On the Menu – Yesterday
Several English cookery books feature Sussex dishes, but many of the recipes, such as those for partridge soup, rabbit pie, liver pate, apple tart or marmalade, could easily be part of farmhouse cooking anywhere in rural England.
However, names of Sussex towns and villages have long been associated with many a fishy dish, ie Selsey crab and cockle, Arundel mullet, Pulborough eel, Chichester lobster, Amberley trout, Rye herring and Hastings gurnard.
The predominant staple in a number of early Sussex dishes was suet, probably eaten in one form or another every day. Savoury puddings made from suet, flour and water would be filled with mutton, oysters, partridge, chicken and ham. There is some conjecture that steak and kidney pudding originated in the county before becoming a widespread English dish. However, bacon pudding and Sussex drip pudding (a local variance of Yorkshire pudding and eaten most commonly with lamb) are definitely acknowledged as real Sussex staples.
In days gone by Sussex people shared the general British tradition of the cottage pig which probably explains the introduction of Flead Cake in their diet.
Flead Cake, a form of lardy cake, although present in other regional cuisines
especially in Kent and Suffolk, was commonplace in Sussex. Flead (or Fleck) is the white fat (unrendered lard) from a pig – a kind of flat, suet-like, sheet held together with a membrane. Whether the membrane is removed or not, is open to debate. However, what is agreed is that the dough made from flead, flour, salt and water is beaten with a rolling pin, rested, and the whole process repeated several times to distribute the fat and trap air, so that when baked the cakes rise properly. It needs a lot of energy to make this light and fluffy cake that is baked in a hot oven for 10 minutes and eaten with jam or even salt.
Sussex churdles are pies with a scone-like pastry filled with lamb’s liver, bacon, mushroom, herbs and sometimes apple, which labourers would take to work. The ingredients are almost identical to Surrey (or specifically Chipstead) churdles.
Sussex Blanket Pudding is a poor man’s jam roly poly. It was served at least once a week, depending on finances. Flour, suet, eggs and breadcrumbs were bound together with milk, rolled out and filled with whatever scraps were available – bits of meat minced, apples, raisins, syrup or jam – then boiled for two hours. Sometimes these puddings were both savoury and sweet, the different flavours kept apart by a piece of the dough.
Sussex (Plum) Heavies are basically a scone said to have been eaten by shepherds, farmers and woodmen. They were originally made from plain flour, hence the word ‘heavy’. Some had sour milk added. Plum Heavies contained currants.
For recipes for Sussex Bacon Pudding, Sussex Drip Pudding, Sussex Churdles and Sussex Heavies please see Sussex Recipes
On the Menu – Today
Bred on the Sussex Downs some 200 years ago by Glynde farmer, John Ellman, Southdown sheep are in a class of their own. The breed later formed the base stock of the New Zealand lamb industry. The distinctive flavour of their meat is attributed to the thyme and quantities of tiny snails that the sheep eat whilst grazing on the downland grass.
Cheese production and quality has increased in leaps and bounds and there is a huge choice of local cheeses: Sussex Slipcote is one, made from soft fresh cheese in a variety of flavours; another is Sussex Charmer – somewhere between cheddar and grana.
And then there is St Giles, a mild, creamy cheese with an edible orange rind somewhat similar to the French Port Salut from the High Weald Dairy voted fifth best cheese in the world out of some 2400 cheeses from 24 countries at the 2009 World Cheese Awards.
Sarah and Mark Hardy of High Weald Dairy began making cheese about 20 years ago. Originally sheep farmers they found they had excessive amounts of sheep’s milk so turned their hand to making halloumi cheese. From that small beginning High Weald Diary has won award after award for its cheeses, scooping four awards at the 2011 International Cheese Awards: Gold for the Duddleswell 100% sheep milk cheese (UK exhibitors only): Silver for the Duddleswell, single sheep milk cheese (UK and non-UK exhibitors); Silver for the Sussex Slipcote with Herbs and Garlic, single sheep cheese with additives (UK and non-UK exhibitors) and Silver for the Saint Giles, best organic cheese speciality – open to any cheese made from organic milk.
The organic milk used for Saint Giles is produced from cows on the farm and the orange rind from organic carrots. The cheese takes eight hours to make, but 10 weeks to mature taking almost nine litres of pasteurised organic milk to make just one kilo of cheese. After grading the carrot coating is applied to the cheese surface.
Wine and Beer
Wine has been produced in Britain intermittently for centuries but it was not until the late 1960s and 70s that vines were planted in quantity and wine making taken seriously. The climate and soil in Sussex are well-suited for growing vines. Consequently the two counties are producing national and international award-winning still and sparkling wines (chiefly white); many of them beating their overseas competitors in blind tastings.
One of the most famous Sussex wine producers is Nyetimber (www.nyetimber.com). It was in 1988 that its vineyards were planted with the Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier grapes that are so well suited to chalky soils and the production of sparkling wine. Today it is the largest vineyard in the UK and since that first vintage in 1992 has consistently won major international awards including in 2009 the title of Champion of Worldwide Sparkling Wines for their 2003 Classic Cuvée putting it above 13 champagnes. (See below)
Beer and cider should not be forgotten either. There are some 20 Sussex breweries, arguably the most famous being Harveys of Lewes, dating back to 1790, as well as several cider producers.
The Foody Traveller suggests
Want to try the award-winning Nyetimber wines at home? Hennings Wine Merchants offer an excellent delivery and/or mail order service that offer Nyetimber wines. For full details visit www.henningswine.co.uk quoting TFT as the voucher.
Sussex Pond Pudding
But it is the sweet suet puddings that have given Sussex its culinary identity, most notably Sussex Pond Pudding (see Recipes). Also known as Well Pudding or Easter Pudding (traditionally it was eaten on Palm Sunday) this originally would have been a suet pastry enclosing raisins, butter, sugar and spice. When the pudding was cut open a rich buttery pool was revealed. These days Sussex Pond Pudding is made with a lemon added to the centre and the raisins omitted. The resulting beautifully caramelised peel combined with the tartness of the lemon provides a perfect complement to the sweet, buttery sauce.
Sussex Pond Pudding was adapted and brought right up to date for Christmas 2010 by Heston Blumenthal who placed an orange in the centre of his modern take on a Christmas Pudding. Supply could barely keep up with demand.
However, the most famous Sussex dish, that in less than 40 years has become a worldwide favourite, is Banoffi Pie (see Recipes). Banoffi Pie was created in 1972 at the Hungry Monk restaurant in Jevington, E Sussex by Ian Dowding and Nigel Mackenzie. In those early days it was known as Banoffee Pie, but today you are just as likely to see it on a menu as Banoffi Pie. A tin of condensed milk is boiled for hours thereby turning the creamy milk to a rich caramel. This is spread on a shortcrust base with halved bananas arranged on top. Finally, the pie is topped with cream flavoured with coffee. Even today its popularity is such that it remains permanently on the menu at the Hungry Monk. Outside the restaurant hangs a plaque proudly proclaiming ‘This is the birthplace of Banoffi Pie 1972 one of the best loved puddings in the world’