As the inevitable seasonal Dickens-fest hits our TV screens you might well think our great, great grandparents were either half-starved or over-stuffed. But you would be wrong. The idea of Victorian eating we get from classic serials and films is largely a myth according to fascinating new research by social historian, Dr Judith Rowbotham, and pharmaconutritionist, Dr Paul Clayton.
"Like most social historians I used to believe that the Victorian working classes ate poorly. It was only when I started to investigate I realised this did not represent the 'normal' realities," says Dr Rowbotham, of Nottingham Trent University.
As she trawled through her large collection of Victorian novels, magazines, recipe books, workhouse records, 'moral tales' and assorted literature, Dr Rowbotham noticed evidence that, far from being unhealthy, the mid-Victorian working-class diet was not only far more nutritious than ours, but also that its emphasis on vegetables and fruit made resemble the Mediterranean eating habits now hailed as the healthiest in the world.
"Most of the mid-Victorian working classes seem to have followed modern advice about healthy lifestyles almost to a 'T'," she says, "because food items that were dirt-cheap were also very good for you".
Dr Clayton, visiting fellow at Oxford Brookes University explains, "Due to their high levels of physical activity, the Victorians ate two to three times as much as we do, and their diet was largely plant-based. This meant they got substantial amounts of fibre, vitamins, minerals and, most importantly, the plant or phyto-nutrients known to protect against degenerative diseases. Effectively, they ate a super-Mediterranean diet. This made them 90% less likely to develop cancer, dementia and coronary artery disease than we are today," he says.
Most of us struggle to reach our five fruit and veg a day, but our Victorian forebears consumed eight to 10, all seasonal and organic. Root vegetables, such as potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, turnips and carotene-rich carrots, were high on the menu. Onions, raw and cooked, were the key staple in the daily diet, along with watercress, beetroot, and cabbage - all extolled as ‘superfoods’ today for their high levels of vitamins, minerals and plant nutrients. For most of the year, apples were a staple, too and later cherries (the poor man's fruit). In summer, lettuces, radishes, fresh peas and beans were abundant while gooseberries, plums, and greengages, even strawberries, added more nutrients.
The Victorians also consumed more heart and brain-protective omega-3-rich oily fish and seafood, than we do. Herrings – soused, dried, pickled or smoked, sprats, eels and oysters, mussels, cockles and whelks, were high in the popularity stakes as were white fish such as cod, haddock and John Dory. What’s more Victorians ate the whole fish, highly-nutritious head, roes and all.
Nuts such as hazelnuts, chestnuts and walnuts, also rich in omega-3s, were favourites with more expensive imported almonds and Brazil nuts making an appearance at Christmas. Pulses – think pease pudding – were popular too.
Many families kept a few hens in their backyard for fresh eggs and rabbits too were a favourite backyard resource. Offal - including brains, heart, sweetbreads and 'pluck' (sheep’s lungs and intestines) along with the more familiar liver and kidneys, all made cheap, tasty dishes Add in the occasional hare or pheasant, and remember that much of this meat was boiled rather than roasted, as well as free range, and you have a recipe for health and longevity.
The Victorians used far less salt than us and their sugar consumption was also relatively low. True, all those potatoes and root veg meant they would have had a relatively high ‘glycaemic load’ (GL), which measures how quickly foods push up blood sugar levels and is linked to a greater risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. However they offset this with far higher levels of physical activity. Most workers (men and women) were active in work or leisure for 55 to 70 hours a week.
"In contrast, diets today are high in processed foods and contain far fewer nutrients. Our consumption of breakfast cereals, confectionery and baked goods gives our diet a high GL; and these factors, combined with our low levels of physical activity and low intakes of phyto-nutrients, makes us extremely vulnerable to heart disease, type 2 diabetes, cancer and strokes," observes Dr Clayton.
The mid-Victorians were also expert at eking out their rations, a habit we could usefully borrow as food prices continue to rise. For the poor, the Sunday joint (boiled, occasionally roast) lasted until mid-week, eaten cold on Monday with bread and salad or pickles, say, and hashed or curried on Tuesday and providing stock for a soup on Wednesday. Those not able to afford a joint could usually manage a boiled meat pudding on Sunday, eked out until Monday with the emphasis on the suet crust and gravy with veg or salad.
The weekly wage pattern meant that for many, Thursday was a rice or lentil dish (a steamed meat suet pudding if you were lucky), with fish on Friday or fish head soup for the less well off. On Saturdays, it might be chops - even steak - for the relatively affluent workers and fried or stewed offal for the rest. Each meal was accompanied by copious amounts of vegetables to spin out the expensive elements like meat.
Breakfast would usually have featured bread (a bunch of watercress between two slices of bread smeared with dripping or bacon fat if you were really lucky was the poor working man's breakfast) or porridge (with water or milk), eggs more occasionally.
Staple lunchtime fare was usually a Victorian version of today's working lunch: a homemade cheese or fat bacon sandwich or a pie (meat and vegetables; eels etc) bought from the ubiquitous stalls.
Once you allow for the high baby and child mortality rate, our great, great grandparents' life expectancy was much the same as ours. But, while many of us nowadays depend on medical help in our final years, the majority of mid-Victorians enjoyed a highly active old age.
In fact, says Dr Clayton, "Compared to the Victorians, we are over-fed and under-nourished." He admits that a return to mid-Victorian habits isn’t really on the cards, given our lower levels of physical activity. But there are lessons to be learnt, which could help us live healthier, longer lives. These include upping our consumption of fruit and veg, exercising more and only drinking in moderation.
Victorian Christmas dinner
Many of our favourite Christmas foods are inherited from the Victorians.
- Turkey, although boiled with onions and other veg rather than roasted, was the centre of the working class Christmas meal in towns and cities, although some families had boiled beef and country-dwellers usually had goose.
- Accompaniments included forcemeat balls, bread, celery or oyster sauce, plenty of carrots, cabbage, and 'stoved' potatoes, cooked slowly by the fire in dripping or lard and water, a method still used, albeit with olive oil rather than dripping, in parts of the Med today.
- Those who couldn’t afford a fowl or a joint had ‘poor man's goose’ a mixture of sheep's liver and heart, with sage, onions and potatoes.
- Mincemeat, plum pudding and plum cake, usually plain or with marzipan rather than sugar icing, were seasonal favourites as were sweet oranges.
Comments Paul Clayton: "Boiling the meat with vegetables, and specifically onions or leeks, reduces the formation of cancer-causing chemicals; and their Christmas dinner was far lower in saturated fats. Offal meats are generally, nutritionally superior to the cuts of meat we eat today with higher levels of fat-soluble nutrients such as vitamin E, carotenoids, and other protective compounds. The dried fruit in the mincemeat, pudding and cake, combine a number of plant nutrients. Much of the fat is saturated, which can be regarded as encouraging inflammation but high intakes of phytonutrients and unsaturated omega-3 fatty acids neutralise or overcome this tendency, judging by health records."