Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Nom nom nom ~ Regency style

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.

To begin with, there was no ready supply of electricity or gas to fuel either household lighting or a stove or open hearth for cooking and baking.  Instead there were candles, made of beeswax or tallow, oil lamps, wood and coal--all of which were immeasurably more expensive comparatively than our modern equivalents.

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.

Dinner, then...

First off, this is the moment to drop those preconceptions about how many courses served one after another--five or seven or nine--was a sign of wealth and breeding.  Because English service didn't have many courses, one served after another.

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 plate either.

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.

When the family or family and guests walked into the dining room, the table would already be spread with an array of dishes of every kind of food--soup, fish, game, poultry, meat, pies, sauces, pickles, vegetables, puddings both sweet and savoury, jellies and custards.  Depending upon the occasion, there might be anything from five to twenty five different dishes, all arranged symmetrically around a centre dish.

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


  1. How very interesting! I have always wondered about this. Thank you for a great post!

  2. Good to know! Thanks for writing this delightful post.

  3. I recently attended a Regency dinner with friends, we all made the variety of dishes required, dressed in period costume, we had two removes and desert, so many choices of yummy food! We had a fabulous time and it was really wo derful to time travel in the past.

  4. In medieval times there were courses -- literally "runnings" of one dish after another, brought in by the servants in succession. Then too the master of the house or the male person he designated carved the principal meat dish. The wife carved the bread loaf, "wife' being said to mean "loaf-carver." There is a great deal of practicality in this 19th century set of dining customs, though I wonder how often one might be annoyed to find the dish one liked best served in the second "remove" when one had eaten too heartily of the first remove. I suppose it would have been gross to post a menu, but I think I'd have liked to know what was coming next.

  5. Really interesting post. Re. there being no order of entry, it possibly reflects the loosening of the strict rules of the previous eras. Besides, the upper middle class and lower aristocracy never followed the rules as strictly as the royals and upper aristocracy.


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