National Trust shows how food can be old but not stale

The culinary equivalent of political correctness is about to bring about the disappearance of the baked potato and the micro-waved lasagne from the menus of many National Trust properties.

At Oxburgh Hall, a moated Tudor house in Norfolk, the process has already begun. Sir Walter Raleigh's discoveries in the New World no longer feature in the 200 lunches served on busy days.

Instead of a jacket potato or chips, visitors can have Norfolk dumplings or a trencher of home-baked bread. Sandwiches are off - they did not appear until the late 18th century - but there is at least the concession of a tomato with the meat and cheese platters.

The public reaction has been good, according to Alison Sloan, the catering manager at Oxburgh. "You always get some people who want a burger. But as soon as we explain what we are trying to do - make the menu authentic - they get interested and the meal becomes much more part of the visit.

"When I started at Oxburgh they bought everything in and just did jacket potatoes really," said Ms Sloan. Now the hall's kitchen garden is being restored to grow fruit and vegetables of the period and a quince orchard already provides the ingredients for several barely remembered recipes.

For the Trust as a whole, historic menus are also about tackling an image problem - the complaint that Trust restaurants and shops all have the same stamp - and keeping ahead in the catering game.

Just down the road from the Trust-owned hall or castle is likely to be a pub serving the ubiquitous ploughman's lunch or lasagne. With 145 outlets, from tea rooms to banqueting halls, Britain's largest charity is also a major caterer. Last year the food and teas made a profit of pounds 1.8m on a turnover of pounds 13.2m. This week the catering managers and chefs from eight properties are honing their skills and treating their palates at a seminar on historical menu development being held at Parkfield training centre near Ross-on-Wye.

Drawn from places as diverse as Oxburgh and Lanhydrock in Cornwall, which already offers lunch dishes from a high Victorian table, the participants will then act as apostles of tailor-made menus in their regions.

Food historian Sara Paston-Williams, a driving force behind the initiative, said menus should reflect the atmosphere of the house, both historically and of the family that lived there. "Visitors pass through the dining room and often the kitchen of historic houses. Then they should be able to taste some of the dishes that would have been served there."

So at Lanhydrock, lunch can begin with Carrot Soup a la Crecy (pounds 2.50), a creamy soup made with carrots, celery and fresh herbs, adapted from a recipe in The Cook's Guide of 1862, which was something of a bible in the house. And for pudding, why not English gooseberry and elderflower cream (pounds 2.60)?

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