Having written before of the cooks whose Sussex recipes (called in those days receipts) shaped the diet of our county and even introduced some foreign, more exotic elements, some of the earliest references are worth a mention.
Usipi to minced pies
Tacitus, in his memoir of his father-in-law Agricola, who held several governing offices for Rome in Britain between 61 and 83 AD, speaks of the Usipi, a tribe that had been recruited from Germany and transferred to Britain, and then revolted and took to looting and pillaging around the coasts of Britain. “They were finally reduced to such straits of famine that they first ate the weakest of their number and then victims drawn by lot” (Tacitus on Britain and Germany – translated by H.Mattingly 1948)!
More recently, we find more about our ancestors’ delights from their diaries. Thomas Turner (c18th) shopkeeper, schoolmaster and general factotum of East Hoathly, was fond of a Milk Punch (but sadly seldom stopped at one) and although always poor, managed some challenging meals with his neighbours, “After ten we went to supper on four boiled chickens, four boiled ducks, minced veal, sausages cold roast goose, chicken pastry and ham”!
Timothy Burrell lived at Ockenden Manor in Cuckfield in the 17th century and in his diary/account book and commentary records memorable meals, this one a small dinner for four at Christmastide included: Peas Pottage, 2 carp, 2 tench, capons, pullet, fried oysters baked pudding, roast leg of mutton, apple pudding, tart and mince pies! And you can still enjoy a superb meal in the very room in which this was all served.
The Sussex Churdle
The Sussex Churdle is similar in shape to a Cornish pasty, crimped around the edges but with a small chimney in the middle. The filling, chopped, is liver, bacon, and onion, and down the chimney is poured melted cheese. I remember having an excellent version of the Churdle in the 1990s at The Three Cups at Three Cups Corner, east of Heathfield.
One of the most famous recipes of Sussex must be that for cooking carp. Carp were supposed to have been introduced to Sussex in the 16th century by Leonard Mascall of Plumpton. The recipe that has come down to me is, “Take your carp, gut him, and clean him, stuff him with good fresh herbs and butter him well. Take two short, clean deal boards; butter them well and place the carp between them and tie the whole thing in a muslin cloth. Steam for 4 hours. Take out, throw away the carp (it’s more or less inedible) and eat the boards – they’re delicious!”
To bring the Sussex culinary story up to date, there are several good cookbooks in Sussex that deserve a mention. Katie Stewart, known to me and one of the most reliable cookery editors of the late 20th century lived up to her death at Cuckfield and many of her recipes remain staples in our house. Tribute to her was given in A Feast of West Sussex (Summersdale 2014) by Rosemary Moon, cookery writer and demonstrator, sometime deli owner and allotment holder with a passion for locally sourced produce whose book is regarded as a very worthy shelf companion of the old and worn Sussex Recipe Book.
Some of Moon’s recipes have emanated from the chefs at the establishments where they were produced. In addition to the late and lamented Hungry Monk at Jevington, we have had and still enjoy some great “gastro hotels”. One of the first, in addition to its famous gardens and under the ownership of Peter Herbet, is Gravetye Manor. Other newer establishments include Amberley Castle (I recall leading the carol singing when it was still a private house), South Lodge, Bailiff’s Court (near Littlehampton) and Jeremy’s at Borde Hill.
Contributed by Peter Benner
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