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Culinary connections

As many of you may possibly know Cumbria has a distinct Norse heritage but there are far more links than you might realise, including the obvious ones of climate and landscape.

What many don’t realise are the deep-seated and far-reaching cultural links. The Lake District’s Viking age lasted for some 300 years, despite being a relatively transient phase in our history it has left us with more than a few rich cultural traces to explore. With artefacts like Kirkby Stephen’s ‘Loki Stone’ (one of only two in the world), the Norse burial ground at Cumwhitton, the Furness Hoard, Norse crosses as Gosforth and Gilcrux, as well as to place names such as Esthwaite, (the eastern clearing), Elterwater (swan lake) and Sour Milk Ghyll (cascading waterfalls with a milky appearance), to common topographical names such a beck (brook with a stony bed), tarn (small lake), dale (valley) and fell (hill).

It’s thought even our native sheep breed’s name the Herdwick has Norse origins, which is seems glaringly obvious when you learn that local ‘sheep walks’ were known by the Old Norse term ‘herd-vik’. To this day even large parts of Cumbrian dialect can be directly traced back to our Norse ancestors – such as laik (play), lowp (jump) and glisky (shimmering). It’s said that a small party of broad native Cumbrian speakers were taken into some of the remoter parts of Norway on a trip and when they got here it was discovered that they could readily converse with their Norwegian counterparts – perhaps that’s nothing more than a tall tale but I could well believe it….

That heritage even extends to Cumbria’s near legendary hospitality, some might argue it’s based on the Nordic concept of Hygge. Which once you understand a little about the concept is in actuality very close to most Cumbrian’s hearts, though in most cases we may not necessarily be aware of the term. Pronounced ‘hoo-ga’ it’s derived from the Norwegian word for well-being, which fits rather well, especially as food is a central tenet of the concept…

As we’ve mentioned in this column before there Norse influences found in many of our more traditional foods, including air dried hams, rye breads, Havercake, Cumberland bean pickle, damson jelly, and a whole array of farmhouse butters, yoghurts and cheeses and that’s without us even touching on the beer side of things. The Norse utilised foods that were readily available in the landscape, harvesting nuts berries, fruits in line with the seasons, growing seasonal crops and vegetables and rearing cattle, sheep, pigs and poultry suited to our intemperate climate and largely mountainous landscape. But there’s much more to it than that, theirs was an ethical approach to the entire culinary life-cycle – an approach that is still a core element of our food heritage and tradition.

Whilst aspects and elements of that tradition may have come and gone, some have remained constant, particularly those linked to the preservation of food, including methods, which many of us will have inevitably practiced over the years but won’t have thought too deeply about.

A classic example is the making of jams and chutneys in our home kitchens. Harvesting fruit from local hedgerows or even a glut of vegetables from our home gardens, allotments of greenhouses and then turning them into condiments for the table, essentially in the simplest form preserving them for future use.

There are obviously slightly more involved food preservation techniques such as smoking, curing, drying, fermenting and pickling, but essentially they all serve the same purpose and that’s to preserve foods for use during the winter months when they are in short supply.

Food preservation itself is nothing new, you only have to look at food cultures across the globe and throughout the ages to see that we have and still do to some extent practice some form of preservation in times of plenty, ready for leaner times ahead.

Sauerkraut a staple of Tartar culture is now a German tradition staple, kimchi a major player for over 4000 years in Korean cuisine can be found in nearly every supermarket around the globe, miso a central feature of Japanese food is a chefs favourite the world over, Pastrami a central feature of any self-respecting New York deli has its origins in Turkish cuisine, migrated through Eastern Europe during the Ottoman Empire and was refined by the Romanians before making it to the USA, Achaar pickles made with lime, lemon, ginger and mango features are an Indian staple and feature across in Nepali, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, African and Portuguese cuisine as well.

There are many food traditions that have been adopted and amended over time and strangely Cumberland Sauce fits the bill rather well too. You would perhaps think that the name refers to its place of origin, the reality, however, is that the sauce has its origins in Germany, where an earlier version traditionally accompanied game dishes.

The sauce’s name as it happens is directly linked to William Augustus, the Duke of Cumberland, who was immensely popular in England, after his victory at Culloden in 1746, and the sauce was named in his honour, he also happened to be a Hanoverian (German) prince, which might explain the link a little.

The first real reference to the condiment on these shores, appears in an early English cookbook by Hannah Glasse, published in 1747, The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy, but despite this other references are few and far between, until the 19th century, when Cumberland sauce becomes something of a hit.

As you would quite rightly expect over time the recipe has been embellished and altered slightly to reflect changing tastes, with the addition of port, mustard and citrus to most recipes, though the base ingredients for the original, red currants, red wine, sugar and red wine vinegar, essentially a gastrique, haven’t changed too much.

You see food is an incredibly evocative thing, it connects us with our heritage, and our cultural traditions and perhaps most importantly it’s also an important part of us connecting and relating to people from other backgrounds.

Our ancestors may have been highly averse to wasting nutrient-rich ingredients, which is why they preserved everything in sight but by being that way inclined they’ve indirectly created a lasting legacy, which in many cases are the central components of food cultures across the globe to this today.

Here’s our recipe for Cumberland Sauce:

Cumberland Sauce


250g redcurrant jelly

50ml port

100ml red wine

Juice and zest of 1 orange

Juice and zest of 1 lemon

20g ginger root

1 tsp English mustard

Pinch cayenne

4g agar agar


Remove the zest from the lemon and orange with as little pith as possible, the squeeze the juice into a pan, add all the other ingredients apart from the agar agar and bring to the boil. Once it has boiled turn it down to a gentle simmer and allow to infuse for 45 minutes. Strain the sauce off into a clean pan and add the agar agar, bring up to the boil while whisking and boil for 1 minute. Strain again through a clean strainer into a suitable container and put in the fridge to set for at least 4 hours preferably overnight. Blend in a blender until smooth and place in a jar or squeezy bottle.

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