Georgian cookery

Newbury Branch meeting Wed 8th November 2017

Speaker: Catherine Sampson

Enclosure (permitting the overwintering of livestock) changed the way our ancestors prepared and ate food, by making fresh meat and milk available all year round. Turnpikes also contributed; better communications spread ideas about food and new ingredients. The French Revolution in 1789 caused chefs (working primarily for the aristocrats) to flee to England, bringing new skills, methods and manners.

In early Georgian times a vast number of dishes would be set out on the table simultaneously, often in duplicate for ease of serving numerous diners. Long tablecloths allowed diners to use the edges as a napkin. (Napkins, introduced by the French, changed such habits.) After the main course the stained cloth would be removed before dessert was served, or diners might even leave the table to have their pudding in another setting. Dessert was minimal: a nibbling course of fruit and nuts, because cooked puddings would have already been served with the meat.

Expensive glassware was laid out on a side table to spare it from the hurly-burly of table-top self-service. Servants would hand glasses to diners for toasts. By the mid-Georgian period industrialisation had introduced less costly, mass-produced glassware, which was kept on the table.

Thus a National Trust “Georgian” dining set-up with both a long cloth and crystal glasses on the table is probably anachronistic, the former being typical of the early Georgian period, and the latter later.

Seating was an important consideration, reflecting the diner’s status, emphasised by the type of dishes places closest to each.

Meals were meat-heavy, allowing up to two pounds per guest; vegetables played a minor role. Sweet and savoury dishes were laid out together, but only one was consumed at a time. Turtle soup was fashionable, created for the rich from turtles imported live and kept in tanks. Mock turtle soup, made from calf, was invented for the less wealthy.

All parts of the animal were consumed, the choicest joints spit-roasted and reserved for the highest-status diners. Leftovers went into pies or a pot. By day four or five, spices would be needed to mask deterioration.

By 1820 open-fire cooking, with several spits and poor temperature control, was being replaced by ranges. Such advances were indicators of social status.

For the elite classes the dining room was a theatre in which to display opulence and fashion. A dinner for the Prince of Wales in 1810 catered for 3,000, at which the dessert course featured a fountain with goldfish, cascades, moss and wild flowers.

Ordinary working people lived on pottage, which consisted of a thick soup of grain and veg, added to daily. Those living in the north or west, where enclosure was less prevalent and agricultural labourers earned more, were more likely to own a cow, and had better diets. They based their pottage on milk. Bread was unleavened, cooked on a flat stone in a communal oven. The poorest subsisted on turnips.

The Georgian era produced the first cookery writers for the masses, the best known being Hannah Glass, a former milliner. She decoded the jargon-ridden recipes of her predecessors and her book became a best-seller. Nonetheless she ended in the Fleet prison as a debtor, and was forced to sell her copyright to get out. A second book was less successful, and she died in obscurity.

At the end of the talk Catherine distributed slices of a caraway seed cake made to one of Hannah Glass’s recipes.

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