Calf’s foot jelly and a glass of bubbly, please: Giles Coren and Sue Perkins are back for another voyage through our gastronomic history
By Kathryn Knight (8th June 2009)
Give Sue Perkins a list of animal body parts and she can say with confidence that she’s pretty much tasted them all. ‘There’s nothing I haven’t eaten,’ says the 39-year-old writer and comedian, proudly patting her waistline. ‘Heart, eyes, bottoms, pancreas, ears… I’ve eaten them all.’
Yikes. Is Cambridge-educated Perkins in training for a jungle appearance on I’m A Celebrity? Not exactly. Along with the writer and restaurant critic Giles Coren, she is filming the second series of The Supersizers Go…, the BBC’s unexpectedly compulsive programme in which the intrepid duo dress, live and eat the diets of various eras in history.
In the last series, the gallivanting gastronomes donned heavy wigs and authentic costumes and ploughed their way through eel pie and beer during the Restoration period. They dug for victory, enduring blackouts and air raids while dining on dried egg and Spam in war-torn Britain, and chewed over menus of fondue, prawn cocktail and Angel Delight in the 1970s.
This time, in The Supersizers Eat…, they’re sipping sherry in the Roaring Twenties, eating a 1950s austerity diet and plundering extravagant boar’s head feasts in Tudor times. They also had to wolf down the 5,000-calorie breakfasts favoured by the royals during the French Revolution. It’s enough to make viewers reach for the Rennies.
It is this latter period of 18th century Versailles that has proved the most challenging for Perkins. Wearing an enormous powdered wig and layers of petticoats to experience what life was like for Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, Perkins says the sheer volume of their lives was exhausting.
‘I don’t just mean the food, but everything – the clothes, the furniture, the entertainment,’ she says. ‘Everything was on a vast scale, overwhelming really. And for once, Giles and I were not just playing two random people living in an era but real historical figures, and there was this pressure to get it right.
‘I actually found it all really depressing. The restrictions of it all, not just in terms of the clothing but also the very public nature of their lives. Everything – eating, dressing – had to be done with an audience but then, at the end of the day, you were also very alone. I found it incredibly demoralising, being both this incredibly public and very lonely person.’
From 18th century France it was straight into 1950s suburban Britain, which was, as Perkins says, depressing in an altogether different way. ‘As a housewife, all I did was clean toilets, which was also horribly dispiriting, even before we got to the food, which was still rationed after the war and desperately uninspiring – all bad cuts of meat and a couple of potatoes.’
Meat – in whatever shape or form – was always going to be a problem for Perkins. At home in Cornwall, where she lives with her partner, Kate Williams, she follows a largely vegetarian lifestyle. ‘I’m not militant but I find it suits me,’ she says. ‘But it’s simply not an option when you’re living in medieval times, I’m afraid. Or indeed the Twenties.’
Little wonder she’s not only put on more than a stone in the past year but has been violently sick more than once. ‘The Tudor week in particular was horrific,’ she says. ‘I was pretty much sick the whole week, eating things like calf’s foot jelly and sheep’s head. My metabolism was tested to the limit.’
Even Coren – the restaurant critic son of the humourist Alan, who died in October 2007 – has not escaped unscathed, suffering his fair share of headaches and sickness. ‘The funny thing is, though, I think I ended up eating less than I do in my normal life,’ he says. ‘I certainly wouldn’t want to live like this the whole time but I found, on occasions, I actually lost weight, especially for the Tudor programme when we ate almost an Atkins diet, with lots of meat.
The worst thing was not being allowed any coffee or tea as it hadn’t been invented. I was in a foul mood the whole time. ‘Sue and I were pretty strict about that even when not filming. We would ring each other on some pretext but we were really checking up on each other, and if you heard a slurp you’d say, “Are you drinking tea? Are you?”‘
The 1950s has – so far – proved the most trying period for Coren. ‘The diet was so depressing, just brown and lumpy and lots of carbs. We filmed in this little two-up twodown on what would have been a new estate at the time, and you got a real sense of how depressing it was, eating this awful, lumpen food in this uninspiring boxy 1950s architecture. I put on quite a lot of blubber that week as I didn’t do any exercise. It’s amazing the impact a change in lifestyle can have in just one week.’
It turns out that Coren keeps a keen eye on the scales, confessing that he has two sets in his house and weighs himself obsessively several times a day. ‘I’ve done it for the past few years,’ he says.
But recreating the life of a Roaring Twenties couple, wealthy of course – they’re nearly always wealthy, since poor people have had a pretty rotten diet for centuries – was a very different affair. Perkins says, glumly, that her diet consisted of venison, champagne and sherry. ‘It was like I was a borderline diabetic, suffering from food poisoning and more or less drunk the whole time.’
Filming for this episode took them to Surrey’s Brooklands Museum, an aviation and motorsport museum. Coren was dressed in a natty cravat and stripey blazer, while Perkins looked rather splendid in an authentic cloche hat and a tapestry-style blouson coat with velvet lapels. Her hair had been cut into a jaunty flapper bob, which rather suited her, although she couldn’t wait to get rid of it.
Both Perkins and Coren say their eyes have been opened by their dabbling in food and fads past. And on a cheery note, in these times of near obsessive collective anguish over obesity, genetically modified crops, salt and sugar content, the programmes come, Coren says, as a timely reminder that we’ve never had it so good. ‘The whole experience has made me realise how lucky we are because, no matter how good it was before, it’s still not as good as it is now.’
Perkins agrees. ‘It’s certainly made me look at my pudding intake. Giles doesn’t really eat sweet things but, if you leave me to my own devices, you’ll find me with my head stuck in a pavlova,’ she says. But for now, alas, there is more venison and champagne and sherry to be consumed in the clubhouse – all in the line of duty, of course.