What, no baked potatoes?

The National Trust is bringing out the flavour of its properties with historic food. Corinne Julius went below stairs for a taster

A group of monks make their way silently in twos, four paces from the pair in front, hoods up, their arms crossed neatly in their sleeves, across the grounds of Fountains Abbey, near Ripon in North Yorkshire, to the remains of the monks' refectory.

They sit in silence on the ground in neat rows with bowls and cups in front of them, communicating only in sign language. They eat simply; vegetable soup, barley bread and water. There is no cutlery. The meal over, they stack their dishes in silence.

But the 50 or so monks are not what they seem. In fact they are 12 and 13-year-olds taking part in a history project as part of their study of medieval realms.

Once allowed to talk, the students agree that eating together is enjoyable, even when it takes place in silence. They can also envisage how strong a punishment it would have been to be excluded from communal dining. They decide that food can express the values of those who consume it and how what we eat, as much as the way we eat it, has changed over time.

The experience also supports government initiatives, says National Trust education officer Jenny Deacon, "by offering teachers and pupils the opportunity to discuss the social importance of food in their own lives as in those of the monks".

At another National Trust property, Petworth House in West Sussex, a class of nine to 10-year-olds from St James's CE First School in Coldwaltham, West Sussex, are experiencing their own Upstairs, Downstairs division. Dressed to the nines, a group of elaborately dressed toffs makes polite, dining-table chit-chat, observes Victorian etiquette and is served a six-course banquet by servants, or rather classmates.

Before the banquet, groups of pupils prepared the food on the original butcher's block with the help of food historian Peter Brears. They arranged the flowers, prepared drinks, laid the dining table and wrote the menus in their best copperplate.

Then they donned specially-made costumes for their different roles as family, guests and domestics, before proceeding in hierarchical order to the dining room.According to Geoff Scully, regional education officer for the Trust, the food preparation and the role play gives a very clear understanding of social differences. "Children understand the symbolic importance of food in demonstrating power, influence and wealth," he says. "The enterprise makes them very focused. It provides a good scenario for learning social history and the importance of eating together."

These sentiments are echoed by Stephanie Fane, headteacher at St James's. "By putting on the clothes they start to feel the part and once they enter into the roles they understand so much more than they ever could at school," she says.

The National Trust has a variety of similar projects in which food brings history alive, but these are not just for school groups. So convinced is the Trust that the way to our past is through our stomachs that it is embarking on an ambitious project to provide appropriate historical food at every National Trust restaurant or coffee shop in the country. To do this it has been training staff in historical food at courses run by food historian Sara Paston- Williams.

For National Trust catering managers and chefs it has come as a bit of a shock. Rosie Laflin, the cook at the Victorian castle at Penrhyn in Wales, attended a course in trepidation. "I really thought it would be beef and hog roasts, all inappropriate to our tea rooms. I never imagined the variety that was available in Victorian times."

Sarah Valentine, from the Tudor Little Moreton Hall in Congleton, Cheshire, was equally surprised. "We've just eaten vegetarian food cooked from Tudor recipes with not a baked potato in sight. I'm amazed that they had things that we think have only recently arrived on supermarket shelves, like aubergines, chick peas, and peppers."

According to Sara Paston- Williams, the intention is to make the food in the restaurants part of the historical experience. "Visitors soak up the atmosphere. They wander through the kitchens and then they visit the restaurant and experience the food eaten by the family and by servants," she says.

Certainly she has enthused her chefs. Rosie Lafflyn intends to scour the archives, with the help of her house manager, for Victorian recipes used to entertain visitors to Penryhn. In the process she hopes that the tea-room ghost George, the son of the Victorian cook, will find the smells remind him of what his mother made and perhaps stop him from hiding the crockery.

Sarah Valentine is equally enthusiastic and keen to involve her colleagues in providing period food. She may even persuade the gardener to grow the period vegetables and flowers she needs.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. At Cliveden, in Buckinghamshire, Julie Cullen finds that period food needs some explaining on the menu, but that once tempted the public comes back for more. "We have had to train our waiters to understand and explain the menus. Visitors have become so enthusiastic that they have scoured their attics for recipes that they know were served at Cliveden by their grandparents. We have put them on the menu and intend cooking them."

Food in Trust is sponsored by AEG. Information from Geoff Sully, education officer for the southern region of the National Trust, Petworth House, West Sussex GU28 0AE. Tel: 01798 343748The next Food in Trust on 17th-century food takes place at Ham House, Richmond upon Thames from September 28 until October 2

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