Mark Lester as Oliver Twist in 1968
Mark Lester as Oliver Twist in 1968

Gruel all round as the Victorian workhouse diet makes a comeback

Rising food bills bring renewed interest in virtues of frugality

Jonathan Owen
Sunday 21 September 2008 00:00

The Dickensian delights of the Victorian workhouse, immortalised in the moment when a starving Oliver Twist dares to ask for some more watery gruel, are being brought to Britons hit by the credit crunch.

For the first time in more than 100 years, the Manual of Workhouse Cookery is being republished next month. The cookbook, part of a wider book looking at the food "enjoyed" by the poorest people in Victorian Britain, extols the virtues of frugality – making every single ingredient count. It includes a recipe for gruel – a watery porridge consisting of oatmeal, treacle, water and salt.

The book, written by the National Training School of Cookery and published in 1901, advises readers to cut costs by boiling meat instead of roasting it, and sets out around 50 recipes designed to produce food at minimum cost. It cites economy as an indispensable qualification for every cook. Many of the dishes it presents, such as shepherd's pie, dumplings and roly-poly pudding, have become the archetypal school dinner. But vegetables and fruit only make fleeting appearances, and you can forget any mention of herbs or anything else that might add taste, save for salt and pepper.

Yet, we can learn a lot of lessons from the Victorians, says Peter Higginbotham, author of The Workhouse Cookbook. "If you follow this book you could produce very filling and reasonably appetising food using simple recipes and basic ingredients," he says. "If you can get over the mental obstacle of 'Oh God, it's the workhouse cookbook', here is a book that has a lot to offer in terms of making a good range of dishes economically without compromising totally on taste."

The renewed interest in workhouse cooking is a part of a wider trend for people to cut back on their food bills to cope with the effects of the credit crunch. Just last week, Delia Smith reissued her 1970s bestseller Frugal Food, claiming its recipes for dishes such as kipper quiche and kidney-stuffed onions are "more relevant than ever" in the current economic climate. Her book has a "pauper's puddings" section, including stodgy desserts such as spotted dick, as well as her own Cheap Charter on how to save money when cooking.

Accelerating food prices have brought a rise in the average family's shopping bill of £750 a year, according to the organisers of British Food Fortnight, which began yesterday. But a spokeswoman warned consumers against buying on price alone: "Food is not something to put into lowest common denominator so we spend as little as we possibly can on it, more a question of best-value food we can afford in these challenging economic times."

The financial climate is encouraging people to go back to basics, says Gillian Carter, editor of BBC Good Food magazine: "We're definitely seeing more of a home–cooking trend at the moment, with people looking for better-value ingredients. They're also using up their leftovers – in a bid to save money and also waste less." She sees a place for the cookery of the workhouse: "These recipes would be perfectly delicious – in a homely, stick-to-your ribs kind of way. We might find them a little plain, but they'd certainly fill you up."

But the food critic Terry Durack is horrified by the prospect of a return to what he sees as an inglorious culinary past. "If I thought the future held nothing more than watery stews and leaden dumplings, I'd jump now. The last thing we need is a return to boring British stodge, with never a green vegetable in sight," he said. "Let's treat this manual as the historical document it is, please – something amusing to read by the light of a candle this winter while huddled up near the boiler trying to keep warm."


Sea Pie

Ingredients: 5oz raw meat free from bone (beef stickings or similar quality). ¼oz dripping. Pepper, salt. 5oz carrots, onions and turnips. ¼oz flour. Water.

For crust: 2oz flour. Salt. ¾oz suet. Cold water.

Method: Melt the dripping in the pan, when hot put in the onion sliced; fry golden brown, sprinkle in the flour, add water, and boil. Add meat cut into pieces, also vegetables cut into small dice. Simmer or steam for half an hour. Make crust of flour, chopped suet, salt and water. Roll out to pan size. Put carefully over the meat, and simmer or steam gently up to 2 hours.

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