British food heritage

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Tessa K
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Re: British food heritage

Post by Tessa K » Mon Apr 26, 2021 3:03 pm

From a tweet by James Wong (botanist)
Onions in the UK are getting sweeter & mustard less fiery due to dwindling levels of sulphur in our soils.

The key source of this nutrient was ironically deposition of sulphuric acid from acid rain.

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Re: British food heritage

Post by Fishnut » Wed Apr 28, 2021 8:39 am

Tom Holland is doing a podcast episode on the history of British food and is requesting questions.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by sTeamTraen » Wed Apr 28, 2021 1:00 pm

I found this interesting. It seems to give an insight into the thinking behind the food/cooking initiative (including fish finger sandwiches) that emerged from Marcus Rashford's activism.

There's not a heritage variety or farmer's market in sight here. It reminds me of Jack Monroe, but even less posh (and I don't think she is posh). Tinned potatoes and soup both feature, and there's a "stir fry" of noodles and vegetables cooked in water with peanut butter and soy sauce to make it into satay. (The boil-in-the-bag omelette seems clever. I can imagine making that if I ever go camping again.)

Is this appropriately targeted at people, including kids, who in addition to low incomes and getting food in the form of parcels from the food bank may not have access to much in the way of cooking facilities (it seems that most of it can be done with one pan and one heating ring), or is it patronising and lacking in ambition? I honestly have no idea. I've followed the parts of the discussion elsewhere in this thread about "food snobbery" and I tend to side with the position taken (I think) by lpm and Tessa K, but I guess that as with many social issues, change may at some point need to involve people who are currently in a less privileged position adopting some of the attitudes or behaviours of those who are more privileged, even if one would want to do that in as unoppressive a way as possible.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by El Pollo Diablo » Wed Apr 28, 2021 2:31 pm

I'm not sure why that topic has been raised in this thread, to be honest. Food poverty is a very real and difficult issue, but it's certainly a separate issue from the points I've been making. People who don't have much money need to eat whatever they can. Usually they're time and resource poor as well. Jack Monroe has often made the point that they also often lack the cupboard ingredients which support making good meals from scratch - oil, salt, pepper, herbs and so on. Sometimes it's the case that it's cheaper to eat if you cook from scratch, but it's not always true - takeaway and ready meals can be dirt cheap if you know where to look. It may be the case that they'd be able to lead healthier lives if they cooked from scratch, but lots of things can get in the way of that, not least lack of time, lack of confidence and lack of knowledge.

My issue isn't at all with people who spend a lot of time figuring out how the f.ck they're going to feed themselves or their kids today or this week. It's not even with people who don't know how brilliant British food can be and its rich heritage - it's with what I see as a food culture in the UK which doesn't celebrate its history and heritage, when it's perfectly happy to admire food from everywhere else. If people have decided to misinterpret that as food snobbery, that's up to them.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by Stephanie » Wed Apr 28, 2021 3:07 pm

I mean, if you really want to talk about food and eating when you're poor, start a thread for it. I've got some stories for sure.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by lpm » Wed Apr 28, 2021 3:50 pm

British food heritage was linked to food poverty on page one of this thread. There was an implication that poor people in Italy manage to treasure their heritage, so why can't Brits.

When an activity is highly gendered it's easy to be accidentally sexist. For example talking about employment in a Hartlepool steel mill or about caring for elderly relatives. Food purchasing, preparation, cooking and washing up is highly gendered. It's particularly tricky to avoid being accidentally sexist if you're a man who does all the food buying and cooking in your household. You will be in a minority - for most families, it falls on women to do this unpaid labour.

It's not merely being in a privileged position regarding money, it's being in a privileged position with regard to time and unpaid household work. I'm sorry, but when I hear people say "Pop to the butchers for proper bacon, don't buy watery supermarket bacon" what I hear is "Women: spend even more time shopping for food, how hard can it be to take a 1 year old baby and a 3 year old toddler from shop to shop, or to fit in this extra shopping time between caring for an elderly mother-in-law and cleaning the bathroom".

There was never proper acknowledgement of this sexist burden. When Tessa raised it (including highlighting the magnified impact on women in low income families) the very next comment was "Don't be a git, Tessa." When bagpuss brought in the proportion of working women in the UK vs other countries it wasn't recognised as the crucial factor. It's not just that the industrialisation of food has fed poor people cheaply, it's also that it's fed them quickly. Note how many of the recipes in sTeamTraen's post are about speed - with comments like "...and it's also great to put into a lunch box to be eaten the next day". This is a 3 times a day burden. The big attraction of Chorleywood bread isn't just that it's cheap, that the preservatives keep it fresh for centuries, it's also sliced and the kids can be given jam on bread after school with just a couple of minutes work.

It's not that Brits have forgotten our food heritage or that Brits don't give a sh.t about our food heritage. It's that something has to give. The unpaid shopping/preparing/cooking burden on women who also work full time outside or inside the home simply means choices have to be made. And the choice made by most of the population was to feed the family on mediocre but cheap and highly convenient food, being grateful that the kids eat cheap supermarket carrots and can't even notice a difference between watery bacon and heritage bacon.

The way to rebuild British food heritage isn't better education in schools or a British festival of food, it's to end the sexist division of unpaid labour. Until that happens it's not great to be telling people to spend a bit more time on the family's food because the word "people" is stand in for the word "women".
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Re: British food heritage

Post by Stephanie » Wed Apr 28, 2021 5:53 pm

This started because Tessa made a comment (perhaps jokingly?) about the heritage of british food being sh.t, because that's what she remembered growing up. EPD then defended that, and everyone spun out their arguments accordingly.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by Bird on a Fire » Wed Apr 28, 2021 5:55 pm

The sexism of food preparation is no doubt one of several factors, but the UK doesn't seem exceptional enough for it to be the main one.

Looking at this list of female workforce participation (and restricting ourselves to culturally similar places, i.e. Eurovision countries), the UK is at 57.1%.

That's lower than Switzerland (62.6%) Sweden (61.2%), Norway, Australia, Israel, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Cyprus. It's a bit higher than than Estonia (56.7%), Lithuania (56.4%), Germany (55.3%) - but not massively so.

Picking out places that have been mentioned as exemplars of recognising food heritage, Portugal is at 53.6%, Spain at 51.4% and France at 50.3%. (Italy is down below 40%, fwiw, but IIRC there are some doubts over employment figures in places with a substantial grey economy).

Could those 7 percentage points be making all the difference - including in restaurants, supermarkets and TV shows run by professionals rather than unpaid women? Seems a big claim, to be honest. There are a lot of other cultural factors that vary between the UK and other places.

The differences I've noticed between UK and PT, for instance, or more to do with cafes, restaurants and supermarkets than home cooking. Why aren't there more restaurants with a range of regional UK dishes? Why don't bakeries carry a wider range of regional specialties? Is it really just because people's mums and wives have jobs?

If so, other countries seem to do a better job of promoting their heritage despite similar or higher female employment rates, so the question still stands as to why the UK is different in that regard.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by discovolante » Wed Apr 28, 2021 6:22 pm

Bird on a Fire wrote:
Wed Apr 28, 2021 5:55 pm
The differences I've noticed between UK and PT, for instance, or more to do with cafes, restaurants and supermarkets than home cooking. Why aren't there more restaurants with a range of regional UK dishes? Why don't bakeries carry a wider range of regional specialties? Is it really just because people's mums and wives have jobs?
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Re: British food heritage

Post by lpm » Wed Apr 28, 2021 6:28 pm

Bird on a Fire wrote:
Wed Apr 28, 2021 5:55 pm
Picking out places that have been mentioned as exemplars of recognising food heritage, Portugal is at 53.6%, Spain at 51.4% and France at 50.3%. (Italy is down below 40%, fwiw, but IIRC there are some doubts over employment figures in places with a substantial grey economy).
Yep. The most notoriously sexist countries in western Europe.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by Woodchopper » Wed Apr 28, 2021 6:42 pm

Bird on a Fire wrote:
Wed Apr 28, 2021 5:55 pm
The sexism of food preparation is no doubt one of several factors, but the UK doesn't seem exceptional enough for it to be the main one.

Looking at this list of female workforce participation (and restricting ourselves to culturally similar places, i.e. Eurovision countries), the UK is at 57.1%.

That's lower than Switzerland (62.6%) Sweden (61.2%), Norway, Australia, Israel, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Cyprus. It's a bit higher than than Estonia (56.7%), Lithuania (56.4%), Germany (55.3%) - but not massively so.

Picking out places that have been mentioned as exemplars of recognising food heritage, Portugal is at 53.6%, Spain at 51.4% and France at 50.3%. (Italy is down below 40%, fwiw, but IIRC there are some doubts over employment figures in places with a substantial grey economy).

Could those 7 percentage points be making all the difference - including in restaurants, supermarkets and TV shows run by professionals rather than unpaid women? Seems a big claim, to be honest. There are a lot of other cultural factors that vary between the UK and other places.

The differences I've noticed between UK and PT, for instance, or more to do with cafes, restaurants and supermarkets than home cooking. Why aren't there more restaurants with a range of regional UK dishes? Why don't bakeries carry a wider range of regional specialties? Is it really just because people's mums and wives have jobs?

If so, other countries seem to do a better job of promoting their heritage despite similar or higher female employment rates, so the question still stands as to why the UK is different in that regard.
I mentioned up thread. If we're doing a cross-national comparison then the big difference is urbanization. No time to look up numbers but from memory, 60% of the UK population lived in urban areas by the 1880s. In France or Italy (and probably Portugal) 60% urbanization didn't occur until the 1960s or 1970s.

There were two important things about the population shifting to cities in the 19th century. First, this was before modern supply chains got set up. There was no refrigeration, so as I think Tessa K mentioned upthread, food had to be heavily boiled or otherwise whet we would consider overcooked to keep it edible. Second, average incomes in Britain in the 1880s were about half what they were in Italy or France in the 1960s or 1970s. In the latter people who moved from the countryside in the 1960s could afford to keep eating the food they were used to. Whereas in Britain 90 years before the great majority of the urban population lived in poverty. Hours in factories were very long and people needed to get calories as quickly and cheaply as possible. They often got that from early mass produced food, which wasn't that good.

And before people point out that there is lots of rural poverty in Italy or France, they're right. The difference is that rural people there were cash poor. But they were able to get fresh food without paying for it. Many could benefit from small gardens, from catching rabbits, birds or fish, from picking wild vegetables like berries or mushrooms. People could barter food. They couldn't eat a healthy diet every day and went hungry in the winter. But they could eat a much more varied diet.

So to sum up this Marxist analysis, much of the UK population lost its culinary traditions when it moved into the cities to work in factories. That urban population became culturally dominant and the food it got used to became what people considered to be normal.

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Re: British food heritage

Post by sTeamTraen » Wed Apr 28, 2021 9:25 pm

Stephanie wrote:
Wed Apr 28, 2021 3:07 pm
I mean, if you really want to talk about food and eating when you're poor, start a thread for it. I've got some stories for sure.
I did consider that, but ultimately I decided to post here because of some of the previous posts. I would not object to my post being split off into a new thread.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by El Pollo Diablo » Wed Apr 28, 2021 10:25 pm

Chops - that's a great post, but I think may be missing something, in that the victorian era was quite beneficial for a lot of food suppliers. There was still lots of specialisation and local produce, the railways allowed quick transportation of produce into town and city centres, and plenty of British foods became renowned at that time - loads of different types of fruit, veg, cheese, livestock, cured meats (York ham was described by Larousse as the best type of wet cured ham in Europe - now it's almost impossible to get hold of), even access to more types of fish. Stilton isn't named after the town where it was developed, but the town where it was first onboarded to trains for transport to London. The pillars supporting the platforms at St Pancras, now open access and in the place where tickets and shopping are purchased, were spaced far enough apart to neatly fit a certain number of beer barrels from the bass brewery.

Yes, there was immense urbanisation and, in urban areas, poverty at that time. But I don't see that automatically leading to everything being overboiled or overcooked - the reputation for British food being sh.t didn't come about until much later on. It doesn't explain why there were 3,500 cheese producers in the UK before the start of the first World War and fewer than 100 after the second World War.

The agricultural revolution was just as important as the industrial revolution - indeed, the latter couldn't have happened without the former - and was partly enabled by the developments that Robert Bakewell and Thomas Coke introduced in selective breeding, which is where so many of our heritage livestock varieties come from*. There was enough pressure on UK food by 1900 because refrigerator ships allowed imported meat and tropical fruit, such that by then half the meat eaten in the country was imported**. From that sense I can totally see the contribution of urbanisation to declines in a sense of value in homegrown produce, but I think there's much more to the story than urbanisation alone.


*though not all - British White cattle were farmed at Whalley Abbey in Lancashire in the 13th century, and my ancestors who lived across the Ribble from there would've been familiar with them. There's a nice farm shop near catthorpe which sells British white beef, happily.
**ironically, much of the imported meat came from Australia, Argentina, New Zealand and the US, and would've been largely varieties of meat bred from breeds exported by the UK in the first place.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by Bird on a Fire » Wed Apr 28, 2021 11:15 pm

I can see how a long history of urbanisation might lead to forgetting culinary history, though.

I thought people were saying "No the UK hasn't forgotten its culinary history, it's just that British women are too busy to cook."

If the argument is "British people have forgotten their culinary history, because of sexism and the way it interacts with historical materialist processes" then fine, but I don't see why it's snobbery to say so.

Or is it some other third thing?

I'd like to think that, in the future, societies will be able to have interesting culinary heritage and women's liberation simultaneously - is that achievable, and if so how?
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Re: British food heritage

Post by Woodchopper » Thu Apr 29, 2021 7:29 am

El Pollo Diablo wrote:
Wed Apr 28, 2021 10:25 pm
Chops - that's a great post, but I think may be missing something, in that the victorian era was quite beneficial for a lot of food suppliers. There was still lots of specialisation and local produce, the railways allowed quick transportation of produce into town and city centres, and plenty of British foods became renowned at that time - loads of different types of fruit, veg, cheese, livestock, cured meats (York ham was described by Larousse as the best type of wet cured ham in Europe - now it's almost impossible to get hold of), even access to more types of fish. Stilton isn't named after the town where it was developed, but the town where it was first onboarded to trains for transport to London. The pillars supporting the platforms at St Pancras, now open access and in the place where tickets and shopping are purchased, were spaced far enough apart to neatly fit a certain number of beer barrels from the bass brewery.

Yes, there was immense urbanisation and, in urban areas, poverty at that time. But I don't see that automatically leading to everything being overboiled or overcooked - the reputation for British food being sh.t didn't come about until much later on. It doesn't explain why there were 3,500 cheese producers in the UK before the start of the first World War and fewer than 100 after the second World War.

The agricultural revolution was just as important as the industrial revolution - indeed, the latter couldn't have happened without the former - and was partly enabled by the developments that Robert Bakewell and Thomas Coke introduced in selective breeding, which is where so many of our heritage livestock varieties come from*. There was enough pressure on UK food by 1900 because refrigerator ships allowed imported meat and tropical fruit, such that by then half the meat eaten in the country was imported**. From that sense I can totally see the contribution of urbanisation to declines in a sense of value in homegrown produce, but I think there's much more to the story than urbanisation alone.


*though not all - British White cattle were farmed at Whalley Abbey in Lancashire in the 13th century, and my ancestors who lived across the Ribble from there would've been familiar with them. There's a nice farm shop near catthorpe which sells British white beef, happily.
**ironically, much of the imported meat came from Australia, Argentina, New Zealand and the US, and would've been largely varieties of meat bred from breeds exported by the UK in the first place.
El Pollo, yes, I should have been more specific. There were long distance supply chains, but there weren't cold chains until the mid-20th Century. Britain was reliant upon food imports from round the world. But those supply chains were a source of poor quality food. In the late 19th Century Britain had to import food in order to feed the population. But without refrigerated ships those imports were just things that could withstand a long voyage, like wheat or canned foods (which explains why people ate so much corned beef, it was how it was transported from South America).

The other thing to think about is the ownership and use of agricultural land. The French revolution involved large scale confiscation or land from aristocrats and the church. In the late 19th century most agricultural land was made up of small plots owned or worked by people who lived there. This meant that French agriculture as a whole was less productive than in Britain. But it did mean that most of the population lived very close to the food it ate. The opposite happened in Britain, where land ownership was consolidated and production focused upon producing goods for the rapidly expanding urban population (the best example being the eviction of people from the Scottish highlands and their replacement with sheep which were bread to produce wool to be sent to the mills).

As for the different types of vegetables and cheese. Yes, there was more variety than in the 1960s. Mass production was still being developed. But you need to think about who was eating them. I'll guess that members of the urban working classes weren't eating much stilton. Vegetables like apples, carrots and potatoes were easy to transport into the cities because they took a long time to spoil. But the cornucopia of fruit and veg we see in a modern supermarket wasn't available to most of the the urban population until the invention of the cold chain. People eating many forms of 'heritage' vegetables in the 19th Century would probably have grown them in their own gardens. But compared to France, a much smaller proportion of the population could do that.

As for when Britain got a reputation for poor food, my impression is that it dates back to the 19th Century. The best selling Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management gave the aspirant members of the new middle classes advice on cooking. However:
Even with the emphasis on food, some of her cooking advice is so odd as to suggest that she had little experience preparing meals. For example, the book recommends boiling pasta for an hour and forty-five minutes. Like many other British people of her social class and generation, Mrs Beeton adopted a distaste for unfamiliar foods, saying that mangoes tasted like turpentine, lobsters were indigestible, garlic was offensive, potatoes were "suspicious; a great many are narcotic, and many are deleterious", cheese could only be consumed by sedentary people, and tomatoes were either good or bad for a range of reasons.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by bjn » Thu Apr 29, 2021 8:18 am

That fits in with cultures that are more traditionally sexist and agrarian maintaining their food culture. So Italy and Spain for example. Keeping in mind that correlation not being causation and all that.

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Re: British food heritage

Post by noggins » Thu Apr 29, 2021 8:58 am

How about we split the difference? The root cause is early and rapid industrialisation, but modern "remedies" have sexist consequences.

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Re: British food heritage

Post by noggins » Thu Apr 29, 2021 8:59 am

Also lets face the cold hard facts. Mediterranean food is objectively nicer than northern european food.

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Re: British food heritage

Post by Bird on a Fire » Thu Apr 29, 2021 9:17 am

noggins wrote:
Thu Apr 29, 2021 8:58 am
How about we split the difference? The root cause is early and rapid industrialisation, but modern "remedies" have sexist consequences.
This is a part I'm still not sold on.

I'll admit that I was ignoring the extent to which food prep is probably still largely women's work - I hardly have any friends with kids (one, a single dad, is a good cook). I know loads of blokes who do their own shopping and cooking, and at least around here are likely to wax lyrical about food and ingredients in a way British 20-somethings tend not to.

Perhaps they got their knowledge from mums and grannies, bolstered by visits to relatives who still work the land in the country. But that knowledge, enthusiasm and its social acceptability are still around in the environment, so modern "reformed" men can still do it too (time and money permitting).

Whereas, in the UK, social and historical factors might make appreciating one's own heritage more of an uphill struggle.

I'd say that the solution lpm raises - of an equitable division of labour - ought to make appreciating cultural heritage easier while also combating sexism.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by MartinDurkin » Thu Apr 29, 2021 9:20 am

El Pollo Diablo wrote:
Wed Apr 28, 2021 10:25 pm
... Stilton isn't named after the town where it was developed, but the town where it was first onboarded to trains for transport to London.
Not meaning to be picky but are you sure about this? I used to live near Stilton and I didn't think it was ever on the railway, even pre-Beeching. The nearest station would probably have been Holme, or Yaxley. Stilton is on Ermine Street, and I thought that was how it ended up being famous for the cheese. At least that was what the plaque on the wall in The Bell Inn used to say (more than 20 years ago so I could be wrong).

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Re: British food heritage

Post by Bird on a Fire » Thu Apr 29, 2021 9:21 am

noggins wrote:
Thu Apr 29, 2021 8:59 am
Also lets face the cold hard facts. Mediterranean food is objectively nicer than northern european food.
Nah, don't think so. Bavarian food is surprisingly awesome. There's loads of great stuff in northern France - galettes, cheeses, Champagne. British beers and ciders are excellent. Danish pastries.

It's different, I'll give you that, due to historical restrictions on seasonal availability of ingredients, and the climate (people don't want salad when it's freezing).
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Re: British food heritage

Post by lpm » Thu Apr 29, 2021 9:44 am

Is Mediterranean food objectively easier to prepare/cook than northern european food?

Is Mediterranean food objectively easier to grow at home than northern european food?

Do British people value Italian cuisine because it's associated with convenience and cheapness, rather than because it's associated with quality? Everyone seems to really value the traditional pizza from Dominos.... Stereotypically British people do not value Spanish cuisine at all, to the extend of refusing to eat it when in Spain.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by noggins » Thu Apr 29, 2021 10:06 am

I mean, my magical internet warlock powers are going to force you to solely eat one european cuisine for the next 3 months. What do you pick?

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Re: British food heritage

Post by El Pollo Diablo » Thu Apr 29, 2021 10:26 am

MartinDurkin wrote:
Thu Apr 29, 2021 9:20 am
El Pollo Diablo wrote:
Wed Apr 28, 2021 10:25 pm
... Stilton isn't named after the town where it was developed, but the town where it was first onboarded to trains for transport to London.
Not meaning to be picky but are you sure about this? I used to live near Stilton and I didn't think it was ever on the railway, even pre-Beeching. The nearest station would probably have been Holme, or Yaxley. Stilton is on Ermine Street, and I thought that was how it ended up being famous for the cheese. At least that was what the plaque on the wall in The Bell Inn used to say (more than 20 years ago so I could be wrong).
Good challenge - I'd misremembered, it's on the Great North Road, and that was how it was transported.
Wikipedia wrote:According to the Stilton Cheesemaker's Association, the first person to market Blue Stilton cheese was Cooper Thornhill, owner of the Bell Inn on the Great North Road, in the village of Stilton, Huntingdonshire,[9] (now an administrative district of Cambridgeshire). Tradition has it that in 1730, Thornhill discovered a distinctive blue cheese while visiting a small farm near Melton Mowbray in rural Leicestershire – possibly Wymondham.[10] He fell in love with the cheese and made a business arrangement that granted the Bell Inn exclusive marketing rights to Blue Stilton. Soon thereafter, wagonloads of cheese were being delivered there. The village stood on the Great North Road, a main stagecoach route between London and Northern England, so that Thornhill could promote sales and the fame of Stilton spread rapidly.
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Re: British food heritage

Post by Woodchopper » Thu Apr 29, 2021 10:28 am

noggins wrote:
Thu Apr 29, 2021 10:06 am
I mean, my magical internet warlock powers are going to force you to solely eat one european cuisine for the next 3 months. What do you pick?
I’d love to spend a month eating my way across the north coast of Spain. Start in the Basque Country then move west through Asturias and Galicia.

After that French. As Bird pointed out most of France isn’t Mediterranean.

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