A TASTE OF CHESHIRE:
Cheese, Pye and Pudding
by Dawn Copeman
Cheshire is a bit like Devon. Not in geography, nor in climate, but in that whenever people are asked to think of a food from these counties, they can usually only think of one thing. And in Cheshire, that is cheese.
First officially recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 but made since Roman times, Cheshire Cheese is Britain's oldest named cheese. Legend has it that a Cheshire cheese-maker was put to death by the Romans for refusing to tell them how to make it. In the 16th century it was said to have been the favourite cheese of Queen Elizabeth 1. Even the French, not normally known for their enthusiasm for English food, respect our Cheshire cheese, and have a rhyme about it:
dans le chester sec et rose,
a longues dents de l'anglais mordent.
Into the Cheshire cheese, dry and pink,
The long teeth of the English sink.
Cheshire Cheese is a crumbly, salty cheese with a nutty flavour. The salty flavour comes from the salt springs that run under most of the county. The salt enters the pasture land and thus into the cows' milk from which the cheese is made. Originally only made in the Roman garrison of Chester, production of Cheshire cheese soon spread to the surrounding farms near the River Dee.
The traditional method of making Cheshire cheese involves leaving milk from the evening milking to stand until the morning, when it is mixed with the morning's milk and a starter culture is added. When the curds form they are roughly torn into small pieces, passed through a mill and then pressed in moulds for up to two days. The cheese then takes between 4 and 8 weeks to ripen, although some are ripened for up to 15 months. The longer the cheese matures, the sharper the flavour becomes.
There are four varieties of Cheshire cheese: white, extra-mature, red (which is actually yellow) and blue. All have the same sharp, nutty taste and are manufactured in the same manner. To make red Cheshire, the curds are coloured with annatto, whilst the blue Cheshire is punctured during curing. This puncturing produces the blue veins. A pound of Cheshire cheese can be purchased from http://www.igourmet.com for $17.99 plus postage.
Not surprisingly, our first recipe revolves around cheese, but in a way you may not expect: in a soup. Cheshire soup is a traditional way of using up cheese in a hot, filling recipe. Remember, most recipes from the North West of the country have one thing in common: how to make a filling meal from low-cost ingredients. This is the same mind-set that led people to eat tripe and onions, another speciality of the region, for which I am not going to give you the recipe. (In case you are unaware, tripe is the lining of a cow's stomach, which is cleaned then boiled until it turns white. It is then soaked in milk and onions for several hours. It neither looks nor tastes great -- but hey, when you're poor and hungry, needs must. Believe it or not, tripe was still commonly eaten as recently as the 1970's.)
Another unappetising Cheshire recipe is for Rabbit Brawn, basically a rabbit and pigs' trotters stew. If you really want to try this out for yourself there's a recipe at:
Alternatively and more appetizingly, you might want to try Rocket, Strawberry and Cheshire Cheese Salad. It's not as economical as tripe and onions, but it tastes fantastic: http://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/database/rocketstrawberryandc_72066.shtml.
Whilst we didn't share the secret of Cheshire cheese with the Romans, they did share one of their culinary secrets with us: the Roman Cust. The Roman Cust was meat sealed in an oil and flour paste before cooking, which kept the meat moist. The English adopted this technique, changed the paste to pastry -- and thus the pork pie was born.
The first recorded recipe for a pork pie was in 1390 in the kitchen of the court of King Richard II. Most pork pies in Britain contain only pork and are modelled on the famous pork pies of Melton Mowbray. Melton Mowbray was the first town to commercially produce pork pies in England. What most people don't know, however, is that there is an older version of the pork pie that originates from Cheshire: the Cheshire Pork Pye. The Cheshire Pork Pye consists of layers of apple and pork, sweetened with sugar. I've included a recipe for it below.
Chester is also home to two different puddings, both confusingly called Chester Pudding. One is a steamed suet pudding and the other is a type of meringue pie. The suet pudding is the older, more traditional pudding with the meringue pie being the new pretender. What makes the Chester steamed pudding different from that of other counties is its use of blackcurrant jam. I've included the traditional recipe below and a link to the more modern recipe here: http://thefoody.com/pudding/chesterpudding.html.
If you visit Cheshire you must also try Cheshire potted cheese, Chester Buns (a yeast bun topped with a sugar and water glaze) and Chester Cake -- a delicious cake made from stale cake, golden syrup, currants and ground ginger (it really tastes much nicer than it sounds). Cheshire honey is another good buy. Although you can no longer visit the famous Boddington's Brewery, which produced a stout-like beer in Manchester for over 200 years before it was closed in February 2005, you can still taste the 'cream of Manchester', as it was known, in any pub. (Although Manchester is now its own unitary authority, it was until 1974 part of Cheshire. As this is an historical site, and as Manchester was for centuries a part of Cheshire, I feel justified in including it and it's most famous beer here.)
If you are lucky enough to visit Cheshire and taste its food, you will know there is more to this county than cheese.
- Juniper Restaurant
- 21 The Downs, Altrincham, Cheshire, 0161 929 4008
- Michelin Starred restaurant offering modern English and French cuisine.
- Macclesfield Road, Nether Alderley, Macclesfield, 01625 584 000
- Traditional British Food cooked to a very high standard in beautiful surroundings.
1 pint stock (vegetable, chicken, pork or veal)
10 oz peeled and diced potatoes
2 leeks, washed and trimmed, both white and a bit of green
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped or grated
1 oz oatmeal
1/2 cup of grated Cheshire cheese
salt and pepper
- Put the stock into a large pan, add the vegetables and seasoning and bring to the boil.
- Simmer for 15 minutes then add the oatmeal and simmer for 10 more minutes.
- Just before serving, stir in half the cheese, pour the soup into four bowls and sprinkle the remaining cheese on top.
Chester Pork Pye
(servings depend upon your generosity)
A 12-oz pack of shortcrust pastry
2 pounds lean, minced pork
4 apples, sliced and cored
1 stick butter
2 rashers bacon
1-1/4 cups dry white wine
1 teaspoon dried sage, or 1 tablespoon fresh, chopped sage
1 egg to glaze
salt, pepper and nutmeg
- Roll out the pastry and line a 7 inch pie dish, or I usually use a casserole dish, roll out enough pastry to make the lid too.
- Mix together the pork and bacon in a bowl and season with the salt, pepper, nutmeg and sage.
- Arrange a layer of pork in the bottom of the dish, then a layer of apple and continue until the dish is full.
- Pour in the white wine and dot the top of the mixture with butter.
- Put the pie lid on top and make a slit in the pastry. Glaze with a little egg.
- Bake in the oven at 425°F, 220°C, gas mark 7 for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 375°F, 190°C, gas mark 5 and bake for a further 45 minutes.
- Serve hot or cold. Traditionally it was served hot with peas, now it is more usually eaten cold.
Traditional Steamed Chester Pudding
(servings as above)
2 cups fresh breadcrumbs (or two thirds of a cup of dry breadcrumbs)
1 cup flour
2/3 of a cup of suet (or vegetable shortening)
1 cup blackcurrant jam
1/3 of a cup of caster sugar
a pinch bicarbonate of soda
1/3 of a cup of milk
a pinch of salt
- Mix together the breadcrumbs, flour, suet, salt and sugar.
- Make a well in the mixture and spoon the jam into it.
- Warm the milk and stir the bicarbonate of soda into it.
- Pour this over the mixture and mix well.
- Place into a well greased pudding basin, seal with greaseproof paper and steam for three hours.
- Serve hot with some more heated blackcurrant jam and custard.
- For more great recipes, see the rest of Dawn Copeman's Taste of Britain series.
- Chester, by Sue Wilkes
- The Hidden Treasures of Chester Cathedral, by Julia Hickey
- Timeline: Chester, by Darcy Lewis
- Hidden Churches of Cheshire, by Louise Simmons
Dawn Copeman is a freelance writer and commercial writer who has had more than 100 articles published on travel, history, cookery, health and writing. She currently lives in Lincolnshire, where she is
working on her first fiction book. She started her career as a freelance
writer in 2004 and has been a contributing editor for several publications, including TimeTravel-Britain.com and Writing-World.com .
Article © 2005 Dawn Copeman