As the incoming guest foodie, I will start with a challenge to the acknowledged orthodoxy of regional food. There are no traditional Sussex recipes, nor any traditional recipes driven solely by location.
It is probably more accurate that across the UK, “traditional” recipes were defined more by a person’s money and class than their geographical location. Poorer people ate what they could, usually recipes that included affordable and locally produced ingredients, for example, if one had access to peas, one made a pea dish. Thus, a thick soup made primarily with peas is fundamentally the same dish whether it is claimed as a traditional Northumbrian recipe, was first made at Pease Pottage near Crawley, or was originally imported as a dal recipe from somewhere in India.
Meanwhile, richer people ate what they were given by a peripatetic army of cooks, chefs and nannies who not only used the local food but had the luxury of sourcing ingredients from wherever they could afford them. The upper class “traditional” recipes are therefore as a rule more complex and would have required greater investment of time, expertise, and money.
But where does that leave us in terms of our own cooking practice and looking at traditional Sussex food?
Traditional Sussex ingredients rather than traditional Sussex recipes
If the food of Sussex cannot be defined by traditional Sussex recipes, it can be defined by local ingredients.
After all, it is not just now in the twenty-first century that cooks experiment, creative cooks have always experimented. If an ingredient is or was available, then a cook will have used it in a recipe even if that dish has never been formally recorded. For example, the West Sussex dish of Tarring Figgy Pudding, made with the figs from trees planted by St Richard himself1, has never made it to the recipe books or been labelled “traditional”.
The key is that the people of Sussex have always produced a range of local foodstuffs and raw ingredients, this broad range driven by the specific location within Sussex that provides different soil conditions and microclimate. A quick tiptoe through the county highlighting just the main protein sources shows this variation.
– The coast between Rye and Eastbourne; fish, shellfish, beef cattle and sheep. The latter two once the good burghers of the Middle Ages had destroyed the Sussex salt industry by sufficiently draining the marshes.
– The coastal strip between Brighton and the far west of the county; fish and shellfish.
– The chalk downland; sheep, sheep, and more sheep. Strangely, in Roman times, an environment used to farm snails.
– The great hinterland of the Weald; dairy cattle, pigs and deer.
Clearly not a comprehensive list and one that varies with time, taste, and fashion, but sufficient to start to show the variation and hence the potential variety of food and recipes that we can label as “local” to Sussex.
When does something become traditional?
One more question. How far back in history does a food need to be recorded before it is considered traditional?
Twenty years which makes Sussex wine traditional? Fifty years which makes Sussex mushrooms traditional? One hundred years? Five hundred years? One thousand? Two thousand?
Hang on, does it matter?
Let us cook local Sussex food, create Sussex recipes, and completely leave out the “traditional” label.
The next course
So, in the series of articles that will follow, it will not be a search for old recipes, especially those labelled as traditional Sussex recipes, but an exploration of current local ingredients together with some creative ideas.
Contributed by Paul Hitchcock.
If you’ve enjoyed this post about traditional Sussex recipes, and ingredients, you may also like:
Strange Tales of Old Sussex: Old Sussex Recipes. Part 1
Recipe: Sussex Pie and Sussex Hogs Pudding
Sussex Recipe: Sussex Pond Pudding
The Seven Good Things of Sussex
1 St Richard is reputed to have planted the fig orchard behind the Bishop’s Palace in West Tarring, so the possibility of the dish is very plausible.