“The amount of meat and offal has been staggering,” says Rochelle Robshaw at the end of the first episode of Further Back in Time for Dinner, which airs at 9pm on BBC2 tonight. This is a pretty accurate summary of the series debut, which sees a family eating lamb chops for breakfast and brains for dinner as they time travel back to the 1900s.
Further Back in Time for Dinner is the second run of a constructed reality series presented by food critic Giles Coren, which transports the Robshaws back to the first half of the 19th century to discover how the transformation in what people ate helped to create the modern family.
The Robshaws are a family from Walthamstow made up of Rochelle, Brandon, and their children Miranda, Ros and Fred. Rochelle, a project manager at a heritage charity, explains how for six weeks over the summer they upped sticks to a house in Tooting built in the late 1800s. The idea was that the setting – kitchen included – would be as true to history as possible. Tonight’s episode sees the Robshaws channeling 1900-1910, a decade where, as Giles Coren gleefully points out, potatoes are measured in pecks and fridges, well, don’t exist. As one of Rochelle’s daughters puts it, the kitchen is “proper old!”
Miranda and Ros in the 1910s
Rochelle says her children were keen to do the show, and didn’t really need persuading except when it came to technology and swapping WhatsApp for sewing: “Ah, they did miss that. They did complain.” Given the obscene amount of meat the Edwardians ate, it would have been impossible to do the show as a vegetarian, too. Rochelle admits: “Both the girls had decided to be vegetarian just before filming and I said, ‘I think you’ll have to put that on hold’.”
Another key feature of the Edwardian era was to have a maid, so in this series we meet Debbie, a part-time chef who is embedded into the family to cook for and wait on them. There is even a bell that the Robshaws can ring when they require her assistance. “It really shocked me,” Rochelle says of the moment she realised they would have a maid. All of the Robshaws were concerned that it would be awkward having to order Debbie around, but Rochelle says they grew quite close over the series and she even began to feel maternal towards Debbie: “I’m sure there must have been a lot of affection that women felt for their maids and servants, that wouldn’t have been disclosed.”
Debbie’s first task is to hack the flesh off a calf’s head to make mock turtle soup. At the end of day one, she says: “This has been up there with one of the most hard-working days in my life.” Later, Debbie has to single-handedly cook an eight-course meal for eight people, at a dinner party the Robshaws hold to increase their social standing. “I’m kind of feeling a little bit overwhelmed at the moment,” she says, in the understatement of the century. Debbie has been cooking solidly for eight hours with feudal equipment and no fridge.
Debbie in the 1910s
We discover, through Debbie’s trials in the kitchen, that the Edwardian diet was extremely carnivorous. The Robshaws’ first meal of the series is the aforementioned mock turtle soup, followed by ragout of grouse and fried potatoes, then devilled kidneys and vegetable marrow before finishing off with a meaty marlow pudding. The next morning, I kid you not, they have lamb chops for breakfast. How did the Robshaws feel after eating like that? “It made me feel pretty stuffed, really,” says Rochelle, “I felt like I had turned into a kebab.”
The Robshaws are great sports, and also attempt to eat scrambled egg and scrambled brains – mixed together. Was that the worst meal of the series, by any chance? “Yes. I just thought, ‘I cannot do that’. I also wondered if it was kosher because I’m Jewish… it turns out it is. But I couldn’t eat it. I just thought, ‘I don’t want to eat anyone’s brains.’ That was really unpleasant,” recalls Rochelle.
It’s at times like this when the show feels like a hybrid between Downton Abbey and I’m a Celebrity, especially at one particularly surreal point, when Debbie is eating jellied eels in the back while the family are having a singalong in the living room with Chaz and Dave. You have to see it to understand and believe it.
Rochelle and Brandon in the 1900s
Are there any cooking techniques or recipes that the Robshaws have learnt from the series and use now? “Haha… no,” says Rochelle. There is clearly a reason that the times have moved on. Rochelle says, though, that her favourite decade to recreate was the 1930s, an interwar period which felt ahead of its time. “There was a real interest in English food and a range of cheeses, fruits of vegetables and organic produce. People valued healthy eating and being fit.” Recreating the wartime decades meant the Robshaws tried rationing, too.
In this way, Further Back in Time for dinner is very immersive. It challenges the Robshaws to not only eat differently but also live differently. At one point, man of the house Brandon goes out for steak and ale with a friend down the pub, while Rochelle and the girls are stuck at home embroidering napkins. Fred, the youngest, is in the kitchen keeping Debbie company – thank god. Rochelle says that this made her very aware of how women’s position in society has progressed: “I just think there’s no point in history that you would like to go back to, being a woman, other than now. There’s no point I’d swap back to, you just couldn’t.” For middle class women who had maids, especially, days were difficult to fill: “It made we wonder what women did actually do all day.”
To give a real idea of how the Robshaws’ modern life starkly contrasts with their Edwardian equivalent, Rochelle explains that Brandon does most of the cooking when they’re not filming: “I work full time and Brandon works from home so he, I reckon, does about 75% of the cooking,” says Rochelle, “And I do 95% of the cleaning.”
Real life, it seems, very much continues while they’re filming the series. Rochelle tells a story about a hospital appointment she “had in the 1930s”, where she turned up clad head to toe in 30s dress, trying to explain her appearance to the doctor, who hardly raised an eyebrow and said: “Don’t worry, this is London. You can practically wear anything.” Rochelle hastens to add: “In the 1910s I tended to stay within the house.”
Further Back in Time for Dinner is on tonight at 9pm on BBC2
If you’d like to take part in the culinary time-travelling series, then email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information. They are looking for a family based in the north with at least three children over the age of eight who are available to film over the summer holidays this year.