Regency food and characters

fabulous hotel foodRegency food is really interesting and characters’ preferences tell us a lot about them. Their preferences for drink do too, as I tried to show in my earlier blog about what characters (Regency and modern) drank.

But this week, I’m blogging about food in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Sometimes, food in glamorous surroundings, too…

Where Regency food came from…? Meat, fish, game

Mr Darcy and Lizzie Bennet at the danceThere isn’t much detail of food and drink in Pride and Prejudice, but Mrs Bennet does mention preparations being made for dinners to fête Mr Bingley’s return to Netherfield.

“Mrs Nicholls…was going to the butcher’s, she told me, on purpose to order in some meat on Wednesday, and she had got three couple of ducks, just fit to be killed.”

That shows that meat wasn’t instantly available from a butcher’s as it is now. And a hostess knew and accepted that providing meat entailed killing animals.

Animals for meat arrived at market alive. So, for example, flocks of turkeys walked to market, sometimes over vast distances. Drovers commonly dipped turkeys’ feet in tar to help them withstand the journey. Cattle drovers in Scotland had their animals shod before they started their long trek to market. (And cloven-hooved cattle needed two shoes per hoof so it wasn’t cheap.)highland cattle drive to food market

Regency families did, of course, have the game that they shot themselves. After the dinner for Bingley and Darcy, Mrs Bennet says, “…even Mr Darcy acknowledged that the partridges were remarkably well done; and I suppose he has two or three French cooks at least.”

Fish was always a problem, though, especially for those who lived some distance from the sea, because fish went off quickly. Salmon and trout fresh from local rivers was always good but seasonal. Sometimes, no fish was available. Mrs Bennet complains of that, too. (Mrs Bennet complains about almost everything, doesn’t she?)

Where Regency food came from…? Fruit

greenhouse peach trees in bloomWe hear a lot, in Regency-set stories, about the produce from succession houses. I’m not sure I always believe it. Peaches in March? Really?

Pipes in the walls heated succession houses but the gardeners could do nothing about day length or lack of sunshine. I am happy to accept that peaches and grapes would ripen earlier in succession houses than in the open, but I do wonder how they would do so in winter or even early spring.

Baroness Fanny von Arnstein

Fanny von Arnstein

On the other hand, at the Congress of Vienna, the Russian ambassador (Razumovsky, he of the Beethoven quartets) reportedly sent back to St Petersburg for cherries at a cost of one rouble each. I cannot imagine how ripe cherries were available in mid-winter so far north, but Troyat’s biography of Tsar Alexander says it was so. Also, in his memoirs, the Comte de la Garde-Chambonas describes a Congress of Vienna party given by Baroness Fanny von Arnstein at which the supper room sported trees bearing ripe cherries, peaches and apricots. In mid-winter!

So it seems I am wrong and the rich could manage it. Any ideas how they did so? Beats me. But if they could do it, it was a fantastic way of demonstrating prodigious wealth.

Citrus trees were different because one of  the best ways to store oranges and lemons is to leave them on the tree. No doubt the orangeries of well-heeled estates could provide citrus fruit all the year round. (Louis XIV had 3,000 trees in his Versailles Orangerie.) Much less of a demo of great wealth than the cherries, though, if a writer is trying to get that point across.orangery

Mr Darcy is fabulously wealthy. Mrs Bennet says he has at least ten thousand a year. And Pemberley does produce the finest of fruits for the ladies’ luncheon. But it’s not in mid-winter. It’s in the summer, when Lizzie and the Gardiners are travelling in Derbyshire.

…the entrance of servants with cold meat, cake, and a variety of all the finest fruits in season… There was now employment for the whole party; for though they could not all talk, they could all eat; and the beautiful pyramids of grapes, nectarines, and peaches, soon collected them round the table.

Clearly Mr Darcy isn’t in the Count Razumovsky class. Or maybe I’m doing him an injustice? Maybe if Lizzie and Co had arrived months earlier, there would still have been fine fruits from Mr D’s succession houses?

Strawberries and a knightly gent

Do you remember the strawberries in Emma? Mr Knightley invites a party of friends to come to Donwell Abbey to pick and taste his strawberries. It takes place in season—almost midsummer—since they are growing outside. Mrs Elton tries to organise his outdoor party for him and fails.strawberries grown on straw Mr Knightley knows that Mr Woodhouse (and Emma) would not attend if the old man had to sit outdoors. “When you are tired of eating strawberries in the garden, there shall be cold meat in the house,” he tells Mrs Elton firmly. He is as knightly as his name and Austen uses the strawberry episode to demonstrate that.

On the day, though, Mrs Elton gives a running commentary on all things strawberry, including, “…hautboy infinitely superior—no comparison—the others hardly eatable…” Not exactly a compliment to Mr Knightley’s gardeners? I doubt Mr Knightley would care, though, as long as Mr Woodhouse was comfortable, inside, with a roaring fire in midsummer.

What Regency ladies and gentleman ate? And what it tells us?

Dinner?

Venetia by Georgette HeyerIn Jane Austen, we don’t hear very much about what Regency folk ate. There’s slightly more in Georgette Heyer. For example, in Venetia, we are told what poor Mrs Imber manages to throw together for an unplanned dinner for Venetia and Damerel, starting with onion soup and then:

“Veal, my lord, with a sauce Bechermell…a raised mutton pie, and a brace of partridges for the second course, with French beans and mushrooms, and—and a dish of fruit, which Mrs Imber hopes you will pardon, miss, for his lordship not being partial to sweetmeats she hadn’t a cream nor a jelly ready to serve, and, as you know, miss, such things take time.”

Later, we learn that Edward Yardley invites Venetia and her Aunt Hendred (a well-known epicure) to dine with him at the Clarendon Hotel in London. It served the best and most expensive dinners in London, costing at least £4 for “a simple repast”. (That’s about £365 in today’s money. In other words, over a thousand pounds for dinner for three, probably with wine costing extra.) We are not told what they ate, until later, when Mrs Hendred pretends to feel faint at the theatre. She puts it down to:

…the evil effect upon her system of woodcock à la Royale. “Or, perhaps, it was the croque en-bouche aux pistaches, but I would not for the world say so to Mr Yardley!”

table set for a feast of food

We are told, on another occasion, that Mrs Hendred partakes too freely of a goose and turkey pie, and of mushroom fritters, even though mushrooms “had never agreed with her delicate constitution”. She also tries to lose weight by drinking vinegar along with her ratafia cream and macaroons. 🙁

She’s a gem of a comic character, and Heyer uses her relationship with food to show that beautifully.Faro's Daughter by Georgette Heyer

And in Faro’s Daughter, Lady Bellingham is at her wits’ end because of the costs of running her gaming house. To the gamesters, she serves the finest wines, and two suppers a night, consisting mainly of spring chickens and salmon… with green peas that are costing her £70. (That’s over £11,000 in today’s money. For peas!)

Breakfast?

In Heyer’s novels, breakfast is described quite often, particularly for the male of the species.

Arabella by Georgette HeyerWhen Mr Beaumaris returns to London from Yorkshire, he finds his dog Ulysses reduced “to skin and bone” and appearing to have rendered his household bereft of its senses…

“so that the greater part of it, instead of providing me with the breakfast I stand in need of, is engaged in excusing itself from any suspicion of blame…”

The breakfast he stands in need of is swiftly prepared. Alphonse, the French chef, carves several slices of a fine York ham at lightning speed and casts eggs and herbs into a pan, while underlings grind coffee beans, cut bread and so on.

coffee in a vintage cupMr Beaumaris could make a hearty meal. Interestingly, it’s coffee he drinks, not small beer. Given Mr Beaumaris’s enormous wealth and fastidious tastes, that doesn’t surprise me. I think beer might be a bit down-to-earth for a man like him.
If you know the story, you’ll also know that Mr Beaumaris pushes his breakfast plate away unfinished when he reads a note from Arabella…

a gesture which was to operate alarmingly on the sensibilities of the artist below stairs…

This episode tells us a great deal about how Mr Beaumaris’s servants view their master. And about Ulysses, too, a genius invention of a dog.

Other Heyer books, too, tell us about heroes via breakfast. Do they drink beer or coffee? Do they eat meat like ham or cold sirloin for breakfast? [= strong and manly?] Or do they toy with a slice of bread and butter? [= picky and weak?] It’s all there on the table for the reader to judge.

Slumming it a bit? Food of the (slightly) lower classes

In Sylvester, Phoebe and Tom are staying in a decidedly down-market inn. Sylvester joins them, finds Tom has a broken leg, and stays. The landlady, Mrs Scaling, not being in the habit of entertaining dukes, sends in her daughter, Alice, with the food:Sylvester by Georgette Heyer

“…chickens, and rabbit stew, and a casserole of rice with the giblets, and curd pudding, and apple fritters, and please to say if your honour would fancy the end of the mutton pie Mother and me and Will had to our dinner.” A hissing admonition from the passage caused her to amend this speech. “Please to say if your grace would fancy it! There’s a tidy bit of it left, and it’s good,” she added confidentially.

How could they refuse? But they do. And there are more joys to come…

“And no need to fear going short tomorrow, because you’re going to have a boiled turkey. I shall wring his neck first thing in the morning, and into the pot he’ll go the instant he’s plucked and drawed. That way he won’t eat tough,” she explained. “We hadn’t meant to have killed him, but Mother says dukes is more important than a gobble-cock, even if he is a prime young ‘un. And after that, we’ll have Mr Shap’s pig off him, and there’ll be the legs and the cheeks, and the loin, and the chitterlings and all…”

drawing of pig for foodPhoebe has great trouble hiding her laughter but Sylvester is horrified at the prospect of slaying the turkey. Phoebe also has to explain that chitterlings are “the inside parts of the pig” which horrifies the duke even more. The comparison with the gobble-cock returns later, used by Phoebe to make fun of Sylvester’s reactions (which does him a great deal of good). Mr Shap appears later, too, and his encounter with Sylvester is a delight.
Do read it.

It all shows that Sylvester (however familiar he is with what goes on in his stables) does not know much about how the food arrives on his table or about how the lower classes live. He learns a great deal more, later, during his trip to France as plain Mr Rayne, but I’ll leave that for you to enjoy, dear readers, since this blog is already long enough.

Happy Reading

Joanna Maitland, author

Joanna

10 thoughts on “Regency food and characters

  1. Elizabeth Bailey

    Thank you for those wonderful reminders of the delicious Sylvester, one of the best of Heyers for me. And the Austen quotes too. Food of the time is so interesting. Thank goodness for research books to know what was in season when. I’m afraid I don’t give my characters nearly as posh dinners as some of these. It is a fascinating area of the period.

    Reply

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