We are delighted to welcome food historian Dr Annie Gray as the guest author for today’s post.
Annie is an expert in the history of 18th and 19th century food. Her research interests have led her to recreate many Georgian dishes at home in her kitchen. You may also have heard her giving historic food insights on BBC Radio 4’s Kitchen Cabinet, or seen her talking Sue Perkins through the history of the cupcake on the Great British Bake Off.
Here, Annie talks us through the surprising differences between 18th and 19th century dining conventions and the way we eat today…
The Cookbook of the Unknown Ladies covers a long chunk of time, stretching from the tumult and monarch-swapping of the late Stuarts, to the smug, world conquering ethos of the Victorians. Its contributors lived during what I believe to be the most exciting and formative period in British history. You just cannot beat a good bit of anything Georgian.
One of the ways in which the period was formative was in dining style. The recipes of the Unknown Ladies cannot really be understood without knowing the context in which they were served. Recipes for slightly subversive, quirky, dishes such as puddings inside carrots or the orange dumplings (as cooked by the Cooking Up History group in a previous post) were integral parts of a polished whole, served as textural and visual counterparts to a range of other dishes, all present on the table at once. This was a way of dining which allowed for personal choice, encouraged a sense of shared enterprise, and was frankly stunning for all the senses.
A formal, à la Française dinner consisted of three courses. There were also scaled down one course versions which were, of course, the norm for the less wealthy, and for informal or family dining in general. For each course, the diner could expect anything between five and fifteen different dishes to be on the table at once. The first course consisted of soup, usually at either end of the table, fish, occupying the next place in on an imaginary line drawn from top to bottom, and what were called ‘made dishes’, later known as entrées.
These latter were a display of skill and culinary dexterity, usually based around meat or fish, with sauces, pastry, dual cooking methods or fanciful ingredients, marking them out as something a bit special. Often they were French-influenced, but could just as easily be pies, patties, salad or, by the end of the 18th century, curry.
Diners would start with the soup, move onto the fish and then the rest of the dishes would be uncovered. Often the host and hostess would serve, with the ability to carve being the mark of a gentleman. Footmen or, in less wealthy circles, maids, would be on hand to serve drinks and pass plates around, but the set up encouraged sharing, with gentlemen urged in etiquette guides to attend to the needs of the ladies around them. Every diner could choose to eat or avoid what they wished, within reason. Once finished, the dishes would be cleared, and the second course brought in. Once more, symmetry dictated the arrangement of the dishes, with advice to footmen including the tip that correct placement could be assured by simply sighting along the table to pick out the indentations left by the first course dishes.
The second course was somewhat heavier, with roast and boiled meats, both farmed and the all-important roast game. The roast was a symbol of Englishness and enabled the host to hint at the good management and largess of his estate, from whence the game was supposed to derive. Also on the table were more ‘made dishes’ or entremêts, this time around based on vegetables or fruit, and including sweet dishes such as puddings, tarts, jellies and creams. This conflation of sweet and savoury would strike us today as somewhat odd, used as we are to an absolute division between what we call pudding and mains. In the Georgian period, however, the division was more between the substantial dishes of the first and second course, and dessert. Dessert, which followed the two main courses, was intended less as an excuse for sweet titbits, and more as a way of cleansing the palette, lightening the gastronomical load and showing off the produce of one’s greenhouses. It usually involved ice creams, especially in summer, and fruit, both cooked, preserved in wine and syrup, and raw. Nuts and small, sweet biscuits intended for eating with wine could also be served.
In every course, the layout of the table was paramount. Not only could the status of diners be indicated by the choice of dish in front of them, but many items, such as pies and roasts, were directional, and could quite literally point to people. Dishes both complemented and contrasted with each other across the table, and cookery books increasingly contained ideal table plans in order to aid the hostess (or host, but more usually hostess) in arranging her table to impress. Hence the carrot puddings, which may well have been served as a first course dish, replaced with carrots in gravy for the second course. Or how about answering to a potato pie, made with sugar, lemon juice and candied peel?
The Georgian table afforded a chance to show off the skills of one’s cook as well as revel in the cleverness of the table plan. But it demanded vast amounts of tableware, a large table, and a kitchen with both the equipment and staff to turn out all those dishes all at once, piping hot, and ready for service. It was ideal for aristocratic circles. It was rather less suited to the ever growing number of middling sorts, people who could certainly afford two or more servants, but who lived in smaller, suburban villas and didn’t necessarily have country estates bursting with game and managed for out-of-season fruit and other gastronomic rarities. There was also that pesky class of somewhat lower middling sorts, those who had only one servant, and where the mistress probably did most of the cooking. People, indeed, like Isabella Beeton.
From the early part of the 19th century, a shift in dining style was apparent. For most, à la Française continued to be the style to aspire to, but increasingly ‘removes’ crept in, wherein a dish or set of dishes was literally removed to make way for another (soup for fish, for example). By the time Beeton published her Book of Household Management in 1861, she felt able to advocate a version of the style which now consists of four separate courses, plus dessert. Dishes were still presented symmetrically on the table, but now there were fewer dishes in each course, and more courses. This was ideally suited to smaller kitchens, fewer staff, and smaller dining spaces. She also noted that a new style was beginning to catch on: à la Russe. Promoted by those with new money, and nothing to lose, it was a style which took almost a hundred years to become the norm. Yet today, we could barely countenance anything else.
A la Russe emerged from around the 1820s. The nascent gastronomic criticism movement promoted a linear style of serving, one dish following the other, as a better way to fully appreciate each dish in its own merits. Cooks liked it, as it was much easier to manage, and writers were quick to appreciate that here was a style which was less fluid and more open to instructional writing than the old way of eating. Old money resisted it – after all, they had the plates, the staff, the room and the habit. New money -slowly- embraced it. It was satisfyingly pricy to put on, requiring more servants than previously, and, at its peak, a lot of specialist equipment. An à la Russe menu looks much like a tasting menu in a high end restaurant today. A few choices were given – two soups, four entremêts, sometimes a couple of fish- but it was much more restricted. Dishes were brought into the dining room on large platters and served by waiting staff from one side. The table risked being empty, but in practice the room was quickly filled with the proliferation of affordable objects so characteristic of the later Victorian period. The new style radially took over, impacting in turn upon kitchens and their technology, as well as the organisation of staff. Today we barely even nod toward the older style.
If you decide to have a go at any of the recipes published here – and I hope you do – then have a go at more than one! Combine the tastes and textures, revel in the different look, smells, and feel. Eat your way to a Georgian high, and salute an older, more complicated and more joyous way of dining.
To find out more about Annie’s research and historic food activities, visit www.anniegray.co.uk