This week saw the contestants on Celebrity Masterchef, including such starry names as long-forgotten 90s one hit wonder Chesney Hawkes and celeb reality show fixture Rylan Clark (somebody who’s only a “celebrity” by merit of appearing on enough “celebrity” editions of these shows), cooking at Blists Hill Victorian Town. A living history museum representing a small industrial Shropshire town at the end of the nineteenth century, Blists Hill’s large cast of Victorian costumed interpreters gave Masterchef a perfect setting for one of their mass catering challenges with a period twist. The only problem is, neither the show nor hapless shouty presenter-cum-judges John Torode and Gregg Wallace seem to have the slightest clue of what “Victorian” actually constitutes.
Working off the concept that Blists Hill is a rough, working-class town (actually quite a bit of it is fairly middle-class) and thus its workers are in need of a treat, the contestants are told to knock up a “Victorian feast”, cooking with a variety of apparently typical Victorian ingredients. (Essentially this amounts largely to stuff that’s native to Britain and a bit more offal than they might normally be given).
Ultimately, all this means is a chance for the “expert” judges to demonstrate that their notion of “Victorian” amounts to little more than some vague idea of “in olden times”. (Aussie Torode very quickly fell back to the stereotype of his home country being a place to which convicts were sent. Actually, by the start of the Victorian period, the main era of convict colonies in Australia was already winding down and economic migrants were on the increase. By the time of Blists Hill’s c. 1900 setting there had been no real transportation for half a century).
Beloved children’s educational sketch show Horrible Histories features an appealing “Historical Masterchef” sketch (which would be worth it just for Jim “Gerard from Peep Show” Howick’s spot on take on Gregg’s striding round the kitchen shouting seemingly arbitrary amounts of remaining time and excessively insisting on his love of pudding). Unfortunately, it appears that the real John and Gregg have never watched their parody selves otherwise they might have learnt something. One episode memorably featured a historical chef introducing a pineapple as the most desirable of luxury goods, something that people would simply bring out to show off their wealth. This concept is repeated almost verbatim by the Masterchef judges here, the only issue being that that Horrible Histories segment was in the “Slimy Stuarts” era (or about 250 years prior to this episode’s Victorian setting!)
By the later nineteenth century, pineapples were neither the absurdly extravagant luxury product that they had been in earlier eras, nor were they the relatively commonplace item that they would become in the twentieth century. Mrs Beeton (publishing her comprehensive household manual in 1861) has thirteen different pineapple desserts, from flan to souffle and mousse to ice cream (as well as four different pineapple jams and preserves and a handful of cocktails), somewhat giving the lie to Masterchef’s concept that a pineapple was just for show at this time. Although she mentions the fresh fruit, though, she generally assumes that they will be: “preserved in tins, in glass with syrup, and candied, in all of which forms they are most useful to the cook.”
The contestants attempt a relatively Victorian take on the fruit with an upside-down cake (a variety of cake that comes out of the kind of heavy cookware and coal fired ranges of the period), although the pineapple upside-down cake itself doesn’t get mentioned in recipe books until after tinned pineapples were being mass produced in an easily affordable fashion. In fact it doesn’t show up until the 1920s and 30s and, even then, in America rather than Britain.
This isn’t the only occasion in which the celebrity contestants appear to have a slightly better grasp of appropriately Victorian food than the “expert” judges and, indeed, the most irritating thing about this challenge is the way in which John and Gregg continually show a constant condescension of the contestants’ historical knowledge. If they hadn’t attempted to assume an “expert” role, this wouldn’t really be a problem. Rylan, rapidly showing himself the most naturally and enthusiastically gifted chef of the bunch, decides to cook ravioli (or, as he calls it, “those little pasta parcels”) only for John sneeringly to suggest that pasta isn’t very Victorian.
Of course, pasta as a staple foodstuff in Italy goes back centuries, but it has a pretty long history in this country too. I’ve mentioned before, after all, how “macaroni” was a core part of the diet of the early vegetarians of the Victorian era. When it comes to ravioli specifically, people have been eating those pasta parcels in Britain for as long as recipes have been written down. As far back as the fourteenth century there are recipes for ravioli in this country (although, personally, looking through this copy of the Forme of Cury the only pasta dish I can find is lasagne). By the Victorian age there was a world of pasta options, Mrs Beeton has everything from gnocchi to mac and cheese, and both Italian and Spanish versions of ravioli. So, yes, John Torode, the Victorians definitely did have pasta.
Former Pussycat Doll Kimberly Wyatt, meanwhile, was cooking the fish dish (and for an American, and an erstwhile burlesque performer no less, doing a remarkable job of not giggling at her teammate’s spotted dick), creating concern about the Victorian-ness of a hollandaise sauce. As one of the classic sauces of French haute cuisine, though, it should come as no surprise that hollandaise has a long history.
Created in the early sixteenth century by French chefs to mimic the flavours brought with the visit of the King of the Netherlands, it had already been popular in Britain long before the Victorians came along. Mrs Beeton has two different recipes for “Dutch Sauce (Fr. Sauce Hollandaise)”, which she suggests serving with various fish or asparagus, much as we would today and much as Kimberly did on Masterchef. “The sauce must be carefully cooked, and on no account placed on the fire after the butter is added, or it will oil,” she advises, before concluding that the ingredients of a good hollandaise will probably set you back about six to eight pence.
Ultimately, with things being left up to the celebrity contestants we actually wound up with a far more accurate set of Victorian dishes than if the judges had had their say. Hopefully, given the audience is relying entirely on them to convey the flavour of the dishes on show, they know more about tasting than they do about history!