafters.
Each community – the coal miners of West Cumberland, the lead miners of Alston, and the iron communities in Furness – had its own way with the foods available to them. In the towns weekly meals might have included potato pot, savoury hash, boiled haddock, Irish stew or baked herrings.
For special occasions there would be special treats – Ulverston Fair cake, moulded gingerbread, mint cake or treacle toffee. And, of course, there would be Tatie Pots. “To commemorate the centenary of John Peel’s death in 1954, the ladies of Caldbeck peeled half a ton of potatoes, cut up whole carcases of mutton, sliced stones of onions and numerous black puddings to make numerous tatie pots ... to be eaten with pickled onions and pickled red cabbage.”
Peter Brears, a food historian of national repute, takes a great relish in the ordinary lives of ordinary people and in the plain, simple food that nourished them over the centuries.
Review by STEVE MATTHEWS
Bookends, Carlisle and Keswick