Dining with the Victorians Daily Express feature by Emma Kay
From a cooked breakfast to our love of curries, many of Britain's familiar culinary habits were invented by the Victorians as a new book reveals.
Many Victorians had an inexplicable obsession with the occult. In relation to food and cooking their superstitions were plentiful. Butter was thought to have healing properties, particularly for scalds and burns.
In some counties such as Lincolnshire they used to throw salt on the fire as a portent for producing a good batch prior to the churning. In Lancashire it was considered important to insert a hot iron into the cream as a means of expel ling the witch believed to reside within.
They also avoided bringing eggs into or taking eggs out of the house after dark to prevent bad luck and were the first to throw spilled salt over their shoulder.
During Georgian times 15 plus courses would be prepared. It was Queen Victoria who made famous the two or three course meal with courses served in sequence one at a time. This was in contrast to the old French style of eating made popular by the Georgians of bringing out all the food at once.
A PROPER SUNDAY LUNCH
The Victorian era was also when the Sunday lunch came into its own. For many of the labouring classes, Sunday was the one day they would eat meat, usually a small joint of beef, pork or mutton accompanied by two types of green vegetable and potatoes. Invariably this would be followed by some form of fruit pie or jam roly poly pudding. If they were lucky enough to afford meat on any other day the poorer classes would indulge in offal, anything from liver to heart. Only the very poor or destitute would choose to eat soup, broth or boiled meat with any regularity as the labouring classes felt it had too many associations with poverty, often labelling it "slops".
The food in workhouses did vary but in Charles Shaw's well known diary of his early life in Victorian Staffordshire he sheds an unappetising light on the fare on offer. He describes the bread as made of sawdust "blotched with lumps of plaster of Paris" which was served with a substance he called "greasy water" and a couple of lumps of something that "would have made a tiger's teeth ache". The supper consisted of something known as "skilly", which he described as "culinary making nausea". In prisons too the conditions were tough. Edward Du Cane, the surveyor general of prisons, believed in "scientific starvation" early in an inmate's stay. He thought abstinence from food was healthy and worried that if they were too well fed it might encourage others to offend. Most of the time prisoners were given stale hard bread, inedible suet pudding and gruel. There was little meat and no vegetables.
By 1842 the government had decided that slops and gruel were detrimental to the health of prisoners and that "diet ought not to be made an instrument of punishment".
BIRTH OF THE FULL ENGLISH
The Victorian times were when people started eating a breakfast that we would recognise today. In the 18th century it had been dominated by cold meats, cheese and beer. The Victorians started having porridge, fish, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade.
They also changed the hour of dinner from 5pm to 7pm, which made the late meal of supper - taken around 9pm - less relevant.
GOURMET CHEFSMany cooks of the Victorian era were women but the most fashion able families still employed highly skilled French male cooks at extortionate rates. The next best alternative was an English cook who had trained in France.
While a top male cook could earn in excess of £80,000 a year in today's money, a good female cook would earn only half this.
However, just because a family was wealthy does not mean they would have had a healthy diet. While they could afford more choice they were often ignorant in their food combinations, potentially leaving them as unhealthy as their poorer neighbours.
One of the first kitchens to install a modern gas cooker was the elite Reform Club. So inspirational and innovative were the kitchens that they used to conduct tours around them and sectional views of the kitchen plans were mocked up, copied and sold to the public at a guinea for a coloured print and half a guinea for a black and white version. A total of 1,400 copies were sold. With the growth of the railways came the invention of food vending machines at stations. They quickly became regular features in railway stations and post offices, at first selling stationery and later food, particularly sweets.
Nestle was one of the biggest manufacturers of these types of machine. Because they were so easy to scam - any old piece of metal would yield the machine's contents - it is surprising that it persevered with them.
The Victorians were able to enjoy some foods that were imported from overseas. These included raisins from Malaga, grapes from France, dried tongues from Russia and Germany, and coconut oil from Manila and Ceylon. One of the big gest imports was sugar with more than 180,000 tons entering London in 1850. Not everything imported was exotic. Huge quantities of apples were brought in from the US, Belgium and France as well as a large amount of bacon and ham.
A FRUITFUL BUSINESSPineapples became synonymous with wealth during the 19th century. Favoured by the upper classes they were served and displayed at dinner to indicate prosperity. In order to cultivate this fruit in cold, northern European temperatures Victorian gardeners invented "pineapple pits" which were essentially three trenches covered in glass. The walls of the trenches were bolstered with horse manure to generate heat and which had to be regularly topped up.
CURRYING ROYAL FAVOURQueen Victoria loved curry. Her taste was influenced by her relationship with Abdul Karim, her controversial young servant, that began in 1887. It was at Osborne House where he first cooked for her using a spice box he had carried with him from India. He made her a chicken curry with a fragrant pilau and from that meal onwards the Queen requested Karim's dishes with greater regularity. In fact during the last decade of her life curry was ordered to be cooked on a daily basis.She only ever had curry for lunch, as was also customary for the British living out in India.
Daily Express feature by Emma Kay on 7th November 2015.
Emma Kay's Dining with the Victorians is available for purchase now