Baked potatoes were once the main offering in the 90-seat restaurant at the National Trust's Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk. But in the four years since Alison Sloan joined the property as catering manager, potatoes in any shape or form have disappeared altogether from the menu.
It's not that Sloan has anything against this staple of the modern British diet. Potatoes just did not have a place in her plan to take the catering at Oxburgh, a moated manor house built in 1482, back to Tudor times - purely because they weren't around in the 15th century.
"I felt the food offering should be more in keeping with the history of the building, so I looked in the archives held at the house for details of the food eaten throughout the property's history," says Sloan, who is also responsible for the tearooms at another National Trust property, Peckover House in Cambridgeshire. So now, instead of potatoes, Norfolk dumplings take pride of place on Oxburgh's menu accompanying a meat pottage, the medieval equivalent of a soup or stew, served with rye bread (£5.30).
Sloan's changes to the menu at Oxburgh formed the template for a nationwide project by the National Trust to develop historical menus relevant to individual properties, drawing from regional tradition, archive material and local ingredients. Eight properties were involved when the project was launched in 1997 and this has expanded to more than 40 participating restaurants and tearooms scattered throughout England and Wales.
The catering operations at National Trust properties are an important source of income for the charity - so much so that, according to Sloan, some properties are developing stand-alone catering facilities in order to attract custom separate from that for the houses, all of which charge an entrance fee. As it stands, many of the properties already make and sell their own preserves, including chutneys, jams, flavoured vinegars and oils.
Each kitchen is encouraged to develop its own distinctive menu and, as a result, the food varies greatly. Catering staff from the participating properties attend a week-long cookery school involving theory and practical sessions led by food historian, caterer and author of The Art of Fine Dining, Sara Paston-Williams. The aim is to enable cooks or chefs (whether a property has a cook or a chef depends on its size) and managers to share existing knowledge, develop culinary skills to cope with the changes, and gain background historical information.
The theory sessions take the form of talks with slides on subjects such as flans and pastries, meat dishes, puddings, soups and salads, and concentrate on which produce to use depending upon the era chosen for a property. "We choose a time which is important in a property's history," explains Sloan. "For instance, Oxburgh is based on Tudor times, Peckover is Georgian, Cliveden in Buckinghamshire is influenced by the 1920s and Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire is Victorian."
A selection of historical recipes to form the foundation for future menus is given to staff attending the course - eg, 17th-century florentine tart with nutmeg pastry, and an Elizabethan gooseberry and elderflower cheesecake - and participants are also given the chance to try out many of these recipes in practical sessions led by Leith's-trained cook, Holly Jones. Once back at their properties, they're encouraged to search archives and local libraries for further information on food and recipes.
After attending the cookery school Sloan adopted a recipe for a herb and flower salad (£2.95) which 55,000 visitors a year at Oxburgh have a chance to try out. It consists of lettuce, spinach, watercress, thyme, basil, dill, marjoram, fennel, garlic, leeks and nasturtium petals, topped with nasturtium and borage flowers, marigolds and daisies and tossed in an oil and vinegar dressing.
Tomatoes are conspicuous by their absence from the menu, the reason being rooted in medieval folklore. "The tomato was thought to be an aphrodisiac and was called ‘love fruit'," explains Sloan, "so some properties don't use them at all."
Sloan, however, does serve a home-made orange cordial as an alternative to cola and lemonade. Made from fruit grown in the 300-year-old orange grove at Peckover, the cordial is served both here and at Oxburgh.
National Trust menus run for a season (March to November), at the end of which they are reviewed. Sloan is always on the lookout for new recipes to try out, and the library at Peckover has proved a useful source of information. "I found a recipe for citron jam in an old recipe book in the library which had been submitted by the Honourable Alexandrina Peckover," says Sloan. "I also get ideas from old letters kept in the archives in which the writer may describe what they had for tea."
The Peckover tearooms are situated in the old servants' hall and seat only 35, although there is a 17th-century barn which seats up to 100 and is used in peak season.
"Service needs to be fast in the summer when coach parties visit and the queue is up the stairs. Sandwiches are too time-consuming to make, so we serve a ‘docky' of bread and cheese," says Sloan, going on to explain that a "docky" (£1.50) was traditionally eaten by farm labourers who would have their wages docked for the time taken to eat lunch. Hence the name.
In previous years the Peckover tearooms, which attract 14,000 visitors a year, served only afternoon teas. But this year lunches have been introduced and are served between 12.30 and 2pm. The entrance fee of £3.20 means the tearooms miss out on local passing trade, but Sloan says: "It's probably just as well because we wouldn't cope with numbers mid-season if we also had a regular local trade."
The food is made fresh daily on the premises. A popular dish is an "onion clanger" (£3.50) consisting of suet pastry, sausage and onion baked in the oven and served with gravy.
The puddings on offer include a gooseberry pie served hot or cold with cream (£1.95), and for afternoon tea there is a selection of cakes such as apricot tea loaf (95p) and Fenland apple cake (95p). A variety of scones, including apple, honey, orange, fruit and plain, are served with butter (95p) and/or jam, honey and citron marmalade (30p).
Afternoon teas continue to be very popular, with up to 100 being served per afternoon in August. Average spend has increased from £1.70 last year to £2.70 this year with the introduction of lunches, which provide 30 covers a day.
At all National Trust properties there is a commitment to supporting regional food and using local suppliers for ingredients. Many recipes are regional specialities such as the Cambridge spring soup (£2.05) served at Peckover. The soup is made from a traditional Cambridgeshire recipe containing peas, onions, lettuce and herbs and is served with crusty bread.
The regional speciality at Oxburgh is seafood, because of the property's proximity to the north Norfolk coast. "This year we have tried putting a herring pie with a cucumber pickle (£2.75) on the menu," says Sloan. "The recipe originated from Great Yarmouth and the dish has been very popular." Cockles are served vinegared and accompanied by crusty bread (£2.80).
New herb beds have been planted at Oxburgh and Peckover, and home-grown fruit and vegetables from the properties themselves are used whenever possible. Moreover, ingredients commonly used in past centuries but which have suffered a 20th-century decline in popularity - such as flowers in salads - are being brought back into the kitchen. For instance, Parson Woodforde's charter, a set custard baked in the oven, is made from milk simmered with lavender to give a subtle flavour; and quinces are used at Oxburgh in pies, puddings, and even Turkish delight.
Sloan is now keen to help other properties with the research and development of historical dishes, and although the ingredients and recipes may be from the past, her attention is now turning to plans to set up a Modern Apprenticeship scheme to develop a core of chefs for the years ahead.