The wonderful thing about food is that it’s as much fun to read about it and write about it as to actually indulge–well, almost as much fun. And the joy of writing a historical novel is the meals–breakfast, nuncheon, tea (but not High Tea unless you’ve a Victorian setting or a lower class who must make do with this for their dinner), dinner and supper were and still are the main eating occasions in England.
Meals often provide a social structure for life. However, as noted in The Jane Austen Cookbook, “In the late eighteenth century, at the time of Jane Austen’s birth, it was necessary to make the best possible use of the hours of daylight….candles, wood and coal were quite as expensive comparatively speaking as gas, oil and electricity and far more liable to be in short supply or to run out altogether during hard winters.”
What this meant was a different structure to meals.
To start the day, breakfast came around ten o’clock–well after most had risen and started their day. The Regency morning then went on through the afternoon, with morning calls being paid. In London, five o’clock was the fashionable ‘morning’ hour to parade. And so serving a breakfast party might well occur sometime between one and five o’clock in the afternoon.
During morning calls, light refreshments might be taken. Ladies might have a ‘nuncheon’ but the notion of lunch did not exist. Also, the lush high tea now served at most swank London hotels actually originated as a working class dinner, and was perfected by the Edwardians into an art form, but was not a Regency meal.
Dinner in the Regency came at three or four o’clock in the country. In London, the fashionable dined between five and eight, before going out for the evening.
This left room for a supper to be served–as either a supper-tray that might be brought into a country drawing room, or as a buffet that would be served at a ball. Such a supper would be served around eleven. Again, in London, this supper could be served as late as nearly dawn.
From the Georgian era to the Regency the method for serving dinner changed. “…as soon as they walked into the dining-room they saw before them a table already covered with separate dishes of every kind of food…” states The Jane Austen Cookbook. The idea was that with all courses laid on the table, those dining would choose which dishes to eat, taking from the dishes nearest. It was polite to offer a dish around. Food in History notes, “It was a custom that was more than troublesome; it also required a degree of self-assertion. The shy or ignorant guest limited not only his own menu but also that of everyone else at the table. Indeed, one young divinity student ruined his future prospects when, invited to dine by an archbishop who was due to examine him in the scriptures, he found before him a dish of ruffs and reeves, wild birds that (although he was too inexperienced to know it) were a rare delicacy. Out of sheer modesty the clerical tyro confined himself exclusively to the dish before him….”
This style of serving dinner was known as service à la française. During the Regency this was replaced by service à la russe in which the dishes were set on a sideboard and then handed around by servants.
Maggie Black and Deirdre Le Faye in The Jane Austen Cookbook provide this menu for a meal recorded in Mrs. Philip Lybbe Powys’ diary of some of the dishes she served, as hostess for her brother-in-law the Dean of Canterbury, for Prince William of Gloucester. Fourteen sat down to a meal in August, 1798, that included:
Fricandó of Veal
Raised Giblet Pie
Curry of Rabbits
Preserve of Olives
Haunch of Venison
Open Tart Syllabub
Three Sweetbreads, Larded
Basket of Pastry
Society meals were also being influenced at this time by the French chefs who had fled the revolution in their own country, and who had become a fashionable necessity in London.
Food in History gives this account of the dinner held by the Prince Regency at the Bright Pavilion, with his chef Carême in command on January 15, 1817:
“It began with four soups:
Le potage à la Monglas – creamy brown soup made with foie gras, truffles, mushrooms and Madeira
La garbure aux choux - country-style vegetable broth with shredded cabbage
Le potage d’orge perlé à la Cracy - a delicate pink puree of pearl barley and carrots
Le potage de poissons à la russe - ‘Russian-style’ fish soup, probably made from sturgeon
The soups were ‘removed’ with four fish dishes:
La matelote au vin de Bordeaux - a light stew of freshwater fish cooked in wine from Bordeaux
Les truites au blue à la provençal – lightly-cooked trout with a tomato and garlic sauce
Le turbot à l’anglaise aux homards, poached turbot with lobster sauce
La grosse anguille à la régence – a large fat eel, richly sauced, garnished with quenelles, truffles and cocks’ combs
The fish dishes were followed (the trout and turbot remaining on the table, the matelote and eels being taken away) by four grosses pieces or pieces de resistance:
Le jambon à la broche au Madére - spit-roasted ham with Maderia sauce
L’oie braiése aux racines glacées – braised goose with glazed root vegetables
Les poulards à la Perigueux - truffled roast chicken
Le rond de veau à la royale – round of veal, enrobed in a creamy sauce, finished with truffle purée and various garnishes
These grosses pieces (and the turbot and the trout) were flanked by no less than thirty-six entrée…”
Reay Tannahil, author of Food in History, gives a sampling of the various entrée, which includes macaroni and grated cheese, pheasant, rabbit, and other dishes, all with lush descriptions of rich sauces. He adds that this was considered only the first course.
He also describes the set pieces brought in made of sugar icing and molded into such things as ‘The ruin of the Turkish mosque’, as well as the other entremets (between serving items) and the assiettes volantes, such as the five chocolate soufflé.
As stated earlier, while no one was expected to sample every dish on the table, the description makes it instantly understandable why the Prince Regent had run to fat.
The menus also reflect dishes familiar to any modern table–macaroni and cheese, trout with a tomato and garlic sauce, spit-roasted ham.
For a more simple family meal, Maria Rundell’s Domestic Cookery of 1814 gives this menu:
Leg of Mutton
Crimp Cod is the simplest of recipes. The directions are to take a cod and, “Boil, broil, or fry.”
For a salad, this is not what might be found in any modern American restaurant. Instead, for Mrs. Rundell’s French Salad, “Chop three anchovies, a shalot, and some parsley, small; put into a bowl with two table-spoons-full of vinegar, one of oil, a little mustard, and salt. When mixed well, add by degrees some cold roast or boiled meat in very thin slices; put in a few at a time; not exceeding two or three inches long. Shake them in the seasoning, and then put more; cover the bowl close, and let the salad be prepared three hours before it is to be eaten. Garnish with parsley and a few slices of the fat.”
Gooseberry pudding is a baked dish. “Stew gooseberries in a jar over a hot hearth, or in a sauce pan of water till the will pulp. Take a pint of the juice pressed through a coarse sieve, and beat it with three yolks and whites of eggs beaten and strained, one ounce and half of butter; sweeten it well, and put a crust around the dish. A few crumbs of roll should be mixed with the above to give a little consistence, or four ounces of Naples biscuits.
(If you actually wish to try making this dish, you may want to start with gooseberry jelly, if you can find it. For a ‘few crumbs of roll, think of this as something like a bath bun–a sweet roll. Or for biscuit, think English cookie–something sweet to crumble into this.)
Jerusalem Artichokes offer another simple recipe in that they, “Must be taken up the moment they are done, or they will be too soft. They may be boiled plain, or served with white fricassee sauce.” Otherwise, prepare them as you would any artichoke, taking off a few outside leaves and cutting off the stalk (I also like to cut off the tips, but that’s optional).
For Leg of Mutton, Mrs. Rundell’s recommendation is, “If roasted, serve with onion or currant-jelly sauce; if boiled, with caper-sauce and vegetables.” (Personally, I would swap in lamb for the mutton and opt for roasting it. My grandmother who came from Yorkshire insisted on boiling all meat, and nearly made vegetarians out of all of her sons.)
And now I think I’ll go off and get something to eat.