Saturday, 31 May 2014

1901: The Last Suppers

It's finished. The Workhouse Diet ended as it began; an early morning interview on local BBC radio, and me feeling disproportionately excited about the whole thing.

This week I've left out the gruel but cooked main meals for myself and my family from the 1901 Workhouse Manual. This was a recipe book and cookery guide issued to all workhouse cooks after a damning Governmental report of workhouse food standards nationwide.

The manual includes recipes for adults, children and 'invalids'. Adults and children all got tea and even cocoa this time around (extra milk used for the kiddies) and the sick  were treated to lemonade. Unsurprisingly, I already know how to make tea, so I tried the Edwardian lemonade. It was certainly sweet and lemony, but not fizzy.

Poorly inmates were also served restorative Beef Tea (a strong, reduced beef stock, really). I've been fascinated by the idea of Beef Tea since reading The Railway Children as a child: 'Mother' was prescribed Beef Tea, but they couldn't afford it. Anyway, the way I made it, it tasted like weak Bovril and I wasn't very keen. I expect it would have been considered a most nutritious broth in 1901, though.

I had more success with Pasties. The Manual was part of a national standardisation campaign, so regional favourites from all corners of Great Britain were included. The pasties I made were just like Cornish Pasties, only less tasty. There's a YouTube film of my Triumphant Pasty-Making available here.

Another notable meal was Sea Pie. I have no idea why it is called Sea Pie. There is nothing briny or nautical about it, no fish in it, no cockles or mussels (alive, alive-oh or otherwise). Not even a touch of Piratical Rum. It was just a pie, albeit one with a bit of a slimy crust, due to steaming. I used my slow cooker to replicate the low, steady warmth of a Workhouse Kitchen Range. If you'd like to witness the entirely landlocked nature of my Sea Pie, there's another YouTube film here.

The greatest success of the week was Roley Poley Pudding. This was a splendid lump of jam-smothered suet pastry tied up in a cloth and boiled to Kingdom Come. Delivered, oozing and steaming, onto a plate, it looked like an albino lung, but tasted WONDERFUL. Again, a YouTube film here (this film also mentions the gorgeous personalised plate in the photo at the top).

The recipes for all these items are available in the Workhouse Cookery Book by Peter Higginbotham, and reproduced from the original in the '1901 Recipes' page of this blog.

I've been asked whether I'm planning to do one of my 'talks' about the workhouse diet. I'm not. But I am going to put together some sort of report or conclusion; maybe as part of this blog, or maybe as a separate publication. Watch this space!

One thing is certain: as a result of Living The Workhouse Diet, my empathy for the workhouse inmates has risen a thousandfold, as has my appreciation for the variety and tastiness of the foods I have available to me in 2014.

My knowledge about cookery has been increased too. I think I might start making my own pastry again instead of buying frozen- I'd forgotten how quick and easy it is. And best of all, I've definitely kicked the sugar habit!

I've been impressed that my ten-year-old son, George, has been prepared to try all the strange foods laid before him over the last few weeks, and he deserves a great big thank you for being such an able cameraman. I'm very grateful that my colleagues and friends and, most of all, my partner Martyn have been so patient with my gruel-induced mood swings and continuous Social Media updating. Thank you!

You Have Been Watching

George Duffield (Camera & Food-Tasting)

Lucy Child (Dietary Advice)

Martyn Shults (Food-Tasting & Eye-Rolling)


Rachel Duffield

To be continued...

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