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Sunday, 12 March 2023

Hebden Bridge Local History Society Report

Traditional food in Calderdale

Speaker: Peter Brears

It was a night for seeking comfort, as Hebden Bridge Local History Society gathered to hear Peter Brears talk about the traditional food of Calderdale. He is a leading food historian, with lifetime's experience of methods of food preparation, and the social context of food.

Cows and pigs

The landscape of the Calder Valley was part of the story: the upland farms with their supply of fresh spring water and access to peat as fuel were the original settlements. Cows were pastured on the hillsides providing skimmed milk for the family and butter to be sold commercially. Families might keep a pig to be fed on scraps, often with neighbours contributing to the swill and rewarded with a share in the meat.

Oats, the staple food

But, the staple food was oats – a crop that could be successfully grown on upland farms. If you are eating oats twice a day, six days a week, you might be keen to find different ways of consuming them. Porridge for breakfast, made more palatable with skimmed milk; for dinner the oatmeal might be combined with a bit of bacon; for tea there would be oatcakes and dripping and for supper more porridge. Treacle was another ingredient that must have been a welcome addition.

One of the great pleasures of Peter's talk was to see his drawings of the traditional utensils for preparing and cooking food. So we could see the large meal arks where oatmeal would be stored, trodden down to keep out the air. Porridge had its own equipment with unfamiliar names – the 'posnet' with its long handle, placed on the peats burning on the hearth and in which the oatmeal and water were stirred. 'Spittles' flicked the batter onto the hot 'bakestone' and the oatcakes were hung to dry on 'flakes' suspended from the ceiling.


Industrialisation meant a move to towns in the valleys and as many women and girls went to work in the mills some of the time consuming cooking techniques disappeared. Coal replaced peat, and ranges allowed new ways of cooking, with roast meat, pies and stews part of the working family's diet.

New staples foods

White bread was now an everyday staple, and specialist bakers sold gingerbread and cakes. Other time-saving innovations were the fish and chip shops, and the hot peas sold from carts. The harsh days of near famine in the 1860s were left behind and new memories formed, of Sunday roasts and Yorkshire puddings, left-over meat recycled through the week, and tables loaded for tea with hams, pastries, cakes and jelly.

Peter may not have traditional equipment to hand, but he had brought a variety of homemade oatcakes to sample at the tea break – including some delicious parkin. They were good – but maybe not 6 days a week!

His new book 'Traditional Food in the South Pennines' is packed with stories, drawings and recipes. Available from the Local Hiistory website.

The next talk is on Wednesday 22nd March at Hebden Royd Methodist Church at 7.30. Alan Fowler will be telling the local story of the 1922 General Election and the Socialist Cat. All welcome.

Details of the History Society talks programme, publications and of archive opening times are available on the History website and you can also follow History Society Facebook page.

With thanks to Sheila Graham for this report

See also: the HebWeb History section