ID: EC72_03_038 / Sybil Brand

TitleCountry Food in Essex
AbstractCOUNTRY FOOD IN ESSEX by Sybil Brand

Sixty years ago people ate foods that were different from those we are used to at the present time. They were great delicacies; sweet pickled ham, for instance, was made from a recipe that had been handed down in the family for generations.

If you lived, as I did, on the Essex coast sixty years ago fish was an important item on the menu. I must qualify that by saying at certain times of the year. In winter fish went out of the Blackwater into deeper water to find warmth. We had no Bradwell power station then to warm thousands of gallons each day and keep up the temperature. Consequently only in spring and autumn were fish plentiful. In summer the Blackwater was too hot; in winter it was too cold.

One Mersea man hawked "nong-necked norbills"; long-necked gorbills to you - he had a speech impediment. Garfish is another name for these green - boned fish. They were firm-fleshed and nutritious; cook and leave them in the liquid till cold and the fish were embedded in jelly.

Some Mersea fishermen were eel babbers, using a special rake with prongs, an eel shear, and impaling the delicious little eels found under the bright emerald eel grass. These were for the connoisseur. Coarse eels imported from the Continent were plebeian in comparison.
Eel grass sheltered garfish, eels and winkles. Now it has gone and with it the mud and consequently the fish and winkles whose hiding place it was.

None knows how or why this grass disappeared, but a certain dread date, January 18 1881, was handed down to me by my father. On that day a fierce blizzard swept the south of England. He himself was in Hamble Creek, Southampton, and saw birds flying over drop into the water, frozen to death. There is a theory that at the end of that icy spell eel grass roots were uprooted in the thaw. So started a marine revolution that gradually took garfish, eels and winkles from the Blackwater for ever.

*   *   *

Dabs and plaice still with us, were sold at the door by skipper Vince`s boys at five a penny, ready cleaned. A bend, a circle of wire strung with a dozen dabs or plaice, could be bought for six-pence.

We had a family joke about bends. My mother once dropped a bend of fish on the kitchen floor. Being human, she tried to find a scapegoat. "Boy", she said to my brother, "if you`d had a hold of the other end I shouldn`t have made that mess". As there was no end we all laughed and told her she could not get away with that one.

When my father worked at a creek on the Colne he brought home little shell-fish called queens - their correct name in textbooks I have found. Looking very like a miniature scallop, plain boiled and eaten with bread and butter they surpassed oysters for me.

In winter we resorted to bloater paste, very salt but tasty at a penny a tin. No other tinned food was bought. It was expensive and not as reliable as today`s products.

Our bread was not kneaded mechanically, but its wholesome ingredients were flour and yeast with the addition of some floury potato. I remember one man, 'Lijah Woods, who preferred "holey bread" because the butter went into the holes and stayed there.

Bruce Amos, a sporting type in his checked cap and Norfolk jacket, came from Rowhedge with his speciality, shortcakes. They were flat, salted but not sugared, criss-crossed with lines but all flakes and fatness.

On Saturday I was sometimes sent to the nearest bakery with basket and white cloth for a half-quartern of dough. Keeping it warm by the kitchen fire, mother plunged her hands into this sticky mess, working in dried fruit, fat and eggs. I remember seeing her hands all yellow with egg, but the result was a delectable cake.

I still have a thick pottery jar, handled, marked "Maypole Dairy Co.," with a design of children dancing round a maypole. At intervals this went to Colchester by carrier for several pounds of Maypole butter. I do not know that Maypole butter was cheaper, but it would be fresher than local shop butter. Frank Cottis, our milkman from Bocking Hall, brought half-pound pats of farm butter decorated with cows or bunches of flowers. Mine was a Wesleyan Methodist family, so we took our turn in entertaining visiting preachers for the day. They came by horse and trap from Colchester, dropping others at Abberton and Peldon on the way. West Mersea was the final stop, and until the stable next the church was incorporated into a bungalow a few years ago the iron ring where the horses were hitched was still there. When preachers came to tea we indulged in a special delicacy - a jar of potted meat from Seagers, the famous Ipswich firm. It was packed in small white jars and covered with a layer of fat. We got two-pence back on each empty jar.

After a monotonous winter vegetable diet of sprouts, cabbage, turnips and onions we children, subconsciously hunting for vitamins, ate hawthorn buds off the hedges in spring, sucked grass stalks for sweetness and ate the round seed cushions of purple mallow in autumn. Hawthorn buds and mallow seeds were both "bread and cheese" to us. Whole milk was served from the can into jugs: "flet milk" was fetched in cans at twopence a quart. Some of the cream had been skimmed off it, but it made good puddings.

There was no baker, butcher or milkman in Paglesham on the River Roach when we moved there in 1909. Gallons of milk were produced on the farms, but it all went to Southend in bulk, so our baker from Canewdon brought not only bread but milk in bottles. Do not picture our squat bottles of today, but bottles long and narrow-necked. They were secondhand, and had probably been used for vinegar or some such liquid.

*   *   *

The butcher came only twice a week from Rochford, five miles away. This spurred mother to give us a delicacy in summer: home-cured sweet pickled ham. I expect the recipe had been handed down in the Pullen family for generations. Grandfather Pullen, with his family of fifteen, always kept at least one pig and the ham-shaped earthenware pan came from Yew Tree House, mother`s old home at Mersea. Only black Barbados sugar, "foot sugar" she called it, and salt were used for the curing. Before curing a certain little bone was cut out and baked. One lucky member of the family, it might be me, cut every delicious brown morsel off that bone and ate it for Sunday breakfast.

The sugar and salt soon formed a liquid, the ham being lovingly turned every two or three days and the liquid scooped over. This lasted three weeks and the ham was then hung in a cotton bag by the kitchen fireplace to dry. Only once was there a slight mishap. The string was not quite tight enough and loud were mother`s lamentations when a fly got in the bag. Fortunately this was discovered before any real damage was done. July came and the family pestered mother: "When will you cut the ham?" It made a mouth - watering meal - a thick slice of ham rimmed with fat fried and eaten with green peas and new potatoes. We cheerfully dispensed with the butcher when fried ham was on the menu. The economics of this ham curing are amusing today. The whole ham was bought for sixpence a pound, and allowing for bone and wastage in curing the cost worked out at a shilling a pound. When the initial cost rose to sevenpence-halfpenny a pound mother dropped ham-curing - too dear!

*   *   *

Biscuits were a luxury. I believe a ring of manufacturers kept up the price, so we bought broken biscuits with our Saturday penny or halfpenny. Biscuits were either Garibaldi or alphabet ones. Our favourites were coated on one side with brown icing. Superimposed on the icing were rabbits, cats and dogs in white icing; these we thought very special.

Honeysuckle twists (a honey-coloured sweet coiled in rounds) and liquorice bootlaces cost a halfpenny. There were farthing everlasting sticks, so the boys would torment poor Miss Sally Amos, who kept shop from her bed, by going in four times with a penny.

No more will these tricks be possible now decimalization is with us. Miss Amos, of Coast Road, West Mersea, died long ago and the present health service, I know, would not permit such unorthodox shopkeeping.

From Essex Countryside March 1972, pages 38 and 39, transcribed by Joe Vince August 2023

AuthorSybil Brand
PublishedMarch 1972
SourceMersea Museum / Essex Countryside
IDEC72_03_038
Page38-39
Related Images:
 Country Food in Essex by Sybil Brand. Page 1. Sybil describes some of the food in Mersea and covers a variety of topics: Gorbills or Garfish, eel babbing with eel shears, eel grass, winkles, dabs, plaice, a small shellfish called queens, bloater paste.
 Photograph from the top of the church tower about 1914 - see <a href=mmphoto.php?typ=ID&hit=1&tot=1&ba=cke&rhit=1&bid=PG2_127 ID=1>PG2_127 </a> for a good copy.  EC72_03_038_001
ImageID:   EC72_03_038_001
Title: Country Food in Essex by Sybil Brand. Page 1. Sybil describes some of the food in Mersea and covers a variety of topics: Gorbills or Garfish, eel babbing with eel shears, eel grass, winkles, dabs, plaice, a small shellfish called queens, bloater paste.
Photograph from the top of the church tower about 1914 - see PG2_127 for a good copy.
Date:May 1972
Source:Mersea Museum
 Country Food in Essex by Sybil Brand. Page 2.
 Maypole butter, Frank Cottis, milkman from Bocking Hall, Wesleyan Methodist church, Methodist preachers, Seagers potted meat, Sally Amos who kept a shop from her bed.
 Photograph of Skipper Vince, a Mersea fisherman.  EC72_03_039_001
ImageID:   EC72_03_039_001
Title: Country Food in Essex by Sybil Brand. Page 2.
Maypole butter, Frank Cottis, milkman from Bocking Hall, Wesleyan Methodist church, Methodist preachers, Seagers potted meat, Sally Amos who kept a shop from her bed.
Photograph of Skipper Vince, a Mersea fisherman.
Date:March 1972
Source:Mersea Museum
 'Skipper' Vince, a Mersea fisherman. The jersey is from NORESCA.
 From 'Country Food in Essex' in Essex Countryside, March 1972.
 'Skipper' Vince was also known as 'Shackler' Vince, but was really Arthur Vince.  EC72_03_039_002
ImageID:   EC72_03_039_002
Title: 'Skipper' Vince, a Mersea fisherman. The jersey is from NORESCA.
From 'Country Food in Essex' in Essex Countryside, March 1972.
'Skipper' Vince was also known as 'Shackler' Vince, but was really Arthur Vince.
Date:March 1972
Source:Mersea Museum