Thursday, 17 April 2014

Gruel: Is It REALLY That Bad?*

Say the word 'gruel' and many people will immediately think of workhouses and Dicken's hungry orphan Oliver Twist. Not many would think of award-winning Norfolk chef Richard Hughes. But this week, Richard, Chef and Proprietor of The Lavender House Restaurant in Brundall, swapped from garnish to gruel-making for the Norfolk Museums Living The Workhouse Diet Project. I also had a go!  

If you click on this link to YouTube you'll see me tasting my version of it. It was yukky: tasteless, sloppy porridge.  

Richard's professional version was altogether more revolting. I suppose it's because he's a proper chef: he'd made a better job of it, so it was more authentic and therefore, worse. Filmed in glorious sunshine at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse, you'll be able to see me tasting Michelin Star quality gruel on the EDP24 website from Monday 28th April onwards. Just one spoiler alert: MUCUS.

And so, to history. It seems that gruel has long since been a cheap source of food. It was so cheap that even the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge, another Dickensian character, didn't mind eating it.

How many of us knew, though, that gruel was eaten by the ancient Greeks and Romans, or that Mediaeval peasants made it from acorns in hard times?

Gruel can be made from any type of grain, ground up and simmered with water or even milk. The first recorded mention of it in relation to workhouses was in 1742, and a recipe for Water Gruel (here) was published by Hannah Glasse in 1747.

Before the Poor Law Act of 1834, at Gressenhall House of Industry the diet was generally varied with seasonal vegetables, and the gruel, obligatory only two or three times a week, was pimped up with onions for added flavour. After 1834 it's an entirely different story; workhouse inmates were served one and a half pints of plain gruel for breakfast every single day, and low-grade bread made up 86% of the remaining meals. 

So Dickens used literary licence; little Oliver and his chums certainly ate a gruel-dominated diet, but they weren't starving- imagine eating one and a half pints of the stuff!

Here are some photos of the making of my substandard -yet more palatable- gruel. Do have a look at the YouTube link above, and don't forget to look out for the fabulous EDP coverage over the next week too!

*Yes, it really is.

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