Video: Please sir - no more! What’s it like to live on a diet of gruel?

Rachel Duffield from Gressenhall Musem is taking part in the workhouse diet for a week - Here she is trying out gruel. Picture: Matthew Usher. Rachel Duffield from Gressenhall Musem is taking part in the workhouse diet for a week - Here she is trying out gruel. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Monday, April 28, 2014
12:58 PM

Please, sir, no more. Norfolk Museums’ interpretation officer Rachel Duffield will be living on a workhouse diet for three weeks, swapping her sweet-toothed treats for gruel, pottage and inmate’s soup. STACIA BRIGGS challenged Rachel to a tasting menu with a difference ahead of her gruel-ling challenge.

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The taste test

Rachel’s review of five workhouse meals:

Gruel

• “Absolutely revolting. My hands are shaking when I bring the spoon to my mouth because it’s so rank. The texture is worse than the taste – and it tastes really, really bad.”

Frumenty

• “It looks like posh rice pudding and it’s really nice. This was the kind of meal that went by the wayside after 1834 because it was too expensive to make.”

Pease Pottage

• “It’s like a crunchy soup or not-quite-mushy-enough peas. I have a feeling this is better than the workhouse version – I doubt they put this 
much expertise or love into their soups.”

Workhouse soup

• “This looks quite cheffy... it tastes really old-fashioned, like proper soup. In the workhouse, it would have been watered down even more. People were fed in order of respectability, so by the time the single mothers and vagrants ate this, it would have been lumps of gristle floating in water.”

Milk Pottage

• “I love sweet things, so this is great. In fact, I really, really like it. It’s a bit bread and butter pudding-y. This is no hardship.”

It’s going to be a gruel summer for Rachel Duffield as she spends three weeks experiencing workhouse life through a range of dishes served to inmates in 1797, 1834 and 1901 – milk broth, pease pottage and dumplings are on the menu alongside beer for breakfast and hard rye bread.

Rachel’s trip back in time coincides with a major project to transform Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse into a national centre of excellence for workhouse interpretation following a £150,000 boost from the DCMS/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund and a further £80,000 in development funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund.

At the heart of the revamp is the Voices from the Workhouse project, a collection of original accounts and stories from inmates, which sits alongside the recreation of a poverty-stricken family’s cottage and the interior of a workhouse, complete with a steam laundry and work yards.

At said poverty-stricken family’s cottage, chef Richard Hughes is cooking up a very different tasting menu to the ones he normally prepares at his restaurant – the amuse bouche has vamoosed, the artisan bread has fled and the state-of-the-art oven has been replaced by a sooty, smoky range.

Rachel Duffield from Gressenhall Musem is taking part in the workhouse diet for a week - Chef Richard Hughes cooks the dishes. Picture: Matthew Usher.Rachel Duffield from Gressenhall Musem is taking part in the workhouse diet for a week - Chef Richard Hughes cooks the dishes. Picture: Matthew Usher.

“The inmates would have boiled their dirty washing on this range, too,” says Rachel, who has been transformed into an inmate for her tasting session, “the carbolic soap would often boil over into the soup for dinner. Delicious.”

Of the 21 meals that Rachel will be eating, 12 involve a pint of beer (five will see her downing beer for breakfast) and the majority will see her eating a meal that consists of nothing more than 6oz of hard rye bread and a 2oz lump of cheese. These are the good meals. The bad meals involve gruel.

“It’s a great way of experiencing a little of how the people in the workhouse lived as well as doing a bit of myth-busting,” she tells me, “not all the meals were horrendous, before 1834 when the rules were tightened up, some of the food was actually quite nice. After 1834 things went a bit Dickensian and grim.”

Rachel will spend a week eating the 1797 diet, a week eating the 1834 diet and a final week eating the 1901 diet.

Rachel Duffield from Gressenhall Musem is taking part in the workhouse diet for a week. Picture: Matthew Usher.Rachel Duffield from Gressenhall Musem is taking part in the workhouse diet for a week. Picture: Matthew Usher.

Before 1834, workhouses were known as ‘parish workhouses’ or ‘houses of industry’ and conditions were fair – families could stay together, food was nutritious and hearty and the workhouses became known as ‘paupers’ palaces’.

Amid concerns that mirror those today about ‘benefit scroungers’, fears were voiced that the conditions inside the parish houses encouraged the poor to enter them rather than strive to look after themselves – and so in 1834, the workhouses toughened up.

Families were split on arrival, food portions became meagre and work became repetitive and boring to deter the poor from entering – ‘the shadow of the workhouse’ became something to fear, accentuated by writers like Charles Dickens, whose novels about starving paupers begging for more gruel entered the public consciousness.

A diet was devised to keep poor people alive for the smallest cost possible – the staples were bread, cheese, gruel, soup, potatoes and the occasional inclusion of meat or fish. Food was stripped of everything that might have been attractive to inmates, such as salt.

By the 1890s, there were increasing complaints about the fixed-ration dietary system which prompted a Local Government Board review and a major overhaul of the workhouse diet. In 1901, an official workhouse cookery book was compiled by the National Training School of Cookery to standardise workhouse fare and introduce new recipes, such as bread pudding, seed cake, fish pie, fruit pudding, pasties, roly poly, shepherd’s pie, pea soup and…gruel. No escape for the poor.

“Some of the recipes from the workhouse are the kind of thing that Heston Blumenthal loves,” says Richard, dishing up a bowl of hideously unappetising-looking gruel, “he’s really into 18th century cooking, although I think even he might baulk at this.

“The workhouse soup is actually really nice and includes beef cheek, which is very trendy today. And the Pease Pottage is a bit like a pea, lettuce and mint soup we serve at The Lavender House. I’d happily eat the Frumenty, which is like an upmarket rice pudding, or the Milk Pottage – it tastes like children’s cereal.”

Rachel gamely tries five portions of workhouse fare in front of an amused audience of museum visitors – the frumenty (bulgar wheat, milk, egg yolks, brown sugar and raisins), milk pottage (pastry crumbled into hot milk and honey), workhouse soup (beef, split peas, oatmeal, vegetables, herbs) and pease pottage (peas, flour, water, mint, leek, spinach and butter) are all met with enthusiasm. This is because Rachel’s first taste test is gruel.

“I don’t think it’s possible to eat the gruel without gurning,” she says, “I’m not singing for my supper, I’m gurning for gruel. It is absolutely horrendous – almost beyond words. I made some myself recently but Richard’s professional version was more revolting, probably because he’s a proper chef and it was more authentic and therefore far worse.

“The hardest thing for me – apart from eating the gruel – is going to be missing my cups of tea. There’s a lot of tea mentioned in 1834, but no mention of tea in 1797, so the first week is going to be tough for me because I have a very sweet tooth and I love my tea.

“People think I’m mad. I think I’m mad. But it’s no less mad than some of the other diets I’ve been on in my life. The difference is that this is all about the stodge. I’m thinking of adding a ‘stodge-o-meter’ to my blog entries…it’s either that or I concentrate on my bowels, and I don’t think anyone wants that…!”

Steve Miller, head of Norfolk Museums Service, said: “Rachel’s powerful and exciting experiential learning project promises to provide us all with an invaluable insight into the lives of the people in the workhouse.”

Margaret Wilkinson, cabinet member for communities, including museums, added: “I don’t know if I could go without my cup of tea for a day, let alone tolerate the other dietary choices of our ancestors. This is just another example of the dedication and commitment that exists in our museums’ service.”

You can keep up to date with Rachel’s workhouse diets at www.theworkhousediet.blogspot.co.uk, on Twitter @workhousediet, on Facebook, www.facebook.com/workhousediet and the Living the Workhouse Diet channel on YouTube.

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