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There is something undoubtedly compelling about the pastoral beauty of Yorkshire. The hefted sheep lazily grazing, the drystone walls and winding lanes, the questioning call of a lapwing as it takes flight against a big blue sky. Beautiful and diverse, encompassing great swathes of bucolic countryside including the Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors and part of the Peak District National Park – it is easy to see why it is loved by so many.
Of course, Yorkshire’s appeal runs far deeper than its many cascading waterfalls and wildflower meadows. With its warm and welcoming hospitality, England’s largest historic county also has a rich food heritage, producing many award-winning dishes and delicacies. From the staunchly traditional, to the innovative and modern, time spent in this green and pleasant land is undoubtedly time spent well-fed.
So, with this in mind, let’s unlace the hiking boots, unclip the rucksack, and take a delicious dive into the joy of food and drink in Yorkshire.
Let’s start at the end, and also at the beginning. Let’s start with pudding.
Eggs. Flour. Milk.
Simple, delicious. Fat, golden puffs of batter, now most commonly found nestled between the carrots and the parsnips of a roast dinner, but historically eaten before the main meal, when meat was an indulgence and not a staple. Served as a starter, perhaps with a simple splash of gravy, Yorkshire pudding was meant to fill you up so a lean cut would stretch a bit further. It was also served (and continues to be) as the primary ingredient in a ‘Yorkshire salad’; a friend recalls her grandmother serving the piping hot Yorkshires with chopped lettuce and mint from the garden. Other iterations include pairing the pudding with thinly sliced cucumber and onion, zingy with vinegar.
The evolution of the famous Yorkshire pudding has since seen it spilling out of its historically supporting role, and being crowned more frequently as the backbone of a dish. In a friendly country pub a mate orders a Yorkshire pudding wrap that comes full of beef and gravy, in another, it pops up on the dessert menu – its golden shell the perfect vessel for a generous dollop of cream and jam.
Regardless of which course you may find it in, the Yorkshire pudding is a jewel in its county’s crown. A sentiment perhaps best expressed in a poem written in 1935 by Western and Lee, that reads: ‘The real Yorkshire pudden’s a poem in batter, / To make one’s an art not a trade.’
Creamy brie, sweet smooth gouda, and mature, muslin-wrapped cheddar. You don’t need to travel far in Yorkshire to find a cheese that deserves pride of place on any after-dinner cheese board.
It is unsurprising therefore that cheesemaking, both an art and a science, has been part of the rural and cultural landscape of this region since the 12th century. And, although it is thought to have been the Romans who spread this skill throughout Europe, it was the French Cistercian monks who brought with them their cheese-making know-how when they arrived in 1150 AD. Indeed, it was the monks who first made the well known, and well-loved, Wensleydale. Back then, instead of being white like we know it today, the cheese had a bluish tinge and was soft enough to be spread like butter.
Now, the crumbly Yorkshire Wensleydale is produced exclusively in North Yorkshire and sealed with a Protected Geographical Indication – a certification which recognises the relationship between a product’s geography, and its reputation, characteristics and quality. The cheese’s popularity was bolstered significantly (during a time in which it was arguably in economic peril) when it was mentioned by Wallace, by the adored British claymation duo Wallace and Gromit. Rumour has it, that Nick Parks (the franchise’s creator) chose Wensleydale to be Wallace’s cheese of choice because of the delightful comedic effect that came when animating its pronunciation. Clearly, a joy to say, and obviously a joy to eat, it is now one of over 85 locally produced artisan cheeses produced in the region.
Wensleydale also has a habit of popping up in unlikely places. In a little cafe, perched on an old stone bridge, we order a slab of fruit cake, which comes (to my companion’s surprise) with an accompanying hunk of cheese. This pairing is not a new one, however, the food historian Peter Brears tracing it back to the Victorians who would pair Christmas cake with a side of Christmas cheese. It is claimed that the zingy, zesty flavour of a crumbly cheese can complement the richness of a fruit cake or a tea loaf; indeed, sitting in the Yorkshire sunshine, listening to the garbled conversation of a pair of riverside ducks, I would have to say I agree.
There are only two things that you can get for free in this world and that’s rhubarb and kittens.
At least that’s what my dad’s friend told me when I asked if he knew anyone looking for a farmyard kitten. Farm cats, of course, are never hard to find and rhubarb I believe has this reputation because of its exceptionally hardy nature. Once established, it will grow almost anywhere and is notoriously hard to kill. Left to fend on its own however it will turn sour (both in taste and perhaps also in outlook) which means it must be tempered with lots of sugar to become appealing. Yorkshire farmers though have a trick, which not only produces sweet pink stems but does so satisfyingly quickly. This process is known as ‘forcing’ and has been around since 1877. It was the first place in the world in which special ‘forcing sheds’ were erected so that the rhubarb could be grown in the dark. By removing any source of natural light, the plant searches for sunshine, growing quicker than normal and retaining glucose in its stems instead of in its big green leaves. On the quietest of winter days, in the depths of the inky darkness, you can hear the gentle creaking of the rhubarb growing. When harvesting the stalks, even a beam from a torch or a cracked door can disrupt the forcing process, so farmers pick their crop in the soft glow of candlelight. But this is not easy work, the rhubarb must be picked by hand and is therefore highly labour intensive.
The quality of rhubarb coming out of Yorkshire soon became internationally recognised and for a brief period in the 1950s, an area known colloquially as the ‘Rhubarb Triangle’ (made up of around 200 growers), was responsible for producing almost 90% of the world’s winter rhubarb. Although far smaller than it once was, this agriculture tradition still continues today within a nine-square-mile radius between Wakefield, Morley and Rothwell. Incredibly versatile and available fresh in the first three months of the year, rhubarb offers a bright pink glow to any winter kitchen. Tangy, tasty and celebrated at an annual festival in Wakefield, this sort of rhubarb isn’t free, but it certainly is worth it.
Shortcrust pastry. Curd Cheese. Eggs. Lemon. Butter. Currants. Nutmeg.
Dating back to the mid-17th century, the Yorkshire curd tart was originally made using colostrum from cows – the rich milk initially produced for a newborn calf. Traditionally made for Whitsuntide, a period of celebration within the Christian faith, it would be served at fairs and feasts and flavoured with rosewater. Now, the tart is made using curd cheese and offers a lovely alternative to cheesecake.
Remember, remember the fifth of November, gunpowder treason and plot.
Another traditional classic, parkin is a sticky gingerbread cake made with oatmeal and treacle. It’s been around since 1728 and is often eaten around Bonfire Night. This annual celebration, which takes place on the 5th of November, marks the arrest of Guy Fawkes who, in 1605, was found guarding explosives intended to blow up James I. The plot went awry when the conspirators were caught and Fawkes and his comrades were found guilty of treason. Later, the survival of the King was celebrated by the burning of effigies and the lighting of bonfires, a tradition still found in Britain today.
The fiery parkin remains to be the perfect accompaniment to Guy Fawkes Night; its gingery sponge offers a welcoming kick on a cold winter’s night. It is also enjoyed spread thickly with butter and paired with a steaming mug of Yorkshire tea.
Cream tea is a well-known, typically British tradition, but one (at least in contrast to curd tarts and parkin) that is relatively new. It first appeared in the 1880s, when Anna, the 7th Duchess of Bedford and lifelong friend of Queen Victoria, complained of feeling empty in the long hours of an idle afternoon. While a light luncheon was served around midday, the evening meal wasn’t until around 8 pm, so the Duchess solved the ‘sinking feeling’ by taking tea, sandwiches and cake at around 4 pm every afternoon. Soon, she began inviting friends over to enjoy this delightful ritual with her, and in almost no time at all, it had successfully evolved into a British institution.
So, as I lean my bicycle against a drystone wall blooming with lavender, I feel as if my cycling shorts should really be replaced by a bustling petticoat, as I order a cream tea in the springtime sunshine. The tea is plentiful, and the scones are fat with cream and jam. A hedge sparrow hops onto the table and fixes me with a beady eye. The afternoon lazes by, a farmer passing on a quad bike, two collies panting on the back. There is something decadent and lovely about a proper cream tea, sat outside a cafe in the heart of Yorkshire. It’s a tradition enjoyed by visitors and locals alike, from the high-end celebratory events served with champagne, to the classic, cafe cream teas that come with a never-ending supply of tea.
Although the Duchess of Bedford was said to be a bit of a gossip, deliberately spreading rumours about pregnancy out of wedlock, it’s undeniable that the request for tea and cake in the golden hours of a kong afternoon was a very sensible suggestion indeed.
All this sweetness: it’s bound to make you a bit thirsty. Luckily, locally brewed beer is a Yorkshire staple. From a well-hopped IPA to a more traditional bitter, many a happy evening can be spent in one of the many breweries that pepper the region. With a long and distinguished brewing heritage, the variety of award-winning pints pulled in Yorkshire is a source of pride for many of the county’s residents.
With many breweries offering tours, with the chance to chat with experienced brewers about growing their own barley, sourcing organic ingredients and harnessing sustainable power – it’s a beer enthusiast’s paradise. With no trouble keeping up with the ever-evolving craft brewing scene and a solid history of producing good honest ales, it is no surprise that Yorkshire is known for its brewing excellence.
So whether you’ve just finished pedalling up a notorious hill climb, or brushing the sand from your boots after a seaside ramble, look no further than the closest picturesque pub for your perfect pint.
Artisan gin also has a well-established stronghold in Yorkshire, the county has produced the spirit since the 1500s. In the 18th century, gin was cheaper than beer and became the tipple of choice for the poor, who also had limited access to clean water. This period of history became known as the ‘gin craze’ in England. In 1743 England was drinking 10 litres of industrial-strength gin per person per year. The government attempted to implement legislation to curb consumption, yet it had little impact, the bootleggers continuing to pedal the spirit without concern. During this time, it was common that the clear, lethal liquid was topped up with sulphuric acid and other equally sinister substitutes that led to the tipple becoming associated with madness, destitution and death.
Moving into the welcoming syrupy sunshine of the 21st century, Yorkshire’s gin thankfully bears no resemblance to the rough, paint-stripper spirit that was once so popular in its cobbled streets. Now home to over 45 gin distilleries (many of which have been recognised internationally) the region produces some of the best gins in the world.
Sharp, clear and versatile – whether you’re a fan of the classic gin and tonic, or drawn towards a floral or fruity inspired variety, you’ll be sure to find a gin that will be infinitely more charming than its historical predecessors.
With its friendly, hard-working locals and fertile, diverse landscape, it is unsurprising that Yorkshire is home to some of the best produce in the country. From the cherished classics – crispy golden Yorkshire puddings, spicy ginger parkin and crumbling, creamy Wensleydale to the fresh flair of artisanal gins and playfully innovative craft beers, this historic county offers the best of the past and the most exciting of the present.
So, wonderfully full with all manner of delights, we must stop lounging on our picnic blankets, surrounded by crumbs, and find the energy to lace up our hiking boots and pull back on our rucksacks. As we leave the hazy summer field and begin the wander back into the honey-coloured village, it is a warming thought that there remains a full weekend, stretching out ahead, with time enough to enjoy all that is Yorkshire.