Okay, so when you think of travelling around the UK you’re probably not thinking about the cuisine. But there’s a whole world of culinary delights across the south west that you might not be aware of. Why not try one when you’re next in the area? You’ll be supporting local businesses and expanding your palate – and you may just find a new favourite treat to bring you back again.
Maids of Honour Tarts
Legend says these tarts were created during the reign of King Henry VIII, who discovered some of the Queen’s Maids of Honour eating cakes and demanded to taste one. Finding them delicious, he promptly named them after the maids (one of whom was believed to be Anne Boleyn, later his second wife) and kept the recipe under lock and key at Richmond Palace. Considered to be a Surrey delicacy, they’ve even featured in the Great British Bake Off! Traditionally you’ll find these puff pastry shells filled with cheese curds, but more modern variations add jam or almonds and nutmeg.
These sweet treats are easy to make – Delicious Magazine have a recipe that takes less than hour from rolling out the pastry to cooling on the counter – but a visit to Newens Tea House in Kew to sample Maids of Honour tarts shouldn’t be turned down. Established in 1850, the Newens family have been making the pastries since they opened, and they’ve gotten the recipe to a fine art – ideal for an afternoon tea when you’ve finished exploring Kew Gardens.
Of course, everyone has heard of the Dorset Knob. These crusty, button-shaped morsels are a traditional Dorset treat when eaten with “Blue Vinny” cheese. Popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the author Thomas Hardy was a particular fan – finishing many of his meals with Dorset knobs and Stilton cheese. It’s believed that they were first created by bakers using the leftover dough from the day’s baking to create hard, long-lasting biscuits.
These days they’re not the easiest to get hold of – only Moore's Bakery in Bridport still produces Dorset knobs, and then only for a couple of months a year. They’re not easy to make – from rolling to cooling takes up to 10 hours, including 4 hours of baking to get the characteristic rock-hard texture that explodes into thousands of crumbs on first bite. Of course, if you can get hold of them, they’ll last for months – so you can enjoy them for most of the year!
Such is the fondness in which these little biscuits are held that there’s even an entire festival built around them – the Knob Throwing Festival. Held every two years in Cattistock, the main event is – as the name suggests – the knob throwing competition. You’ll also find knob-and-spoon races, knob darts, knob painting and guessing the weight of the (rather large) Dorset knob.
Hampshire is widely thought as the home of British Watercress – its clear rivers providing an ideal growing environment for this nutritious plant. Widely known as a sandwich ingredient or as part of the classic watercress soup, Hampshire watercress is best noted for its distinctive peppery, mustard-like flavour that sets it apart from pretenders!
The Georgian town of Alresford near Winchester is the Watercress Capital of the UK – holding an annual Watercress festival every year. Indeed, such was the proliferation of watercress growers at the peak of the industry, the railway line that once ran between Alton and Winchester was christened the Watercress Line due to the sheer number of trains that ran towards London carrying the crop to the capital. Nowadays, it’s still used as a fond moniker for the Mid Hants Railway – a perfect way to arrive in style to the festival thanks to their station at the town.
But watercress isn’t just for sandwiches and soups – you can also pick up a unique watercress gin from Winchester Distillery. The award-winning Twisted Nose uses local ingredients – including lavender and coriander from the South Downs.
New Forest Wild Boar and Pork
Wild boar is no recent addition to British plates, having been eaten since before the 10th century. Indeed, boar meat was so popular the species was nearly extinct by the 11th century, with William the Conqueror introducing a law against unlawfully killing a wild boar. Charles I attempted to reintroduce boar into the New Forest – ultimately unsuccessfully after the population was exterminated during the English Civil War. Nowadays, despite a small population in west Dorset, most wild boar in the south west can be found on specialist farms.
Swallowfields Farm in Bramshaw is just one of those farms – said to have a rich nutty flavour and a deeper colour likened to beef with crackling, it’s a tasty alternative to traditional pork. Plus, with it’s higher protein and lower fat content, it’s healthier too.
Lovers of pork may like to try pannage pork, however: for 60 days between September and November one of the many unique traditions of the Forest comes into play, with pig farmers permitted to release their pigs into the New Forest to feast on the millions of acorns that have dropped. Pigs will also gorge themselves on crab apples and beech mast, lending them a unique and distinctive flavour you won’t find anywhere else.
We can’t talk about Dorset without talking about the seafood. Any town along the south coast enjoys access to fresh seafood, from Weymouth to Portsmouth – whether line-caught locally or commercial fishing by the many small boats that take to the water each week.
Of course, this leads to some of the best examples of fish and chips across the country – including Fish ‘n’ Fritz – one of the top ten best fish and chip restaurants in the UK – and The Fisherman’s Kitchen in Portsmouth. We’ve even compiled a list of the best fish and chip shops on our network to try .
The true seafood aficionados, however, will want to make their way to Mudeford Seafood Festival. Held in beautiful Mudeford near Christchurch, it’s held in the late May Bank Holiday weekend. Free to visit, it’s an amazing chance to try and buy some of the best seafood the south has to offer with the added bonus of Mudeford to explore.
Eton mess is one of those iconic British desserts that everybody knows of – even if you haven’t tried it. Served at the annual cricket match between Eton College and the Harrow School, it’s believed to have been first made (as the name suggests) at Eton College itself in the late 19th century.
The name “mess” is said to come from the appearance – a mix of reds, pinks and white from a bowl full of chopped-up meringue smothered in cream and topped with strawberries.
You’ll find any number of tea rooms selling the treat in Windsor and Eton, but we recommend the aptly named The Eton Mess – who have developed the Eton mess 2.0, complete with Chantilly vanilla cream and strawberry pearls. It’s just across the bridge from Windsor and Eton Riverside station – making it a great place to finish up after a day exploring.
Devon Cream Tea
Long a contentious issue over how it should be served, you shouldn’t visit Devon without enjoying a cream tea. Served jam-over-cream on a warm scone in the county, it’s been around in some form or another for nearly a thousand years, first being recorded at Tavistock Abbey.
Of course, those of you travelling down from London may be more used to the Cornish method (cream-over-jam), which has been more widely adopted across the country – including by the Queen, who preferred Balmoral jam first with cream on top at royal tea parties.
If you’re visiting Exeter we recommend a trip to Eat on the Green – a stone’s throw from Exeter Cathedral and a short walk from Exeter Central station.
Wiltshire Lardy Cake
Wiltshire was another area known for its pig-farming, and many of the foods that developed in the region take into account using all of the animal – including the Lardy Cake. Traditionally served for a special afternoon tea on a weekend, it’s traditionally made with pork lard (although there are plenty of variations).
You’ll still find lardy cake on the menu at Buckingham Palace summer garden parties, but if you’re not able to make it to one, we recommend Reeve the Baker in Salisbury – just up the road from Salisbury station.
Many of these local delicacies can be made at home too – making them great for a bit of lockdown baking. Of course, when we can all travel again, we absolutely recommend a trip to sample the real thing. And when you do travel, remember to book in advance for the best fares, including big savings with Advance tickets. You’ll also be able to save with a railcard or by travelling in a group.