We often hear the expression, “compliments to the Chef.” However we should also add compliments to the farmers who contributed from early times up to today by enabling us to get fresh ingredients and turn a simple dish into a tasty one. British agriculture covers cereals to dairy products, fruit and vegetables, as well as a large variety of fish and meat.
Today I will take you for a walk through the British countryside (don’t forget your boots!), feel the breeze on your face and wander around the farms. Time and again we will listen to the farmer’s voice down the ages.
The Age of Discovery
The Renaissance in Europe initiated a scientific revolution, the Age of Discovery, which in turn produced the agricultural and industrial revolutions. However, we have to remember that it was at this time 1492 that the New World was discovered. It was the British who were noticeably in the forefront of these events particularly in England where scientific agriculture was the most efficient and advanced. Enclosure had brought about a fundamental reorganisation of land ownership and advanced techniques like land drainage allowed the cultivation of more land.
Experimentation in plant breeding produced improved varieties of many crops including those like Potatoes that were introduced from the New World. This explains the different varieties available now for roasting, baking and boiling. Also because of the farmers ability to produce large quantities cheaply they became a staple accompaniment to all main meals. They can be roasted, mashed, baked, fried or turned into chips or crisps. As the potato was easy to grow in the wet and damp English climate famine and starvation became less common.
Due to weather and soil conditions, the British farmer developed another staple crop, apples. The apple orchard became a feature of most farms and in the south of England, especially in Kent and orchards are still found around big houses to this day. By experimenting they produced many varieties (up to 200 at one point) from eating apples like Coxs’, Pippins, Granny Smiths to cooking apples that were harder and kept longer like the famous Bramley that is normally used in Apple Pie. Apples that were damaged or didn’t keep were used to make cider or vinegar to minimize waste. So you can understand now why the traditional desert after the main meal especially in winter is a Bramley Apple Pie or apple crumble served with custard or cream.
The humble Apple Pie (source)
Now gaze out over the fields. Did you know that for centuries farmers simply planted seed by throwing it! Only in the 1700s did Jethro Tull invent the Seed Drill which mechanically planted seeds into even rows without waste so that the birds did not immediately eat them all. This saved money and time as well as increasing production and lowering prices.
Animal Farming/ Pastoral Farming
Since we were talking about fields we can’t miss the pasture and cattle. Experimentation in breeding brought new strains of cattle and sheep. The Guernsey cow was and still is a heavy milk producer while the Aberdeen Angus is famous for its steak. The farmer’s wife took charge of all the poultry selling the eggs and birds. Chicken, Turkey, Goose and ducklings were and still are the traditional lunches for annual festivities. Although the Turkey is the most famous, a roasted Goose or large roast chicken until recently was a very common dish at Christmas.
Roast Goose with all the trimmings (source)
Meanwhile Great Britain was quickly becoming industrialised. The introduction of farm machinery, changes in the pattern of trade and the high standard of milk encouraged farmers to focus more on dairying and cheese making, as well as other products. This in itself was incorporated into cooking. Do I have to mention Custard Tart or Bread & Butter Pudding or the varieties of cheeses? These include Stilton, Cheddar, Goat Cheese and even English Brie! In fact, there are more English cheeses than French.
A selection of English Cheeses (source)
British farming doesn’t finish here, we still have fish farming ahead. Salmon farming is the pride of the Scots and Trout farming is becoming increasingly common.