Friday, 28 March 2014

The Beer Necessities

With three weeks to go before I embark on this insane dietary odyssey I have had a thorough look at the first diet. This is the one from 1797. Here's a reminder:

Some surprises. Of twenty one meals, 12 are bread, with either cheese, butter or treacle, but only four are Oliver Twist's favourite, gruel. And here's the real jaw-dropper: BEER FOR BREAKFAST? I had a count-up, and twelve of the twenty one meals I'll be eating include beer. Mostly at breakfast time. Now, I am no stranger to the tankard, but beer for breakfast is definitely not what I expected.

I realised I had a few other questions, too. For instance, I haven't a clue what the following meals are:

Milk-broth. Frumenty. Pease-pottage. Milk-pottage.  

I like the sound of Frumenty. It feels as though it should be a bit naughty, and perhaps taking place behind a haystack.

Pease-pottage? I recognise that from nursery rhyme days and can hazard a guess it's made of- well, peas. Let's hope it's not hot, cold or in the pot nine days old.

Milk-pottage sounds disgusting, and I'd like to direct that dairy-based bowl of wickedness to take a long walk off a short cliff. It can take its shameless little sister Milk-broth with it, for that matter.

Other questions popped up: what sort of boiled meat- and how much of it? What type and quantity of bread? And what sort of cheese (please let it be bacon sarnies and Dairylea triangles)?

I've scanned my copies of Delia and Jamie but funnily enough, they don't seem to give cooking instructions for any of these carbohydrate-rich curiosities, or suet pudding, or gruel. But I bet Nigella's got a good recipe for dumplins.

Luckily, I have a team of experts on hand: Megan Dennis, curator at Gressenhall, Steve Pope, researcher and workhouse expert extraordinaire, and Lucy Child, dietician and general all-round Good Egg (Lucy is, incidentally, probably the only egg of any type to feature in this diet).

Steve says the cheese would be made backwards*, and the bread would be more or less the sweepings off the mill floor. He says the main beverage would be beer due to necessity, the low alcohol content being enough to kill the bugs dwelling in the 18th century water supply.

Megan says that the vegetables 'served in great plenty' would be just that, but none of us really know what sort of size the portions were. Our educated guesses tell us that if there were less people in the workhouse, there would be more food per person.

Lucy reckons the bread would be similar to rye bread, and the diet won't kill me.

Steve has recommended a book of recipes and suggested I get on with it.

Living The Workhouse Diet:1797 begins on April 26th 2014. Follow Rachel on Twitter @workhousediet or on her Facebook page 

*Edam. It's the cheesiest joke in the world.


  1. Furmity (frumenty) Ingredients
    200g/7oz bulgar wheat
    200ml/7fl oz milk
    450ml/17fl oz water
    100ml/3½fl oz single cream
    50g/1¾oz dried cherries
    50g/1¾oz golden raisins
    2 free-range egg yolks
    4 saffron strands
    50g/1¾oz soft light brown sugar
    To serve
    1 tbsp pine nuts, toasted
    100g/3½oz flaked almonds, toasted
    75ml/2¾fl oz condensed milk
    Preparation method
    Place the bulgar wheat, milk and water into a pan. Bring the mixture to the boil and continue to boil, stirring regularly, for 8-10 minutes, or until the bulgar wheat is tender and has absorbed most of the liquid.
    Remove the pan from the heat, cover with a lid and set aside to cool.
    When the boiled bulgar wheat has cooled, stir in the cream, cherries and golden raisins until well combined, then return the mixture to the boil.
    When the mixture is boiling, stir in the egg yolks and saffron strands until well combined.
    Stir in the brown sugar until melted and remove the pan from the heat.
    To serve, spoon the warm furmity into four serving bowls. Sprinkle over the toasted pine nuts and flaked almonds and drizzle over the condensed milk.

    1. Thanks Dot! I think top Norfolk chef Richard Hughes used this recipe for his version. It was actually delicious, rare treat in an unholy set of dishes...