Traditional Kentish dishes
PUBLISHED: 15:34 29 August 2014 | UPDATED: 15:34 29 August 2014
Manu Palomeque 07977074797
As the Garden of England, we all know that Kent is blessed with an abundance of freshly grown produce. But perhaps it’s less well known that our county is also home to an array of its own local dishes
All across the country, different regions and counties have developed dishes and recipes that over the centuries have become synonymous with that place.
Think of Lancashire and ‘hotpot’ might come to mind. Conjure up Liverpool and it would be hard not to think of ‘Scouse’. And mention Pontefract and the world’s most disappointing and revolting [sic] cake might drift into your consciousness.
Some of these foods and dishes even have protected status, which acts like a Trade Mark, stopping manufacturers from outside a region copying a regional product and selling it.
Foods that enjoy such protection include the Cumberland Sausage, Melton Mowbray Pork Pies and Stornoway Black Pudding.
In a county with such a strong sense of identity as ours, it’s not surprising that there is a similar array of dishes and foods unique to Kent.
It’s a selection that includes the likes of Huffkins, Gypsy Tarts and Canterbury Pudding, delicious fare with an indelible sense of place and an intriguing back story often attached.
“Take the Gypsy Tart, for example,” says Sarah Wentz of the Rocksalt Restaurant in Folkestone, one of many such establishments that still serve traditional local foods and dishes.
“The apocryphal tale behind this dessert is that during the early years of the previous century, a local lady became troubled by the sight of some undernourished gypsy children playing in fields nearby her house.
“Eventually, her pity roused to action, she decided to feed them. With nothing more than a pie crust, evaporated milk and brown sugar in her pantry, she made the sweet tart that we know and eat today.
“Since then the Gypsy Tart has become one of Kent’s most recognisable local dishes, still made in its bakeries and served in many of its cafés and restaurants.”
But although Kent has long had a robust sense of its own food history and an array of foods that have embodied this, for a time it looked as though many of these traditional dishes might die out.
After all, if we’re honest, how many of us have ever actually eaten Cherry Batter Pudding, Ginger Cobnut Cake or Folkestone Pudding Pie?
“It’s sad, but there are quite a few dishes that have fallen by the wayside over the years” says Helen Parkins, author of A Kentish Kitchen, a blog that celebrates the food of Kent.
“There are probably a number of reasons for this, for example our disconnection from food production in recent years, the rise of convenience food, our increasingly busy lives giving us less time or inclination to cook plus the availability of more unusual or ‘exotic’ foods from overseas (particularly in supermarkets).
“Although why this has affected some counties more than others is unclear because after all, these are factors that hold true across the whole country and not just here in Kent.”
But not all is lost. Along with the staples that have managed to survive (such as the ever-popular Gypsy Tart), a recent resurgence in interest in ‘all things local’ has led to the rediscovery and slight renaissance of other traditional dishes and foods.
“Things are definitely changing,” agrees Helen. “In the past few years, there’s been a renewed interest in ‘forgotten’ food, and it’s good to see some of the old favourites now back in favour.
“Kent’s top chefs are at the forefront too, not only of reviving traditional dishes but also creating exciting new ones from the best of Kentish produce in ways that acknowledge the county’s culinary past.”
Stephanie Durling, the business development manager of Produced in Kent, the membership organisation dedicated to championing local food, drink, products and services in Kent, feels that this renewed interest is part of a wider trend that has seen more and more people become re-acquainted with local food.
“Over the past decade there has been a definite upswing in the numbers of people choosing to buy food that’s been grown here in Kent,” she says.
“Provenance has become a major issue and knowing where your food comes from now matters more than it once did. From this trend, you can see the natural progression to developing an interest in traditional Kentish food, dishes that are linked indelibly with the county.”
One example of traditional food enjoying a significant renaissance is the humble huffkin. “Huffkins have always been around but in recent years they’ve certainly grown in popularity,” agrees Martin Flynn of Oscars bakery in Faversham.
Traditionally a wide, flat bread roll, about six inches across and a little under an inch thick, the huffkin is not the sort of product that you’re going to see huge industrial bakers knocking out, as it requires lengthy rising time and tends to be the preserve of the master baker.
The ingredients are simple: flour, water, yeast, a pinch of salt and butter (or depending who bakes it, lard).
“What sets a huffkin apart from, say, a tea-cake or bap is the indentation in the centre made by the baker’s thumb pressing it down,” says Martin.
Tradition has it (and you can probably take this with a pinch of salt) that both the name and the signature indent can trace their origin to one woman’s bad temper.
The tale goes that one day a baker’s wife was in a mood (or huff) about something, went into her husband’s bakery and, in a fit of temper, plunged her finger into every loaf that was waiting to be made.
With the loaves apparently ruined she challenged her husband to sell them if he could (confident that he would fail).
It probably didn’t help her mood much that, as the story goes, he not only sold all the loaves but also gave birth to one of the county’s favourite traditional foods.
“Since I started baking these about 15 years ago, they’ve gone from strength to strength and now we’re producing around 1,000 a week,” says Martin.
Walk into any number of cafés and restaurants across the county today and you can now grab yourself a huffkin – at cafés such as Mrs Jones’ Kitchen in Canterbury, for example.
“Huffkins have proved to be enormously popular,” says Clare Williamson, who co-owns and runs the café.
“They’re versatile, can come in different varieties, such as wholemeal and brioche versions and seem to chime with people looking for something that is distinctively ‘local’. We get through around 300 a week and that number is only growing.”
Despite the mini-renaissance in traditional foods, it’s fair to say that most of the dishes mentioned in this article rarely make it onto our dinner tables, which is a shame.
But Helen Parkins thinks that the silver lining is that their ‘uncommonness’ also represents an opportunity.
“It’s an opportunity because readers now have a chance to experience these wonderful local dishes for the first time.”
But where should we start? Helen has a few suggestions. “Lenten or pudding pie would be a great place to begin.
“This dish, which supposedly originates from Folkestone, is a deceptively simple sweet pie, combining a light and gently spiced custardy filling with currants. It makes an elegant and delicious summer dessert if served cold.
“And if you enjoy that, then this could represent the beginning of a beautiful relationship with forgotten food and one more step to ensuring that these old dishes come back to life.” n