A gruelling meal for hard times

Tourists got a taste of the workhouse today as free gruel was ladled out in the courtyard of the Royal Academy.

The "meals for hard times" of which Oliver Twist famously wanted more was slopped out from pewter dishes to mark the start of the Royal Society of Chemistry's (RSC) 2009 theme of food.

Beadle Mr Bumble complete with gold-trimmed tricorn hat, cane and ladle was on hand to eject anyone who dared to ask for more.

Reactions varied from pleasant surprise to full-blown disgust as people gulped down spoonfuls of the Dickensian slush, composed of oats, water, milk and onion.

"It's extremely bland," said Jennifer Gilson, a retired scientist. "There's no flavour at all without the onion."

But Israel Philip, an administrator at the RSC said: "In this weather it's the best thing to have. I'd have this for breakfast every morning. It's just like porridge."

Indeed, the event's organisers were disappointed that some people seemed to be enjoying the workhouse grub which, in a minor lapse of authenticity, was prepared by a French chef, Fabian Aid.

A spokesman said: "We were hoping he'd make it far more disgusting. Some people have actually said they like it, which rather defeats the object."

But Mr Bumble, who usually goes by the name of Frank Neaves and runs the RSC's online marketing department, was unable to get through half the contents of his pewter dish before giving up. "I just can't do it," he said. "I can't force it down any more."

Likewise, Leanne Fishwick, the dietician on hand to comment on the dubious nutritional value of the grey slop, struggled to gulp down even one mouthful.

Lest the hoards of people queuing for the gruel be tempted to embrace the diet of the workhouse she was keen to point out its nutritional drawbacks.

"There is some nutritional value in what people are eating here today, the oats are very good but if you were to eat this for breakfast, lunch and dinner you'd experience some real nutritional deficiencies. Iron would be a problem as well as things like scurvy, on top of it being very boring."

The gruel was recreated from Charles Dickens' novel Oliver Twist and other historical sources. As well as marking the start of the RSC Year of Food, the revival of the Victorian staple comes the day before the musical Oliver! starring Rowan Atkinson opens in the West End.

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