WITH Black Country Day celebrations fast approaching, here's my take on what has made the Black Country great.
To an adopted Black Country wench like myself, defining the Black Country and its boundaries can be confusing. But, I'm in good company as even those who are Black Country born and bred have differing views on the topic. Traditionalists argue it's the area where the 30 foot coal seam comes to the surface – but to me, that's missing the point. What really makes the Black Country is the quality of the people who have forged it – in many cases, quite literally.
When the American Consul to Birmingham, Elihu Burritt, visited our region in 1862, he described it as "Black by day and red by night." And, during the same period, when Queen Victoria passed through by train she is said to have asked for the blinds in her carriage to be drawn, the smoke ravaged scene being too obnoxious for royal eyes.
Yet, as Marjorie Cashmore says in her wonderful book, Feast of Memories – Black Country Food and Life at the Turn of the Century (Westwood Press, 1986): "What is relevant, however, is the scene which was evolving beyond those windows ... there was emerging a race of people, destined, through their skills and craftsmanship, to be ensnared in the turmoil of expansion and growth following the Industrial Revolution, the outcome of which was to help shape the future history of the entire world."
As the Black Country went on to become the "workshop of the world" Marjorie's comments are no exaggeration. She also adds: "The Black Country soon came to be acclaimed throughout the world for its superb craftsmanship ... and the people carrying out these skills were renowned for their tenacity, courage, generosity, warm-heartedness and not least of all their droll sense of humour."
She also mentions the Black Country accent and dialect, saying it has "long been a source of amusement to outsiders". But, as Marjorie rightly states, research has shown that Black Country spake is a unique survivor from Early Middle English, "considered by some to be the purest form of English." Not that any self-respecting Black Country folk take notice of such daft criticism by outsiders. Especially, as Marjorie says, "a distinctive feature of many Black Country people is the ability to laugh at themselves, often applying a humorous approach to a serious subject".
Chief among these many qualities is a strong sense of pride and valuing of tradition. Marjorie's book tells the whole story. It's not just about the traditional recipes, but the social context from which they spring. Times were unbelievably hard, and people had to make the best of very little.
Marjorie also felt there was so much more to Black Country food than faggots and pays, grorty dick and grey pays and baircon, delicious though they are. She knew that the region was "recognised more for its industry than its cuisine."
But, her personal experience and research drawn from conversations with elderly people, helped dispel the myth that Black Country food was dull and limited. More than anything, as Stuart Holm says in the introduction to Marjorie's book, conversations that begin on the subject of food invariably release a flood of memories. I know from writing this column just how closely linked food and memories are.
As well as introducing traditional Black Country cooking to new generations, Marjorie also pays tribute to the achievements of Black Country women. As Stuart Holm says, "Their kitchens were the forgotten workshops whose products sustained the great industries for which the area is perhaps better known."
The fact that most of these women also worked in industries like chainmaking, nailmaking, brickmaking, and at the pit, makes their achievements even more remarkable. As Marjorie says, "The self-sufficient ingenuity developed by these people was nowhere better displayed than in the kitchen, where humble ingredients were transformed into tasty and nourishing dishes ..."
So, here's to those amazing Black Country women whose kitchens were the hidden power houses behind Black Country success. One such lady, very much in the same mould as Marjorie Cashmore, was Gladys Welsh, who was born and bred in West Bromwich.
Many readers will recall her occasional contributions to the Bugle some years ago, and her regular column in the Express and Star. Born in 1909, Gladys was a talented writer with whom I had the great pleasure of corresponding, following her retirement. Even into her nineties she couldn't put her pen down!
Gladys had always loved writing and when she retired from teaching took a correspondence course with the London School of Journalism. She had always kept diaries and when, aged 84, her autobiography, The Curate's Egg: A Black Country Childhood was published, it sold out instantly.
Sadly, Gladys died aged 98, in 2007. But, her writing keeps her very much alive in the Black Country. Always fiercely proud of her roots, a chapter entitled 'Roast Beef and Radio' recalls her beloved grandma – one of the countless Black Country women to whom Marjorie Cashmore pays tribute.
Every week, after Sunday School, Gladys went to her grandma's house in Hargate Lane for dinner. It was a "lovely, tiny house. There was a living room, scullery and pantry and one large bedroom ... there was no gas or running water. An oil lamp lit the room at night and candles used to light the way upstairs."
All household water came from the pump in the yard, fairly typical conditions back then. Yet, Gladys's gran still managed to produce delicious meals. Gladys recalls: "The pantry contained a large, marble slab on which butter, milk and cheese were kept. There was also a very large, deep earthenware bowl, cream inside and brown outside, called a "jole". Grandma used it for mixing her dough. She made lovely bread, cakes and pastry. Her cut-and-come-again cakes were golden, crumbly and rich with fruit. Her jam tarts were baked on very large, deep enamel plates, the pastry almost an inch thick and liberally filled with home-made jam."
Gladys also recalls: "The baking was done in the oven of the black-leaded range." Back then, women were expert at judging oven temperatures, which is probably why their baking was so good. Gladys says her grandma "tested the heat by putting a piece of paper in the oven. If, after a certain time, it came out scorched, the oven was hot enough for the pastry."
As a young newlywed, Gladys had a coal-fired range herself, and used her grandma's cooking methods. She told me she felt she could never attain her grandma's standard of cooking. But, she definitely believed the cakes and pastries that she baked on her range were far better than ones baked in "a modern cooker".
Definitely food for thought, there. Here's to a bostin' Black Country Day!