The GBK Cookbook
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The West Midlands, Warwickshire and Northamptonshire
by Helen Gaffney
The County of the West Midlands came into existence in 1974 as a result of local government reorganisation. It consists of the City of Birmingham, Britain's second largest city, together with various towns and suburbs such as Solihull and Sutton Coldfield with the Black Country, notably Wolverhampton and Dudley, to the west of the city. To the east and south is the county of Warwickshire, which includes the historic town of Warwick with its famous castle and, of course, Shakespeare's birthplace at Stratford upon Avon. Northamptonshire, although nowadays a popular location for London commuters, has a long rural past with many associated traditions.
The region is famous for its favourite snack - pork scratchings. These are salted, crisp pieces of cooked pig skin. They are sold either loose or in plastic bags of about 100g (3 1/2 oz) or so. Originally the word scratching referred to the crisp, cooked membrane after pig fat had been rendered. As scratchings are an inevitable by-product of lard-making, they must have been available for centuries, but they are little mentioned before the nineteenth century. It is unlikely that anyone set out with the intention of making scratchings. They were there for whoever cared to eat them at pig-killing time.
In the country around Birmingham, the word scratching sometimes meant a specific dish of diced, fried lard eaten with pepper and salt. The word has been extended to cover pieces of crackling (crisply-cooked pig skin) and the old types of scratchings are now uncommon. Pork scratchings are widely available in pubs in the West Midlands, where they are a popular and thirst-provoking accompaniment to beer.
The Midlands has a number of other pig-related food traditions. A hearty breakfast of Brummie Bacon Cakes could be consumed and a popular supper dish was faggots also known as savoury ducks. Faggots are generally liver meatballs wrapped in caul. Other foods were made with pig meat and offal, such as chicklings (chitterlings), polonies and other sausages, haslet, brawn, tripe and pig's trotters (pig's feet). Eliza Acton included a recipe for trotters in her 'Modern Cookery' in 1845. It is best to cook trotters slowly; some recipes suggest braising them for as much as forty hours. They can also be eaten pickled and smoked.
Northamptonshire was also well known for the practice of cottage pig-keeping. Farmers' wives sent pies filled with haslet as presents to neighbours at pig-killing time. Eliza Acton describes a haslet pudding containing "the heart, liver, kidneys etc. of the pig", which she says was held in much esteem in these counties. By transference, it came to describe the very dish itself, made from the pluck by chopping and roasting or boiling the pieces.
Although pork is traditionally the most popular in the area, beef is also important. Warwickshire Stew makes the most of the tougher beef cuts. Northamptonshire workers also used to make a 'clanger' for dinner when they returned home, a type of steamed pasty similar to the Bedfordshire Clanger. 'Clang' is said to be a Northamptonshire dialect word meaning 'to eat voraciously'. These puddings, containing a savoury and a sweet section, were probably developed in response to local employment patterns in that many women were employed in the straw-hat industry and the clanger, boiled slowly for hours unattended, was a complete hot meal for those arriving home from work. There were even clanger-eating contests at local fairs and festivities. Nowadays, clangers have evolved into a baked dish, reflecting the evolution of British cooking methods away from long boiling to dry baking, more convenient once domestic gas and electric ovens became universally available.
Pikelets on the griddle Pikelets, fresh off the griddle, served hot with lashings of butter and mugs of strong tea, are a great favourite teatime treat. Hungry boys home from school or working men alike can pack away this Midlands’ tea-time staple by the dozen. They are similar to crumpets but are cooked directly on the griddle not inside rings.
The city of Coventry in Warwickshire is the source of a type of pastry cake called Coventry Godcakes. In the past, godparents gave these small cakes to their godchildren for good luck. Their triangular shape is said to represent the Holy Trinity and they varied in size according to the wealth of the godparent.
Other delicious baked treats originate from the region. Little cheesecakes were made in Northamptonshire to be eaten at sheep-shearing time. Brandy Snaps and Gingerbread were sold at fairs all over the Midlands. Northamptonshire also has its own Steamed Pudding.
Nowadays Birmingham is famous for Balti cuisine. Balti cooking originated centuries ago in the Himalayan mountain region of Pakistani Kashmir, in the province known as Baltistan. The cold, high altitude atmosphere there demanded simple but effective cooking method. The balti is literally a cooking pan with a rounded bottom like a wok with two handles. Balti food is freshly prepared and healthy, because the rapid stir-fry process retains the goodness of the food. Whole spices are roasted and ground to create the most aromatic spices mixtures. These spices, combined with the use of fresh herbs like coriander, fenugreek and mint give Balti its distinctive tastes. It was an imaginative restaurateur who, by establishing a Balti restaurant in Birmingham a few years ago, put Balti cooking on the map. It took off in a big way and a decade or so later there are no less than one hundred Balti houses in Birmingham alone, with many more springing up all over the UK. The trend has swept across the British Isles in the way that tandoori did twenty years ago.
A number of well-known names in the brewing industry are to be found in this region. Mitchell and Butler's brew in Birmingham, Wolverhampton and Walsall. Banks and Hanson's are two popular Black Country brewers, merged to form the Wolverhampton and Dudley Breweries Ltd. Davenports are an excellent independent brewery based in Birmingham. Mann's are to be found in Northampton.
A favourite brew in the Midlands is Mild: an inexpensive low-gravity beer, cheaper than bitter and less highly-hopped. The region remains a bastion for the traditional draught mild, a classic beer unique to Britain; a favourite working man's pint, the straightforward drink of the public bar. But this old style beer has declined drastically in popularity in recent years, considered by the young to be an old man's drink unlike, say, lager.
Another unusual drink, from Warwickshire, is plum jerkum or jercum, a country cider rather like perry. It differs from standard cider in that it is made from plums instead of apples. It was said that the brew "left the head crystal clear while paralysing the legs". Originally it would have been made from the white-fleshed, Warwickshire Drooper plum, but this variety is now very hard to find.
This region is so varied, as are the food traditions with which it's associated. From the industrial heartland that is Birmingham and Coventry to the rural beauty found in Warwickshire and Northampton, there really is something for everyone. The many people from overseas who have made their their home in the region have made a vital contribution to modern British cuisine. In addition, many of the older, traditional foods still thrive. Long may the mix continue.