by M.M. Bennetts
With much of the western world so indisputably in the grip of culinary
multi-culturalism, it can be hard to imagine an age in which mealtimes
weren't dominated by a need for ready-meals, speed-eating, 24-hour electrical
supplies, ease of world transportation, or advertising.
But so it was in early 19th century Britain.
Hence the beginning of one's day, obviously depending on social class, came
with the rising sun and daylight. Within the prosperous middle class, the
gentry and aristocracy this was probably somewhere between seven and eight.
The first meal of the day was generally taken at ten. It lasted for about an
hour and it was a good solid English breakfast. 'Morning' itself then lasted
until dinner at perhaps three or four in the afternoon. Dinner went on for
about two hours.
And it's important to note that the hours at which these meals are served
also provide for the greatest amount of natural light in the kitchen for the
preparation of the food, and also, the least number of candles required, both
upstairs and down.
London society of the Beau Monde dined at five o'clock, or even later, and
generally had their tea or a light supper sometime late in the evening, after
returning from the theatre or in the middle of a ball...But in the country, one kept 'country hours' and thus mealtime was dictated by the hours of light and also by the fact that travelling at night was often inconvenient and certainly hazardous even on a moonlit night.
For the most part, there were two courses, often called removes, plus
dessert. And the servants didn't serve each individual from a tray onto their
Oh, and there was no allotted placement either, with the exception that the
host would be the first into the room, escorting the 'senior' lady, and taking
his place at the foot of the table, while the hostess sat at the upper end of
the table and the guest(s) of honour sat near her.
Initially, it was the host who would supervise the serving of the soup and/or
carve the joints of meat that might be brought in once the soup tureens were
removed. A kind of balance was also maintained with fish--usually with salmon
at one end of the table and perhaps turbot at the other.
After the meat--saddle of mutton, haunch of venison, sirloin of beef--had
been carved, the gentlemen at the table helped themselves from the nearest
dishes and offered it to his neighbour, or else a servant was to fetch a dish
from another part of the table.
It does sound like a great deal of food, yes. But generally, one didn't eat
one's way through everything. It seems to have been more a case of choosing
three or four things that one liked from amongst the array...
To wash it all down, ale, beer, wine as well as soda water would have been
served, though some gentlemen are recorded as having preferred port, hock or
sherry with their food. And importantly--for dining was a very social element
in their days--once the soup had been served, both ladies and gentlemen would
start drinking everyone's health round the table--'taking wine' with each other
as it's called.
Once the family and guests had eaten as much as they wished from that first
selection, an intermediate course of cheese, salad, raw celery and suchlike
might be brought round. Then the table was cleared, and a second remove of an
equal quantity of different dishes was brought in and arranged on the table,
with, just as previously, both sweet and savoury dishes included.
Finally, the guests and family having eaten their full, the table would again
be cleared and the cloth removed to reveal either the polished table surface or
another cloth lying beneath and the dessert was laid out. This dessert
consisted of fruits and nuts, perhaps ice-cream or sweetmeats. And this was
usually accompanied by port or Madeira.
Once the company had sat over dessert for about a quarter of an hour, the
ladies would leave the dining room and retire to the drawing room, where they
would embroider, chat, play the fortepiano or read aloud for about an hour.
After which point they would order their tea and coffee to be brought in, and
the gentlemen, having discussed the war, the government, the iniquitous price of
wheat, their efforts at sheep-rearing and other such thrilling topics over their
wine, would join them.
Louis Simond, a Franco-American with an English wife, visited England in
1810-11 and left this record: "There are commonly two courses and a dessert. I
shall venture to give a sketch of a moderate dinner for ten or twelve
persons--First course [included] Oyster sauce, Fish, Spinage, Fowls, Soup, Bacon, Vegetables, Roast or Boiled Beef, Vegetables. Second course [included] Creams, Ragout a la Francaise, Pastry, Cream, Macaroni, Cauliflowers, Game, Pastry. Dessert [included] Walnuts, Apples, Raisins and Almonds, Cakes, Raisins and Almonds, Pears, Oranges."
M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at www.mmbennetts.com.