Bread has taken a battering in recent years. A host of ‘experts’ have been encouraging us to eschew the yeasty stuff in order to cleanse our bodies. Yes, there are those unfortunate souls who cannot tolerate wheat and gluten. And, commercially produced loaves laden with E-numbers to ensure they stay fresh and last an inordinately long time are surely the antithesis of good bread. But it still seems harsh to demonise something that until relatively recently was a staple food in most UK households.
For hundreds of years bread was the staff of life, whether you were rich or poor; living with your family or an orphan such as the 400 or so children who lived at the Foundling Hospital in London (‘Foundling’ is an historic term applied to children, usually babies, that have been abandoned by parents and discovered and cared for by others.). Just to give you some idea of its importance, in 1813 alone, 63,300lb of bread was consumed by the staff and children at the hospital.
Bread is just one of the areas of focus at the Foundling Museum’s new exhibition Feeding the 400. The exhibition explores the impact food and eating regimes had on the children from 1740 to 1950. Jane Levi a researcher, writer and consultant specialising in the history of food and utopianism had the pleasure of researching this project using the meticulously detailed diet tables from the Foundling Hospital’s steward’s books.
If we were to picture an orphanage during the 18th or 19th centuries, we would no doubt think of a very bleak place full of hungry waifs (Oliver Twist springs to mind with his plaintive plea of “please sir can I have some more?”). Whilst the children at the foundling hospital were certainly bereft of familial love they did not suffer the same privations as workhouse children.
“Far from the miserable gruel of the stereotypical workhouse, the foundling children ate three balanced meals a day (including vegetables from their own kitchen gardens) off Spode china,” explains Jane Levi. “However, they had to eat in silence; Sunday dinners were often open to spectators; and the quality of the ingredients the staff fed them was not always exactly what the governors had in mind. Their food helps us to understand many of the complexities of growing up as a foundling.”
The exhibition examines the 275 year history of the orphanage through four staple food groups, milk; meat; vegetables and bread. The latter was served at every meal with children eating around 400g per day. It may surprise you to learn that much of the bread consumed during the early part of the 20th century was supplied by Harrods, which had a wholesale grocery arm to its business at this time.
The Foundling Hospital, established in 1739 by Thomas Coram, was Britain’s first children’s charity. As a charity they were acutely aware of how their funds were spent, hence the detailed records kept by the steward. Whilst the children’s diet may have been repetitive it was largely nutritious although there were noticeable differences between what the children ate compared to the staff. Four example, the children ate brown bread whilst the staff ate white. The staff would have roasted meat whilst the children’s meat was invariably boiled. But there were also treats such as coffee and butter for breakfast on Sunday mornings.
At certain times during the hospital’s history further economies had to be made. During the Napoleonic wars England experienced a wheat shortage. Thomas Bernard, a governor of the charity, espoused the use of rice as an alternative to wheat or to augment wheat in certain recipes. In his treatise on rice he provides a recipe for rice bread which is actually surprisingly good (you can find a 21st-century adaptation of Bernard’s recipe at the end of this post).
The foundling hospital closed its doors in 1954 but Coram, a charity designed to help children and young people today through their work in adoption and parental support, is still continuing the good work began by Thomas Coram 275 years ago. Through documentation, imagery and voice recordings from some of the hospital’s 20th century residents, Feeding the 400 provides a fascinating insight into the lives of the foundlings who thanks to this charity were able to have their bread and eat it.
Feeding the 400 at the Foundling Museum is open from 23 September 2016 until 8 January 2017. There are a number of events running alongside the exhibition such as comedy performance entitled The Mess by George Egg and A Foundling Christmas Dinner cookery workshop. Further details on these and other events can be found on the Foundling Museum’s What’s On Page.
Thomas Bernard’s Rice Bread
Original late 18th Century Recipe
Boil a quarter of a pound of rice till it is quite soft, then put it on the back part of a sieve to drain it; and, when it is cold, mix it with three quarters of a pound of flour, a teacupful of yeast, a teacupful of milk, and a small tablespoonful of salt. Let it stand for three hours: then knead it up; and roll it up in about a handful of flour, so as to make the outside dry enough to put into the oven. About an hour and a quarter will bake it; and it will produce 1 lb 14 oz of very good bread. The loaves should be small; not larger than what is aforementioned. It should not be eat till it is two days old.
My 21st Century Version
- 110g pudding rice
- 335g white bread flour
- 1 tsp dried yeast
- 1½ tsp fine sea salt
- 150-200ml slightly warm milk
- Put the rice into a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to the boil and continue to cook for 15 minutes.
- Drain the rice and place into a bowl. Although Thomas Bernard doesn’t instruct you to pass the rice through the sieve I felt it would be better if the rice were mashed up. Being the 21st-century, I used a stick blender to reduce the rice to a pulp. Allow to cool to room temperature
- Mix the rice with the bread flour, yeast and salt. Add 150ml of barely warmed milk. You may need slightly more than this once you start mixing ingredients together, depending on the hydration of the drained and pulverised rice. The dough should be soft and a little sticky at this stage. Begin to knead either by hand or, as I prefer to do, using a dough hook attachment on an electric mixer. I usually knead my dough for 10 minutes using a mixer. You will probably need to knead the dough for longer if you are doing it by hand.
- Like Thomas Bernard I left my dough to prove for three hours. Whilst this sounds like a long time it seemed to be just right to allow the dough to double in size. By all means check your dough after 2 hours.
- Once the dough has doubled in size tip it out of the bowl and knock it back, using plenty of flour to avoid it sticking to the work surface. I prefer to cook my dough in a loaf tin as this particular recipe is fairly sticky. Form the dough into a loaf shape and place in a greased and floured 900g loaf tin. Cover and prove for a further 30 to 40 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 200°C.
- Bake the dough in the tin for 30 minutes. After this time, carefully take the loaf out of the tin and return it to the oven. Reduce the temperature to 180°C and cook for another 20 mintues. Cool on a wire rack. I see no reason why this loaf shouldn’t be eaten straight away (rather than being kept for two days as instructed by Thomas Bernard). It has a wonderful crust and is much lighter than you might think. It also makes cracking toast.