Tuesday, January 5

Kentish cobnuts and sloe gin

One of the books I received for christmas 2008, and which I dip into now and again, is the fantastic 'The taste of Britain' by Laura Mason and Catherine Brown. This is a wonderful book born out of a project to identify and classify as many British foods with regional affiliations as possible. In the same way that sparkling wine is only Champagne if it comes from the Champagne region in France, and only certain parts of Italy can produce Parmigiano Reggiano, this was an attempt to identify our traditional foods and discover the real character of British taste.
Brought back into favour by the recent trend towards serving local foods, this 2006 reprint has a foreword by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and some delightful illustrations within its classily-bound hard covers. Inside, it is divided into regions and each chapter attempts to identify and define the regional foods, from meats to sweets.
There are some wonderful old words in these pages: pikelets, huffkins and Bedfordshire clangers, Dorset and Norfolk knobs, Bath chaps, brawn, spoots and clootie dumplings among others. If you ever wondered what jellied eels are, who invented kippers or how you make a Welsh cake, this is the book you need!

I dipped into the book recently after my Kentish new year with friends who live near Penshurst. As usual I came back laden with goodies, including a bagful of Kentish cobnuts, which I had always assumed were the same as hazelnuts. But the shells were longer and the nuts much sweeter that those you buy from the supermarkets, and I discovered that these were a particular variety introduced in the early 1800s, originally known as Lambert's Filbert but renamed the Kentish cobnut at the start of the 20th century. At this time, more than 7,000 acres of land in Britain, most of it in Kent, was used to grow cobnuts, a large quantity of which was exported to the USA. Only a few specialist growers remain now, with Kent still the main centre of production but orchards also in Sussex, Devon and Worcestershire. The local term for a hazelnut orchard is a 'plat'.

While visiting with the same friends we also had the opportunity to toast the new year with a glass of sloe gin, another British speciality which originates in Kent. Sloes are a type of wild plum, the fruit of the blackthorn bush which is native to Britain and in many hedgerows and scrubby woodlands. Sloe gin is one of the most commonly-homemade alcoholic beverages, being very easy to create. Prick the sloes, put them in a bottle of gin with some sugar, and leave for a few months. Er, that's it! You can strain off the berries, or just leave them in the bottle for a decorative touch.

I was also quite chuffed to read in the book that 'bittermints' (minty fondant centre covered in dark chocolate) are regarded as the quintessential British mint and were first produced (and still are!) by Bendicks of Mayfair, London. Or The Knit Nurse of London SE8, although I do think mine were possibly a little too sugary to really qualify as bittermints!


Felix said...

What a superb post. This book sounds amazing... I hadn't realised sloe gin had its origins in Kent! And I didn't know about the difference between cobnuts and hazelnuts.

I love a bit of regional-lore; the only redemptive bit of writing that I've ever found about English Food is George Orwell's essay 'In defence of British Cooking' but 'The taste of Britain' seems to be far more comprehensive and to contain some promising forraging-related info!

colleen said...

Will be taking a look at this book.

My sloe gin is bottled and ready to drink. Ours were from Essex. We thought we had found a stash on Sheppey but they turned out to be wild plums and were made into jam.

Might have a sloe gin when the decorations are all down.