We all love to seek out comfort foods heading into Autumn, but what is the origin story of some of Cumbria’s most delectable delights?
From secret recipes in vaults, Cumbria’s colonial history, to cake being taken almost 9,000 meters in the air we look at the history of our beloved snacks.
Kicking off we have a treat people travel from all over the world to sample at the renowned Grasmere Gingerbread Shop.
Nestled into a tiny cottage in the village that inspired Wordsworth’s Daffodils you can find tourists and locals queuing up to sample this Lake District treat, but where did it come from?
According to sugarcraft scholar Steven Stellingwerf, gingerbread may have been introduced to Western Europe by 11th-century crusaders returning from the Eastern Mediterranean.
Gingerbread was a favourite treat at festivals and fairs in medieval Europe—often shaped and decorated to look like flowers, birds, animals, or even armour—and several cities in France and England hosted regular "gingerbread fairs" for centuries.
Grasmere’s take on the eastern Mediterranean gingerbread was invented by Victorian cook Sarah Nelson in 1850.
Born into a poor household, she spent her adolescent years working in the kitchens of aristocratic families. Vice news reported in their ‘The Last Bite’ column how Nelson’s version of the beloved treat came to be: “Holding the relatively respectable position of housekeeper and cook in a local household, Nelson got more creative with her dishes and developed the recipe for Grasmere Gingerbread. She began selling it from a tabletop balanced across a tree stump to passersby, until the treat drummed up enough attention that she was able to afford a premises of her own.”
That premises being the church cottage that thousands flock to just to get a taste of the famous ginger treat; which recipe is such a closely guarded secret it is purportedly by the shops manager to be ‘locked up in a bank vault in Ambleside’.
Sticky Toffee Pudding
The staple British pud is usually featured in greasy spoons and high-end establishments such as Gordon Ramsay’s Bar and Grill up and down the country. Its past, is as sticky as the sauce itself.
Featured in bake-off this week, the foodie debate here is whether it was invented by our commonwealth comrades in Canada or invented in Cartmel in the South Lakes.
In an interview with the BBC, Sarah Holliday, co-owner of Cartmel’s Sticky Toffee Pudding Company and manager of the Cartmel Village shop, admits: “We've championed it, embraced it and pushed it forward more than anyone else, but we did not invent it.”
So, if Cartmel produces the signature version of the hot pud, but didn’t invent it, then how did its history become embedded within Cumbria?
Likewise, to the gingerbread secret, local lore claims that Sharrow Cross Bay hotel in Ulverston holds the recipe in a vault that Francis Coulson, a Bedfordshire-born chef developed what he called “icky sticky toffee pudding”.
Supposedly, the idea for the pudding's toffee sauce was sparked when he met two Canadian air force officers while staying at a hotel in Lancashire during WWII.
The Canadian counterclaim from a British-themed pub in Ontario says that the pilots gave the recipe to the hotel manager, a woman named Patricia Martin, and decades later she’d given that same recipe to Coulson.
The true origin story of sticky toffee pudding is unknown, whether Cumbrian or Canadian it’s beloved the world over and the true debate is do you have yours with ice cream or cream?
Cumberland Rum Nicky
What happens when you combine the flavours of sticky toffee pudding’s signature dates, Cumbrian rum butter, and Grasmere's gingerbread’s ginger?
A Cumberland Rum Nicky! This mashup of ingredients encased in shortcrust pastry can be scranned down as a pie or tart.
The pie enjoyed by many at bake-off fetes across the county has quite a dark history.
The ingredients of this baked delight can be traced back to the notorious Triangular Trade; part of Britain’s slave trade history.
Whitehaven, amongst Workington and Maryport was at the heart of receiving imported goods that are a dominant feature of the flavours that go into the pie such as; ginger, unrefined sugar, and rum from the UK’s Caribbean colonials of the 18th and early 19th century, according to records from Cumbria county councils archives.
Tess Baxter, author of The Lake District and Cumbria in Recipes wrote how these exotic imports were a rarity in other areas of the UK.
They became an affordable amenity to the county’s locals through extensive smuggling at the heart of the coastal ports of Cumbria. And the inventor of this sour historied pie is completely unknown…
Kendal Mint Cake
This peppermint sugar tablet traditionally wrapped in paper is a favourite amongst ramblers, climbers, and mountaineers seeking a portable sugar rush for ventures.
Originating in Kendal, how did this calorific confection become so popular, and which manufacturer out of Romneys, Quiggins, and Wilson’s produced the original recipe?
Legend has it that this sugary snack was created by accident by a local confectioner, Joseph Wiper, in the 19th century and was a product of a batch of glacier mints gone wrong.
Overnight they had clouded and solidified into the ‘cake’ form we consume today. Wiper’s great-nephew, Robert took over the Kendalian family-owned business and marketed his uncle’s mistake as potentially the world’s first energy bar for expeditioners.
It became popularised by Sir Ernest Shackleton after he was gifted it by R. Wiper on his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition that lasted three years.
The cake reached new heights when it was taken by British mountaineering expeditioners on the first-ever ascent of Mount Everest assisted by Tibetan and Nepalese porters.
Though not explicitly known how Quiggin’s acquired R. Wiper’s recipe they were the first to fully commercialise the mint cake back in 1872.
As James Wilson, a Kendal confectioner saw the popularity of mint cake rise in 1915 he saw this as an opportunity to market his own version of the cake and later down the line would become synonymous with the World of Beatrix Potter’s version of mint cake being exclusively licensed as their confectioners.
Despite this, Romney’s confectioners for most Cumbrians are the most popular producers of mint cake.
Mr Sam. T. Clarke, the great grandfather of the present Managing Director, Mr John Barron, started production of Romney’s Kendal Mint Cake in 1918 after being medically discharged during the First World War.
Who’s your favourite mint cake confectioner?
Post in the comments below!