Hampshire is a county of contrasts and it is the variety of its landscape and countryside which has formed the foundation for its food heritage.
In the late twentieth century over half the total acreage of the county was still in agricultural use. Alongside this have been the wild and hunted particularly associated with forest areas leading to the Hampshire culinary tradition of venison, rabbit and pheasant. Strong traditions of inshore fishery and freshwater fishing have always been evident in the county.
Some key points about Hampshire’s food heritage:
Agriculture is varied from water meadows in the valleys to open downs but arable has predominated representing over two-thirds of the cultivated acreage during most of the nineteenth century.
Sheep farming has been a major part of the agricultural economy of the Hampshire Downs since at least medieval times. The Hampshire Down breed was developed in the 1840s and became the principal breed of the Downs for the next 50 to 60 years.
Hampshire is famous for its pigs and therefore its bacon and hams. They were particularly associated with the New Forest where their grazing on acorns and beech mast in the autumn was attracted much attention from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries. Others suggested that feeding on windfalls in local orchards helped explain the quality of the bacon. Pigs were kept throughout the county and not just in the forest with many towns having pig markets. The tradition of the cottage pig lasted well into the twentieth century with it providing food for the family and some neighbours for a good part of the year.
Strawberries have been associated with south Hampshire with commercial production starting in the 1880s.
Hampshire was one of the main watercress growing areas during the nineteenth century. It was grown on many of the clear, free-flowing streams. It was sent by stage coach to London. Alresford become the centre for Hampshire watercress production and in 1950 the largest grower in Europe, Vitacress Ltd was founded.
Hops have been grown around Alton and towards the county border with Surrey with hop growing reaching its peak in the second half of the nineteenth century.
Vineyards were introduced by the Romans but by the First World War commercial cultivation had petered out. After the second world war it saw a revival with Sir Guy Salisbury Jones planting the first new English vineyard on a commercial scale at Hambledon in 1952.
The rivers test and Avon are famed for their fishing especially for trout and salmon. The chalk streams of Hampshire produce trout of a lighter colour than in the north of England.