When the West Indies spiced up the Lake District

During the 17th Century the cuisine of the Lake District got a kick. Previously a relatively remote part of England with limited resources, the growth of the port of Whitehaven and importation of goods from the West Indies made it stand out.


The modern county of Cumbria comprises the old counties of Cumberland, Westmorland and parts of North Lancashire and North Yorkshire.

Between the 17th and 19th Centuries the so-called Atlantic triangular slave trade resulted in an influx of tobacco, sugar, rum and spices (ginger, black pepper and nutmeg) into Cumberland, which is still evident today in regional produces such as rum butter, Grasmere Gingerbread, Kendal Mint Cake, Cumberland Rum Nicky and the Cumberland sausage.

I went to the Lake District to visit my lovely friend Anne. Wandering around in ripped acid-wash skinny jeans and walking boots, it was clear I was not of local stock. To add to this, buying just about every package with the word “Cumberland” on it, as well as numerous postcards of rolling countryside and quaint villages, there was no hiding the fact I was a Londoner with unusual quantities of fresh air going to my head. (Some of you may remember my roots are actually rural Yorkshire – sometimes I do wonder where my ability to work the active, outdoorsy look has gone, if I ever had it).



Atlantic triangular slave trade

A massively simplified description:

  1. British textiles and other manufactured goods were shipped to Africa for the purchase of slaves
  2. The slaves (circa 14,000 from the boats originating from Whitehaven) were transported to the Americas – the Middle Passage – although many suffered horrendous deaths before they made it
  3. The slaves were exchanged for tobacco, sugar, rum and spices (ginger, black pepper and nutmeg) – all produced by the slaves themselves – and shipped back to the UK; some slaves were also brought to the UK as servants

The Cumberland sausage

In 2011 Cumberland sausages joined the likes of the Melton Mowbray pork pie, Cornish pasty and Arbroath Smokie and were awarded with Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status. For a sausage to be classed as a “Traditional Cumberland sausage” it must:

  • Be produced, processed and prepared in Cumbria
  • Contain at least 80% meat
  • Be at least 2cm thick [reference]

The Cumberland sausage is traditionally very long and sold in a circular coil, although you can also buy them the normal linked sausage shape and they can still be called a Cumberland.

It is made from coarsely chopped pork (historically from a bread of pig called the Cumberland pig – although now extinct), black pepper and secret blends of herbs and spices.

Cumberland sausage

This is a photo of the Cumberland sausage I bought in Keswick, with Rosemary (dried because my local Sainsbury’s is rubbish) and garlic cloves. It was blimmin lovely.

Kendal Mint Cake

Essentially a solid block of sugar, Kendal Mint Cake is popular with hikers and climbers of the Lake District as a source of energy.

It found ultimate fame in 1953 when Sir Edmund Hillary and his team completed the first successful ascent of Everest, munching on Kendal Mint Cake along the way.

Three companies still produce Kendal Mint Cake – Romney’s, Quiggin’s and Wilson’s – and recipes are top secret. Popular varieties are white sugar, brown sugar, and (adventurous!) chocolate coated.

Kendal mint cake

A large quantity of Kendal mint cake. Now I need a mountain to climb.

Grasmere Gingerbread

Gingerbread. Made in Grasmere.

A dispute over Grasmere Gingerbread resulted in a very unfortunate ending in 2009 when Steve Bell, Grasmere restauranteur, took on the owners of the most well known of Grasmere’s gingerbread shops when they trademarked the name.

Steve’s argument was that the gingerbread was first made by West Indian servants arriving as a result of the triangular slave trade – sounds fair, as we are now aware – and just because this particular shop began selling it in 1854 does not mean that the tradition began there. Steve apparently had a 90% chance of winning the case, but the risks involved with losing meant he withdrew from the legal battle and committed suicide.

I don’t know enough to make a judgment on this, but am not going to mention the specific name of the company in question – but I will say their website is rather annoying with constant referral to “the inventor of the world famous Grasmere Gingerbread®” and using the ® symbol after every use…yes, we get it!! And no mention of the West Indies ginger…

Cumberland Rum Nicky – fail!

A shallow, shortcrust pie filled with dates, butter, sugar, ginger and rum.

Oddly, I couldn’t find one of these, or indeed anyone who had even heard of it. Perhaps I was in the wrong part of the Lakes, and will have another poke around next time I am there.

Rum butter… on toast!

On my (failed) hunt for the Cumberland Rum Nicky, I came across this…

Rum butter was pretty standard in the Hills’ household to accompany a Christmas pudding, but on toast? Never! The locals in Penrith suggested I try it, and it didn’t disappoint!

Rum butter on toast

Sugar and booze on toast.

Related posts:

  1. Yorkshire day tripper part 2: Ice cream (icy-d-creamo as Grandad used to say)
  2. The Yorkshire pud: A clever Northern cost-saving exercise
  3. Taking up smokies in Arbroath
The biggest pie in the World? The competition got tough and it was like being on the set of Man vs Food.

The biggest pie in the World? The competition got tough and it was like being on the set of Man vs Food.


1 Comment

Filed under UK

One Response to When the West Indies spiced up the Lake District

  1. That Cumberland sausage looks amazing! I wish I’d bought one too now!
    Arianwen recently posted…ABBA The Museum: hasta manana ’til we meet again…My Profile

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

CommentLuv badge