I thought I’d write something about a great programme I saw last week on BBC 2, ‘The Supersizers go…Restoration’, where Giles Coren and Sue Perkins go back to the 17th century to experience the typical diet of the time. They did go ‘wartime’ the week before, but I thought last week’s was particularly good as they experience a little-known period in history and the programme brought up loads of fascinating information about British culinary history.
We see Giles and Sue eat huge amounts of meat, including heart, coxcombs, tongue, caul (the amniotic sack of a calf) and plenty of other bits of animal, hardly any vegetables and no water. Water in London at the time was undrinkable so people just drank beer and wine all day. For this reason the programme mainly consists of watching the two get pretty drunk, which is hilarious anyway, but there were a couple of things touched upon that really interested me.
Feeling very ill from all the meat, Giles and Sue are finally able to consume some vitamins when they go to Covent Garden to have a vegetarian meal. It’s said that vegetables generally were distrusted in the 17th century as they were thought indigestible and ‘even the poor preferred bread and sold their turnips for cattle feed’. I also think it’s pretty likely, judging from the meaty diet of the rich shown in the programme, that these wealthy households wanted to display their wealth and so only served the most expensive meats possible. Vegetables, being cheap and widely available by all, were certainly not fit for the rich. However, the health benefits of vegetables slowly began to be acknowledged due to the work of famous writer, gardener and diarist, John Evelyn. Born in 1620, he began to write vegetarian recipe books to try to educate people about the dangers of a vegetable-free diet, and the meal eaten by Giles and Sue is taken from these books.
The menu consisted of:
- A city sallet
- 1 hour boiled mushrooms
- Pickled samphire
- Carrot pudding
Which is breath of fresh air from their other menus, for example:
- Hash (ground beef)
- Tongue pie
- Buttered Crab
- Snowe Cream (whipped egg white)
- Larded Pigeon
- Mince Pies
- Peas (with cockscomb)
Interestingly, Evelyn wrote the first salad book ever written in the English language, ‘Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets’, published in 1699, in which he defines salad as
A particular Composition of certain Crude and fresh herbs, such as usually are, or may safely be eaten with some Acetous Juice, Oyl, Salt, &c. to give them a grateful Gust and Vehicle.
If you’re interested in old recipes, this book can be downloaded or read online here.
John Evelyn believed that his wife’s unhealthy diet caused her early death and he was probably right as when Giles goes to the clinic to check how the week’s diet as effected his health, he is told that eating such a high intake of fat and protein for a long period of time would make the risk of cancer much higher. So the work of John Evelyn in promoting a vegetarian diet made a great improvement in people’s health and knowledge of nutrition and the increasingly thriving vegetable market at Covent Garden must validate his work. Of course, there are other factors that contributed to the acknowledgement of the health benefits of vegetables, with other writers such as Thomas Tryon, and I also found some interesting information about how religious sects to dislike the idea of killing animals for food and vegetarianism as a life choice began to gain popularity.
I find it fascinating that such a huge necessity in the human diet could have been dismissed as unhealthy for such a long time, and also how quickly these ideas were turned around with the realisations of men such as John Evelyn.
‘The Supersizers go…Restoration’ can still be viewed on BBC iPlayer, but only for a few more days. The next programme in the series, which deals with the diet of the Victorian era, is on tonight at 9pm on BBC 2. As well as being historically fascinating, these programmes are also hilarious and I highly recommend them.