The GBK Cookbook
The British Food Trust
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by Helen Gaffney
According to the Victoria County Histories, Oxfordshire - the county of Oxford - was formed in the early eleventh century. The River Thames starts life high in the Cotswolds and then descends gently through verdant fields and ancient established upriver towns down to Oxford and Henley-on-Thames before eventually reaching the outskirts of London itself. The city of Oxford is home to one of the world's oldest universities - the dreaming spires - as well as the world famous factory for the Mini.
The county epitomises a certain way of English life that seems to never change. Countless glasses of Pimms sipped languidly while watching the Henley boat races are an archetypal image of English summer life. What, then, do people eat and drink in this heartland of England? Regional foods, perhaps, are not so immediately apparent here as they are in the more rural areas or regions with hard-working roots. The true foods of the countryside are often born from the land itself or out of necessity, nevertheless, certain specialities are associated with the region.
Banbury cakes, for instance, are as famous as that small town's market cross. Hollygog Pudding, New College Pudding and Oxford Pudding are all associated with that famous university city. It is not surprising that Oxford should have a number of foods associated with it, for the comfortable, affluent way of living in this town has been there since it became a centre of learning in the twelfth century. Dons and undergraduates alike relax after their studies with substantial meals. The University wine society is meticulous in its study of the world's finest vintages.
Marmalade has been connected to this University town since 1874, when Mrs Sarah Jane Cooper used her mother's recipe to make this breakfast preserve in the kitchens of the Angel Hotel. It was sold from Frank Cooper's shop at 83, The High in distinctive earthenware crocks that have now become collector's items. Dons, noblemen, clergymen and dignitaries all praised the virtues of this unique preserve and Oxford marmalade never needed to be advertised. It was sold through personal recommendation and was taken to the top of Everest, the jungles of Malaysia and even to the South Pole. While marmalades are made throughout Britain, Oxford Marmalade remains special for its particular chunky pieces of aromatic orange peel set in a darker than normal jelly. The use of bitter Seville oranges is essential and it is interesting to note that some ninety-five per cent of the bitter orange crop grown in Andalusia comes to Britain. It is primarily only the 'mad English' who so love this unique bittersweet preserve.
Butchers in Oxford's famous indoor market have long associations with particular colleges, supplying them year after year with the finest meat, poultry and particular specialities. These include Oxford John (a lamb steak cut from the leg), Oxford brawn (also called head cheese since it is made from the meat of the pig's head), sausages, quail's eggs and the best game in season.
In 1779, the Reverend Dr Warner wrote to his friend George Selwyn: I shall also order some New College Puddings and Oxford Sausages, and hope to bring you a hare. (Jesse, 1901). These sausages were already famous. In 1726, John Nott gave a recipe for sausages called Oxford Skates‚ which closely resembles recipes still known. Oxford Sausages are rather unusual, as they are not made in skins and are simple and delicious to make at home. They can be served for breakfast with hot buttered toast and Oxford Marmalade.
Breweries, too, identify strongly with the University. Oxford, not surprisingly with its substantial student body, has always been a significant beer-drinking centre, indeed, in the past, the colleges themselves once brewed their own beers. Merton, for example, employed a brewer as long ago as the thirteenth century and this practice did not die out until the twentieth century. There were once so many breweries in Oxford that the University was invested with the power to control by rota when each could brew to ensure that there were no gluts of beer to disrupt college life. Morrell's is a commercial brewery that remains in Oxford to this day and has been trading with some of the colleges for well over a century. Morrell's head brewer, in fact, was the last to brew Chancellor's Ale‚ in the ancient brew house of Queen's College (it was fermented in cask, with a potent, mind-expanding original gravity of 1100. English vineyards thrive here too. However, it is more likely that claret would be drunk here than home-produced wines.
In rural Oxfordshire, amongst poor households who had no ovens for baking, a bakers cake‚ sometimes known as Oxfordshire Cakes was made for harvest teas.
According to Flora Thompson in 1939: The housewife provided all the ingredients excepting the dough, putting raisins and currants, lard, sugar and spice in a basin which she gave to the baker, who added the dough, made and baked the cake, and returned it, beautifully browned, in his big oven. The charge was the same as that for a loaf of the same size, and the result was delicious.
Another speciality is Oxford Sauce, which is similar to Cumberland Sauce but has not been commercialised. It appears in British cookery somewhere around 1700 when both were popular as an accompaniment to meat dishes, particularly with ham, tongue, game or other cold meats.
For many in this county, it is as much a question of style as of substance. The sets of bone china handed down through generations, the cut-glass claret jugs and port decanters, the solid silver cutlery are as important as what is actually served and consumed. Perhaps this is an age when the evenings were that much longer, made for sipping Pimm's or lemonade beside the lawn tennis court. The region also recalls, inevitably, an age of childhood, when we were very young, and the Wide World lay beyond the Wild Wood, when summer days were meant to be spent - with Mole and Ratty - simply messing about by the river. And sure enough the unhurried Thames flows today as serenely and majestically as ever through this comfortable swathe of the country.