Monday, 06 April 2020

Wargrave Local History Society

CATHERINE SAMPSON gave a fascinating insight into Georgian cooking at Wargrave Local History Society’s February meeting.

She explained that the Georgian period was one where new technologies, changes in agriculture and transportation led to changes in eating habits, with a new generation of cookery writers spreading the message.

This was the time of Jane Austen, whose writing in the late Georgian era showed what was going out of, and coming into, fashion.

It was a time when the open fields were being enclosed, creating more medium and large farms, with fields separated by hedges and other boundaries, while experimentation created new crops.

Among the experiments was the production of fodder to feed cattle over the winter. Previously, cattle were slaughtered in the autumn and the meat treated with salt but the fodder crop enabled fresh meat to be available through the winter period.

The roads were being improved by the turnpike trusts, the tolls paying for a better surface and more direct routes between towns. Locks were being constructed that made the canals and rivers more navigable.

The result was that a much wider range of agricultural produce, raw materials and goods could be found in local towns and villages. In addition, the development of the docks at Bristol, and later Liverpool, enabled exotic spices to be brought from the Caribbean.

This was also the time of the French Revolution, when rich French families no longer needed their chefs, who then came to England, bringing not only their cuisine but their continental etiquette.

When George I acceded to the throne in 1714, cooking was being done on an open fire and, despite developments, that was still the case at the end of George III’s reign in 1820 (the cooking range only coming into use in the Victorian era).

In the early Georgian period, the typical dining room (for middle and upper classes) would have had a dining table laid with a very long tablecloth. At a dinner party, guests would be invited to have the edge of the cloth tucked into their neckline by a footman. The cloth would catch any food they dropped, so by the end of the main course it would be very mucky.

For a dessert course, therefore, the cloth would be removed, or the guests moved to a second table. The French chefs were horrified by this practice and reintroduced the use of napkins.

Dinner guests would have their own travelling cutlery set placed in front of them — to be washed and returned at the end of the meal, as few families would be able to afford sufficient for such a gathering.

During the Georgian era, however, the Sheffield cutlers enabled silver plate cutlery to be mass produced, with the result that prices tumbled.

The design also changed. Previously, forks only had two or maybe three prongs. They were used just to hold the meat while it was cut and food was carried to the mouth on the edge of a knife, with much of the “cutting” being done by the teeth.

The change to cutting food into much smaller pieces and using the fork to place these in the mouth led, in time, to a change in the shape of human jaws. Vegetable tureens, cruet sets etc also came to be mass-produced around this time.

Another item that guests would bring with them to a meal was their glassware. A wine glass was a very precious possession and each would be kept on a sideboard to be brought to the table by a footman so the diner could take a sip of wine and then be returned.

When in the mid-1700s a process was developed to mass-produce drinking glasses, they became much more affordable and would be placed on the dining table — and more wine consumed.

The various courses for a formal meal would be set out on a table in a definite order and guests would be seated accordingly — those closest to the best course would be the guest of honour, while people of lesser importance would be seated by “less attractive” courses.

Only one course would be put on a plate at a time but sweet and savoury items were eaten in no particular order.

These dishes would be laid out before the guests sat at the table where there was no means to keep food warm. Some courses, such as soup, were therefore described as “remove dishes” and diners would eat these first before and they were replaced by another dish, such as fish or fowl, brought hot from the kitchen.

Although many of the courses would be familiar to us, others, such as curry of rabbit, jugged hare, rais’d jelly, syllabub and baskets of pastry, would be less so, while buttered lobster, goose or macaroni are rarely served at a dinner party now.

Another notable difference is that female guests were only meant to have small portions, just a “nibble” while the males ate “heartily”.

Popular at the time as a first dish were mulligatawny and turtle soups. It was realised that if ships coming from the Caribbean had large tanks on board, the turtles could be delivered fresh.

A host able to serve turtle soup was indicating their prosperity in being able to afford such. Nothing went to waste — the soup often being served in the turtle shell.

The lower classes could not afford such luxuries, so had mock turtle soup made from calf meat. By the Victorian era, mock turtle soup became a vegetable broth, without even calf meat (hence Lewis Carroll commenting on the falling standards of mock turtles).

Georgians were not fastidious eaters and would make good use of every part of an animal. What was not used one day would be used the next and “day two meat” would be treated with spices to disguise its taste and smell. By day three, the curry powder would be necessary.

There being no refrigeration, food poisoning was not uncommon at that time, although the Georgians had begun to introduce garnishes of vegetables, having previously thought vegetables to be poisonous.

Larger houses would have an oven, heated either from below or by putting hot coals inside before the food was heated.

A variety of pies became popular, some being county specialities. Originally, these would be baked in thick pastry until the meat was cooked and the pastry then discarded but with the introduction of pottery pie dishes, a much thinner pastry could be used and eaten.

Dessert courses would be accompanied by much wine.

The kitchen itself would be dominated by the open fire with herbs hanging to try to keep flies out of the way.

Apart from an oven, meats would be cooked on a spit. Mechanisation meant that a kitchen maid no longer had to turn the spit but needed to be close to the fire to baste the meat as it cooked.

Although there had been cookery writers for around 100 years or so, a new kind of cookbook evolved at this time. People who were aspiring to move up in the class structure needed guidance on how to arrange a dinner party, as well as suitable recipes.

The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Simple, written in the 1740s, became a best seller as its author, Hannah Glasse, avoided jargon and so it was instantly understandable by readers.

Over the course of the Georgian period, the pattern of meals changed from having a breakfast mid-morning followed by the main meal in the late afternoon and a mid-evening snack later to having an earlier breakfast, a luncheon meal, a mid-afternoon “tea” at about 4pm with a dinner around 7.30pm or so.

Catherine ended the evening by serving samples of a cake made to a Georgian recipe with lemon and caraway seed, so members got to taste as well as see and hear about Georgian cooking.

The society will hold its annual meeting in the Old Pavilion at Wargrave recreation ground on Tuesday, March 10, starting at 8pm. The programme for the coming year will be announced.

For more information, call Peter Delaney on 0118 940 3121 or visit

Peter Delaney

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