I ate like a Victorian for a week in the name of science

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webnexttech | I ate like a Victorian for a week in the name of science
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How would it make me feel? (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) Smog, sewage, overcrowding and deadly infection: just some of the health hazards faced by our Victorian ancestors. And they probably suffered a lot with malnutrition, right? Well, that’s what I thought, until I came across a fascinating study by historian Professor Judith Rowbotham and pharmaco-nutritionist Dr Paul Clayton. It said that the mid-Victorian diet was among the healthiest of all time. Not only that, their life expectancy at five years was just as good, if not better than ours, and they were 90% less likely to develop cancer, dementia and coronary artery disease than we are today. As someone with a sensitive stomach, I was keen to see if eating like a Victorian for a week would reduce my bloating, improve digestion and make me feel more energised. I was also curious as my great-great grandfather Horace Edward Ramsden was once Head Chef at the House of Commons during the late 19th century. So, armed with a few old cookbooks, I set out on a culinary experiment which proved to be very illuminating indeed. Disclaimer: All recipes were followed to a tee, except I used my modern hob and oven, not a cast iron range. Monday Breakfast – porridge A familiar favourite (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) Eaten in both rich and poor households, porridge was a filling and nutritious way to start the day. It was generally made with milk, though by the end of the week, this could well be water. Other cooks had more controversial ideas. Mrs Beeton suggested boiling the oats in salted water or soaking them in Sherry. And then of course there was sloppy gruel, made famous by Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. I chose to play it safe with a steaming bowl of milky porridge and for some extra fibre, I finished with seasonal prunes and a pear. While I still favour my usual cereal and banana, I certainly couldn’t complain. The breakfast kept me feeling full but light and energised at the same time. Lunch – cheese and watercress sandwich Watercress surprised me (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) For working class Victorians, watercress was a daily staple. It was the next cheapest vegetable after the onion, and you could get four bunches for just half a penny. If they were eating on the go, people tended to place a good handful of the stuff in a sandwich with English cheddar. Charlotte’s great great grandfather was in charge of the House of Commons kitchens during the Victorian era (Picture: Supplied) Now, before this experiment, I always dismissed watercress as a limp excuse for a vegetable. But I have since learned it is a powerhouse of Vitamin A and bone strengthening Vitamin K. I was pleasantly surprised too by how tasty it was, and how the sandwich didn’t feel dry with the absence of mayo or dressing. Afterwards, I ate a crisp apple which would have been the cheapest and most commonly available urban fruit. Tea – cake Tea time (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) The Victorians didn’t demonise sugar like many health gurus do today. They instead ate everything in moderation, often enjoying cake or biscuits as a teatime snack. Another favourite was dried fruit and nuts. So along with my slice of Victoria sandwich (it was shop bought, I admit), I grazed on some juicy sultanas, raisins and antioxidant-rich walnuts. Yum. Dinner – pickled salmon and salad It was palate cleansing (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) According to the NHS website, a healthy and balanced diet should include two portions of fish a week, including one of oily fish. This is because it is packed with vitamins such as D and B2 whilst being a great source of calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and potassium. Oily varieties also contain Omega-3 fatty acids, vital for brain and heart health. Because it was inexpensive, Victorians of all incomes could afford to eat plentiful fish and seafood. Even oysters were regularly consumed by the working classes. Charlotte used recipes from the Book of Household Management by Mrs Beaton (Picture: Supplied) I sourced this dish from the food historian Pen Vogler who collated Victorian recipes enjoyed by the Dicken’s family in her fantastic book Dinner with Dickens. The recipe called for salmon and involved pickling it in a tongue-tingling marinade of white wine vinegar. I then served it with the recommended salad of crunchy celery, radishes, spring onions, lettuce, cucumber and beetroot. Not only did it look beautifully vibrant, it was palate cleansing and the perfect light meal before bed. The Victorian diet in more detail… It’s important to note the entire Victorian period, which began in 1837 and ended in 1901, was not wholesome throughout. Professor Rowbotham of Plymouth University explained: ‘During the 40s, there was an economic depression and hunger in mainland Britain. But by 1848, things started to get better and the population entered a golden age in nutrition which lasted until the 1880s before standards began to taper off again.’ One reason for an improvement in diet was the growth of the rail network. It allowed fresh, quality produce to be transported daily from the countryside to more urban markets. Seasonal fruit and veg was also becoming cheap, which meant working class people ate huge amounts. In fact, the average consumption was eight to ten portions per day- very different from the current Government recommended five-a-day. Dr Paul Clayton of the Institute of Interdisciplinary Medicine, Moscow, added that working class people had a very physical lifestyle, often thanks to manual jobs. This meant they ate two to three times more than we do today, and still managed to stay lean. Their diet was not dissimilar to the Mediterranean diet, i.e., void of ultra-processed foods and rich in fibre, minerals and phytonutrients. Tuesday Breakfast – milky porridge, prunes, apple and plums Lunch – leftover salmon and salad sandwiches Tea – An orange, dried fruit and nuts Dinner – Macaroni cheese from Things A Lady Would Like to Know by Henry Southgate (1874) Mac and cheese but make it Victorian (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) Yes, really. Mac ‘n’ cheese was a family favourite in Victorian times. But the way they made it was slightly different. Food writer Henry Southgate advised cooking the pasta in boiling water and milk to give it more flavour. As for the sauce, there was no roux involved. He placed half of the pasta in a buttered dish, spreading half the parmesan and more butter on top. He then repeated with a layer of pasta, the rest of the cheese and some breadcrumbs before baking in the oven. While it wasn’t exactly creamy, I did enjoy the saltiness and crisp texture of the pasta, serving it alongside broccoli, peas and streaky bacon. Amazingly, my tummy did not feel bloated or uncomfortable either. Wednesday Breakfast – porridge and fruit Lunch – Split pea soup from Mrs Beeton’s’ Book of Household Management (1861) Soup is a lunchtime favourite (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) If they didn’t bring sandwiches, Victorian workers often popped out for a street food lunch. This could be meat pie or soup. I decided to go for the latter, and after flicking through Mrs Beeton’s Bible, I settled for a soup made with split peas, carrots, celery, onions and fresh mint. Unlike a lot of soups out there, the veg still had bite to them and the mint added a really interesting flavour. Tea – cake, nuts and dried fruit Dinner – curry from A New System of Domestic Cookery by Maria Rundell (1806) They even had curry (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) With the first curry house opening in 1810, Anglo-Indian cooking was popular across 19th century Britain. Queen Victoria was especially partial to it, and she had Indian cooks working in her royal kitchen. Although spices such as curry powder, chilli flakes and mace were available, people had to make do with substitutes for harder to obtain ingredients. Stock was used instead of coconut milk; apples replaced tamarind; and picked cucumbers stood in for mangos. Interestingly, this recipe called for garlic which, despite being a universal ingredient of most dishes today, was thoroughly disliked by many Victorians. I went for chicken rather than mutton or beef, in my curry and served it with rice and cauliflower. The sauce was thinner than I am used to, but it was delicious and pretty fiery (my nose was streaming by the end). Thursday Breakfast – baked eggs with toast and fruit. High in protein and other minerals, eggs are among the most nutritious foods on the planet. Both rich and poor Victorians enjoyed them for breakfast, usually mid-week and on Sundays. Now, the thought of eggs first thing in the morning can make my stomach turn. But I gave them a go, cracking several into a greased tray and popping it in the oven. Unfortunately, they turned out to be a little rubbery and plain for my liking. So next time, I would take them out of the oven earlier and perhaps add some bacon. Lunch – curried chicken sandwiches using yesterday’s leftover meat. Tea – dried fruit, nuts and shortbread (shop bought) Dinner – charitable soup by Alexis Soyer Whipping up another meal (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) In 1847, during the Irish potato famine, celebrity chef Alexis Soyer travelled to Dublin. He set up a soup kitchen and wrote a cookbook, the proceeds of which he gave to charity. Later, Soyer also travelled to the Crimea to improve the diets of soldiers in hospital. It’s no surprise then that this soup recipe was extremely hearty, made with pearl barley, lamb neck, carrots, leeks and turnips. Friday Breakfast – porridge and fruit Porridge again (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) Lunch – ham sandwiches and raw veggies Tea – oranges and a slice of cake Dinner – baked cod in breadcrumbs with shrimp sauce, mash and watercress from Dinner with Dickens Fish Friday was a big tradition in Victorian households, and this recipe, again courtesy of the lovely Pen Vogler, definitely hit the spot. As I was unable to source Dover sole from Waitrose, I swapped it for cod which turned out to be very moist. The breadcrumb crust was lightly spiced with mace and nutmeg. Meanwhile, the sauce was sumptuous with buttery potted shrimp, and lemon juice gave it a piquant edge. Overall, it was a filling dish but certainly not heavy. Saturday Breakfast – porridge and fruit Lunch – cheese soufflé with watercress salad from What Shall We have For Dinner by Catherine Dickens (1851) The cheese soufflés (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) Charles Dickens was not the only talented writer in the family. His wife Catherine wrote prolifically about domestic management and even published her own book of recipes, which included these soufflés. By some miracle, when I took them out of the oven, I found each soufflé had risen right out of its ramekin. And oh, my goodness, they were heaven, packed with Parmesan, Gruyere and cheddar. My stomach was surprisingly unbothered by the melted cheese fest. This may have been because there were no carbs to go with it such as a doughy pizza base. Fact: While it is often high in saturated fat, cheese is a great source of calcium and protein. Tea – grapes, dried fruit and nuts Dinner – leftover cod with lettuce, celery and cucumber Sunday Breakfast – baked eggs, toast and fruit. This time, I caught them while they were still nice and runny. Lunch – roast chicken followed by Gateau de Pommes from Modern Cookery for Private Families by Eliza Acton (1845) A lovely roast (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) For many Victorians, Sunday was the only day of rest and so a roast with all the trimmings was a wonderful treat to end a busy week. I’m not usually a fan of roast dinner (I know, scandalous). However, I couldn’t get enough of this chicken dish from Pen Vogler’s book. A different dessert to try (Picture: Charlotte Bateman) The meat was ridiculously succulent, and the gravy was full of flavour thanks to Sherry, tarragon and parsley. Eliza Acton’s old recipe for apple dessert was delicious too: kind of like a sugary, set marmalade which was sharp with lemon, and served with lashings of custard and flaked almonds. Verdict… The Victorian diet was nothing like I imagined it would be. All the recipes, apart from those dodgy eggs, were flavourful, comforting and most importantly, nourishing. I didn’t experience any bloating during the week; I slept a lot better; and I didn’t feel as sluggish in the mornings. So, will I be cooking more Victorian dishes? Well, I would say in the words of young Oliver Twist, ‘please Sir, I want some more’. Do you have a story to share? Get in touch by emailing MetroLifestyleTeam@Metro.co.uk.

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