Let them eat rice bread

Categories: History of food

Jane Levi—writer, academic and guest curator of an exhibition about food at the Foundling Hospital—on how bread proved to be a crucial element in the lives of foundling children

It seems impossible to tackle any European food history project without addressing the question of bread. For so long the core staple in almost everyone’s diet, and still a central element on many of our tables, bread has been and remains a truly representative ‘staff of life’. So it was hardly surprising that as the research progressed for the current Feeding the 400 food exhibition at The Foundling Museum, London—which commemorates the Foundling Hospital, the first children’s charity in the UK that opened its doors in 1741—bread proved to be a crucial element in the lives of the foundling children.

From the 18th to the 20th century, bread was served with every one of the foundlings’ meals—at breakfast, dinner (or lunch) and supper. To us, almost unimaginable quantities of bread were consumed: in the year of 1813, a total of around 28.5 tons; in the 1930s, 150-200 1kg loaves every day. But what kind of bread was it?

High status loaves
Right into the 20th century, when Harrods was supplying the foundlings with their daily bread, they were fed brown ‘household’ bread. This wasn’t because of our current idea that brown bread is somehow ‘better’ for us than white; on the contrary, for most of that time it was a cheaper product aimed specifically at the poor. The staff that took care of the children had managed to persuade the governors to let them eat higher status white bread in the late-18th century, and they retained this distinction until after the Second World War.

Since it was such a huge part of the diet, bread was a major focus of economy, especially at times when wheat was in short supply and bread and flour became more expensive. Buried in the archives was a 1795 document on the ‘uses of rice’ written by the eminent philanthropist and Foundling Hospital governor Sir Thomas Bernard. This revealed that one of the cost cutting measures adopted by the Foundling Hospital was to make rice pudding instead of flour pudding and—perhaps more surprisingly—rice bread.

Short grain rice
This 18th century rice bread is only a distant cousin to our current rice breads, which are usually promoted as being free from gluten and containing no wheat at all. The Foundling rice bread still contains wheat flour, but it replaces about half of it with cooked short grain rice. Hungry, food-obsessed researchers simply had to know what it tasted like.

Happily, Olivier de Favrel, the wonderful baker and owner of Olivier’s Bakery, was eager to take up the challenge of working me to produce a contemporary version of the bread. The results were magnificent. Working from the original recipe, I managed to produce a tasty but quite heavy loaf. In Olivier’s skilled hands, the result is a much lighter crumb inside a delicious crusty exterior, perfectly adapted to contemporary preferences. Who could have imagined that it could be quite so pleasurable to eat like a foundling child?

Read Jane’s recipe for foundling rice bread

Image: Orphan girls entering the refectory of a hospital by Frederick Cayley Robinson / Wellcome Library