The Barge Journey
Giles learns the ropes on a Thames barge to sail up the Medway and deep into the heart of Kent. Before modern roads and railways, barges were the safest and cheapest method of putting Kent’s food on the table. The network of rivers and estuaries that cut through the county were the motorways of their day and barges were designed to navigate narrow creeks to pick up goods direct from farmers and suppliers. Giles joins the Lady of the Lea in Faversham and heads for Maidstone. Along the way he discovers the importance of getting the tides right and gets to see a ‘huffler’ in action when the past is lowered to pass under Rochester bridge.
The Foods That Made Kent
Hops and beer have been the perfect Kentish partnership for centuries. Oast houses and hop gardens dot the landscape as testament to this most British of drinks. Brewing has been going on for millennia; it’s a way of making our water safer to drink, but hops haven’t always been part of the recipe. In medieval England there were no hop gardens, and beer as we know it simply didn’t exist. Instead we drank ale, a potent brew flavoured with herbs and flowers, and almost always made by women. The Europeans were really the first to brew with hops. The Germans were using them in beer by the 12th Century, soon followed by the Dutch and Flemish. When Flemish weavers came to Britain for work in the 14th Century, they brought with them a taste for hopped beer. Ale was alcoholic but tended to spoil quickly, hops acted as a preservative as well as a flavouring and they soon caught on. Now British beer would be unthinkable without them.
Kent’s reputation as the Garden of England rests largely on the miles and miles of verdant green orchards rippling over the rolling chalk downland. Apples ripen in the southern sun but it’s Kent cherries that are the real stars of the show. Henry VIII sourced sweeter varieties from Flanders for Kent’s first cherry orchards. Now dwarf varieties from Germany are spearheading a second cherry revolution. Shorter trees that can be grown under covers are guaranteeing crops for supermarket shelves and putting English cherries back on the map.
Romney Marsh Sheep
Fruit is only part of Kent’s story. In the South of the county, rolling chalk gives way to open marshland. Windswept and salt soaked, it’s hard to imagine that anything could prosper here but this is actually some of the richest pastureland in Kent. Hardy and nimble, Romney marsh sheep convert rich Romney grass into valuable meat and wool. Due to the unique nature of the marsh, landowners once employed “lookers” to watch over their flocks day and night. During the 17th and 18th Centuries a network of “lookers” huts sprang up across the marsh to provide shelter from the elements. In 1870 there were 365 of these structures, now less than a dozen remain.
Shellfish are among our few truly indigenous British foods and the North Kent coast is rich with this ancient bounty. The Swale estuary creates the perfect conditions for native oysters - not too salty, not too fresh - and oysters have been fished here for centuries. The Romans were the first to spot their commercial potential, even shipping them back to Rome for the greatest of feasts.
These days we tend to think of oysters as a luxury but they’re a food that’s fed both rich and poor. By the middle of the 19th Century there were nearly 100 oyster fishing boats or smacks working out of Whitstable. Catches were landed, sorted and sent direct to London to be sold on every street corner and in every market. Oysters were cheaper than meat. Samuel Johnson even fed them to his cat, Hodge.
Lavender is a powerful scent with great antiseptic properties. During the First World War it was even burned in hospital wards to act as a kind of airborne disinfectant. It can be used to heal insect bites and burns, help aid sleep, treat headaches. But it’s also a great flavour with a long history in our kitchens as well as our medicine cabinets.
Elizabeth I insisted her table never be without lavender conserve and drank copious cups of lavender tea. She set a fashion that lasted for centuries. A fashion that’s not really so strange when you think about it. Lavender is a member of the mint family – a close relative of rosemary, sage and thyme – all herbs we use regularly today – and it’s well suited to the free draining chalk soil and the rolling hills of the North Kent Downs.
With the bottom falling out of the hops market, Kentish farmers have started to grow this pungent herb and are beginning to rediscover its culinary as well as its pharmaceutical uses.
Cobnuts are a cultivated form of the hazelnuts that grow wild across Britain. They’re best consumed fresh and have a milky flavour very different to other kinds of nuts. Cobnuts can grow in any type of soil but are really only found in Kent. And the very best of them are found growing in a particular type of limestone, a thin band of which runs through the very heart of the county. The season for fresh nuts is short – from August to October – but the number of ‘plats’ or cobnut orchards is slowly on the rise after a long decline.
- Series Producer
- Sarah Gibbs
- Giles Coren
- Alys Fowler
- Lucy Worsley
- Alex Langlands
- Executive Producer
- Lisa Ausden