'Have some trifle - it's 200 years old'

The National Trust is giving its menus a make-over, and the days of tea and scones are history.
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It used to be a truth universally acknowledged that National Trust restaurants were reliable but rather frumpy. But it's a view that's rapidly becoming out of date. Though it stops short of opening themed restaurants, the aim of the Trust is to make its catering relevant to each historic property, and already history is offered on a plate at around 50 of them, with more subscribing to the idea. Menus typical of every period from medieval to Edwardian are represented, and if the Trust pursues its policy of raiding the history books for recipes, it may well be the traditional cuppa-and-a-bun that becomes a thing of the the past.

It used to be a truth universally acknowledged that National Trust restaurants were reliable but rather frumpy. But it's a view that's rapidly becoming out of date. Though it stops short of opening themed restaurants, the aim of the Trust is to make its catering relevant to each historic property, and already history is offered on a plate at around 50 of them, with more subscribing to the idea. Menus typical of every period from medieval to Edwardian are represented, and if the Trust pursues its policy of raiding the history books for recipes, it may well be the traditional cuppa-and-a-bun that becomes a thing of the the past.

Alison Sloan, NT catering manager for the East Anglia region, has been a prime mover in these developments, devising appropriate menus for Oxburgh Hall near King's Lynn (Tudor) and Peckover House near Wisbech (Georgian). Recipes have been researched from records contemporary with the heydeys of the properties, and as a result customers must be prepared to read and digest information as they order their food - the menus do not always wear their learning lightly. At Oxburgh, for instance, before we can get stuck into our "bothy" (a ploughman's plus a hard-boiled egg to you and me) we are told that "the lower gardener would have lived in the bothy. His diet would have been simple, comprising chunks of rye bread, slabs of green cheese (green meaning fresh) and bacon."

In the interests of authenticity neither potatoes nor tomatoes are used. This in no way cramps the caterer's style, still allowing the cooks at Oxburgh to produce "herring pye with salat and pickled cucumber" (in Tudor times pies were often known as coffins) or a "filling bowl of mortrewys" (a Tudor soup of fennel, leeks, celery, lettuce and herbs with the surprising but authentic addition of parmesan).

The "herb and flower salat" (a selection of spinach, sorrel, rocket, lettuce, leek, onion, garlic and fennel topped with herbs and an oil and vinegar dressing) sounds remarkably contemporary, but the garnish of edible flowers goes beyond a trendy topping of nasturtiums. Borage flowers, marigolds and even daisies are included, although Alison confessed that these last "are rather tough, and don't taste of much".

As many locally produced ingredients as possible are used, and many of the vegetables are grown in Oxburgh's magnificently restored parterre garden. "We take quinces from the orchard and are experimenting with home-made preserves, pickles and cordials. In autumn we get loads of pumpkins and make chutney," Alison explains.

Peckover House, like many other NT properties, has old household notebooks in its archives, and these inspire some of the dishes on offer, so they're not just historically accurate, they're what particular occupants of a house enjoyed eating. In the late 18th century, sherry trifle was a great favourite with the Peckovers, not least because it allowed this strictly Quaker family a nip of otherwise forbidden alcohol.

The NT runs training courses to encourage their chefs to experiment with historic dishes, adapting them to modern tastes, ingredients and techniques. But with some of the ingredients - such as bone marrow, trotters and testicles - omitted because of commercial constraints and customer resistance, the modern versions can prove a little too bland for true authenticity.

The National Trust also runs historic cookery courses for the public at its Brancaster Millennium Activity Centre (01485 210719). The NT's 'A Book of Historical Recipes' by Sara Paston-Williams (£8.50) includes some of the historic recipes served at NT properties.

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