Sussex's Food and Drink by Kevin Newman
When Rudyard Kipling wrote “You be glad you are Sussex born!” in his poem ‘The Run of the Downs’, he was correct, we are indeed lucky to live in our lush locality. Sussex has a long and lively past and its food and drink down the decades provides us with much of interest. It was a great pleasure therefore to switch my focus for Amberley and compile a concoction of funny food stories and alcoholic aspects of the county’s past from our earliest days with tales of cannibalism to our ‘Terrible Twenties’ as well as stories of the places and people that make and bring our food and drink to us. Think food and drink are dull? Then you might want to watch out at harvest time according to this ‘old Sussex folk song’, by much-missed Sussex-dwelling comic Spike Milligan:
“Apples be ripe
Nuts be brown
I can’t guarantee that investigating Sussex food and drink today (or even reading my book) will leave you quite as excited as that but even so, I hope you enjoy my exploration of eating, imbibing and those who help us do so. Before we do though, let’s all raise a glass, (whether imaginary or if you’re lucky enough to visit or live in Sussex, real) of Wobblegate, Silly Moo, Harvey’s, Greyhound, Dark Star, Wiston, Nyetimber, and Upperton’s finest (or even just good Sussex milk or water) to cheer the good folk of Sussex who toil all year round. We must remember they, like all our food and drink producers around these Isles have worked hard to put fine Sussex fare on our tables.
Earliest Eats and Yesterdrinks
Let’s start at the very beginning, as Maria Von Trapp in The Sound of Music once sung, and focus on our biggest city’s nibbling habits. The earliest Brightonians we know about (of the late Stone Age) were likely to have been cannibals we think due to cooked fragments of skull being found by archaeologists at the camp on Brighton’s Whitehawk Hill. We may worry about the amount of food waste today but more frighteningly, the hill-top dwellers seem to have thrown their nibbled-on dead bodies out with their rubbish and leftovers. Moving forward in time, wine has been made in Sussex since the Romans and the Normans were able to win the Battle of Hastings partly due to the Saxons having drunk too much booze the night before the battle (whereas the French have never, never been known to drink too much….). So, it can be argued drink has played a huge part in changing the country’s history – when in Sussex. Moving into the Industrial Age, another era known for its heavy drinking culture, with the establishment of venerable Harvey’s brewery in Lewes in 1790 we have one of the country’s oldest (and more importantly, still independent and family-run) breweries, still going strong today, and boasting as it’s slogan our county’s unofficial motto, ‘We wun’t be druv!’
A Patriotic Pan of British Bacon
If you’re feeling patriotic after all that, then you’ll enjoy one of my favourite stories from the book. Chichester College (then Chichester College of Further Education) were given an unusual method of timing their cooking at the college’s food tech department back in the late 1990s. Mrs Ivy Davey who instructed the students in cooking advised them that the perfect way to time how long bacon needed cooking was to sing ‘God Save The Queen’ whilst it sizzled in the pan. She explained: “It has a running time of about two minutes – just right for each side of a rasher”. That is of course if you (unusually) can remember all the words and are willing to include the anti-Scottish bits later on. Should you too want to cook in a patriotic way today then the most suitable recipe book is ‘Cooking the British Way’ by Joan Clibbon.
Not all the food and drinks discussed in the book are as palatable however as sizzling bacon. For example, even the man who put Sussex’s most famous seaside resort of Brighton on the map as a centre of health; dragging dukes, duchesses and eventually royalty here, Dr Richard Russell was even prone to the odd revolting recipe. Russell’s 1750s book on the uses of seawater may have helped many Londoners with his suggestions of Sussex seabathing and sea air, but his suggestion of mixing seawater with milk? It may well cause you to lose the contents of your stomach, even if not a few pounds quite frankly – especially if Southern Water are up to their usual tricks, too. Then there’s the Sussex drink of Bumboo, also a drink from the 1750s in East Hoathly and made of brandy and beer. This sounds a bit more palatable than the Doctor’s drink but unfortunately the effects were said to be regrettable. I know which one I’d prefer though, despite the name.
If seawater and awful alcoholic mixes aren’t your thing, then the book mentions yet another dose of cannibalism. This time, the chief ingredient was none other than a Victorian member of our clergy, who became a tasty dish for people from a Fijian Island. The Reverend Thomas Baker, who hailed from Playden in Sussex was eaten by tribesmen from Nivosa, which is on Viti Levu island in Fiji back in 1867. This occurred after he made the fatal error of removing a comb from the island Chieftain’s hair. This was apparently punishable by death by being eaten, but if you’re angered by this, there’s no need to travel to Fiji and eat one of the tribe’s descendants in revenge - the current chief back in 2003 issued a formal apology on behalf of his ancestors’ behaviour. So there. The museum in Fiji still has the soles of the Reverend’s sandals, which were boiled by the tribe but, it seems, were more unpalatable than the munchable missionary as they turned the potential footwear foodstuff down.
The book also explores the revolting recipes which tried to make folk healthier too. One former Sussex remedy was to ‘roast one mouse’ for whooping cough, and some local medics even suggested you actually needed to dry another two mice in the oven and crumble them into a powder. This lousy mousey medicine then needed to be added to your drink morning and night. It wasn’t just the wealthy who could afford bizarre remedies who would face an unusual diet when compared to today. For example, a Littlehampton dish that once existed called a ‘Swimmer’. This got its name as it was where a whole poor family had to share a bowl of gravy with just one dumpling in it – which the children had to fight for. Being blessed with a ‘chopper’ would have helped out a family in this situation. It was nothing to do axes though to help you fight for your dumpling (or even a 1970s bike), but the old Sussex name for a dried pig’s face. Mmmmmmmn!
It wasn’t just the poor who were denied Sussex food – in one case it was also the dying husband of a very strict wife, who was remarked upon by Reverend Howard J Emmett, who regularly wrote for Sussex County Magazine in the 19th century. Emmett reported how he visited an old man approaching his final hours but who remained conscious. The good reverend sat with the dying man, but as he talked, he noticed the man’s gaze swivel repeatedly to the joint of plump ham on the sideboard. The sick man’s wife came into the parlour where he lay and he said to her: “I would like a bit oo’ that ‘am; I would like it so much!”. She ignored him and so he asked again, and again, only to be eventually told: “No, you can’t have none of that ‘am. We’re saving it for your funeral!”
We started with blog Spike Milligan and we should also end with his words in the Goons. My favourite food joke of all time has to be from the 1958 Goon Show episode The Man Who Never Was, where Bloodnok, a Chief of Military Intelligence says in an interrogation: “Admit it, you're a spy!” and the Spy replies: “I'm not a shpy [sic], I'm a shepherd!” and so Bloodnok of course replies: “Ahhhhh, Shepherd Spy!”
Kevin Newman's book Pond Puddings and Sussex Smokies: Sussex's Food and Drink is available for purchase now.
As well as writing for Amberley, Kevin’s company, All-Inclusive History also provides ‘Scrumptious Sussex’ talks both in person and via Zoom. Please call All-Inclusive History on 07504 863867 or email email@example.com for further details. Other tours, talks and events are available from AIH including ‘Spooky Worthing, ‘Brilliant Brighton’, ‘Business Brighton’ and ‘Brighton and Hove In 50 Buildings’. All-Inclusive History also run a range of Sussex and food and drink-based events for businesses, organisations and schools.