Why the post-famine 'peasant diet' is the new thing - and everything you need to know
A peasant-style diet abundant in simple fare such as potatoes, vegetables, milk and fish kept the rural poor of mid-Victorian Ireland much healthier than their urban counterparts, a study has shown.
The research, published in the Royal Society of Medical Journals, explores the impact of regional diets in the Victorian era. It shows that the labouring population in remote areas such as the west of Ireland and the islands of Scotland enjoyed a more nutritious diet and a lower mortality rate than city dwellers, despite their relative poverty.
While the rural poor were consuming a diet of fish with potatoes and "stirabout" (a crude porridge of oats and milk), Peter Greaves from the University of Leicester explains that in urban areas, the poor lived on a diet of bread, dripping, tea and sugar and had difficulty obtaining vegetables, meat, fruit, fish and milk.
In later years, although those in urban conurbations enjoyed improved access to the world's commodities and could obtain a more diverse range of foods, the introduction of mass-produced refined foods proved detrimental to their health. It continues today.
By contrast, the diet of rural, agricultural workers in isolated areas of England in the late 1800s was far better. This was partly because they could store more food in root cellars, but also because they were often paid in kind, in grain, potatoes, meat, milk and small patches of land in which to grow potatoes and vegetables or keep their own livestock. Presumably, they also spent less cash in the notorious Victorian gin palaces of yore.
The peasant culture of payment in kind persisted the longest in the Scottish Lowlands, where, despite their poverty, labourers enjoyed good health as a result of an abundance of milk and oatmeal.
"The diet was based on oats and, increasingly, the potato, along with abundant milk and some meat from household livestock, as well as fish, notably herring in the western Highlands. Milk or whey was the normal accompaniment to oats and potatoes were eaten with meat or fish when available," explains Greaves.
"The diet of island communities was also based on oats and vegetables, with less milk, but with larger quantities of fish and shellfish. This diet was retained into the 1930s in isolated communities with little access to processed foods."