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  • Dining with the Victorians Daily Express feature by Emma Kay

    Making a meal of it: How the Victorians influenced your eating habits

    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.

    1. Victorians-eating-617709 Dining With The Victorians explores the impact they had on our eating habits today


    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.


    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".


    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.


  • The Georgian Kitchen by Emma Kay

    Microsoft Word - Document1I wrote the Georgian Kitchen to tell the story of my conviction in Britain’s cooking culture forming during this period. This was a time of extraordinary change in Britain, when the country became a vastly powerful world entity; a wealthy, extravagant and culinary rich nation. Conflict, poverty and sea power led many migrants to British shores. As well as importing from all over the world and exploiting other countries of their own resources, Britain’s migrant population was already influencing the way we still eat today. The population doubled during the Georgian period and in particular large numbers of French citizens began to quickly dominate Britain’s kitchens. It became imperative for every wealthy household to employ a high ranking French cook, while the middling and labouring classes dined in the abundant inns, taverns, cook shops and street markets. The workhouses and prisons were overflowing with the poor and destitute who might look forward to a dollop of ‘hasty pudding’, mouldy bread or a potato every day – if they were lucky. Most poorer families shared a single cooking pot which would have sat in the middle of their one room accommodation, to be used for cooking, washing and as a urinal. In addition to the workhouses early philanthropy included the understanding that owners of large estates and tenured country residences would provide the poor of their parishes with a basic meal, usually of soup and benevolent soup kitchens began to flourish in some of the bigger cities by the early nineteenth century.

    There was a stark contrast between poor rural and urban living, the former reliant on self-sufficiency and few luxuries such as tea, coffee and sugar that would often require a long trip to a local market. Even the middle classes, like Jane Austen herself kept livestock. All farmer’s wives were skilled in cheese-making, brewing, preserving and curing which was a necessary seasonal routine in order to survive all year round. The Georgian era was also the one that marks the beginning of the end of large rural communities, as new technology and innovation began to broaden the scope for work and travel, with aspiring people migrating to the large towns and cities to live. By the end of the 1700s the urban cook shops, coffee houses and club culture for those men of high rank and business were already beginning to morph into early forms of restaurants and hotels. As greater emphasis was attached to the importance of food and slow developing advancements in kitchen design and contents evolved, kitchen equipment became a valuable commodity and the records of the Old Bailey during this period are full of incidents of thefts of anything from tea caddies, to silver spoons and sugar nippers. These items could be sold on at the dodgy street markets or pawned for food and clothing. The media was also awash with specialist crafted items for the kitchen and new inventions. In 1800 the average kitchen may have contained one or two pans. By 1899 they would have housed a whole set.

    As previously mentioned French cuisine, in addition to Italian confection and iced deserts dominated British culture during the Georgian age. However it is also important to reiterate that British cooking and British recipes were always included on the menu - or as the eighteenth century termed it ‘A Bill of Fare’, interspersed with European dishes. Celebrity chefs such as the great Marie-Antoine Carême, Louis Eustache Ude, Charles Francatelli, Alexis Soyer and William Jarrin are just some of the names who lived and worked in London divulging their European culinary secrets and whipping up gastronomic delights that were worthy of any of the big name celebrity chefs of today. They also all wrote prolifically about it, contributing to the new mass eighteenth and nineteenth century consumerism for recipe writing, including Mrs. James Simpson’s first Vegetarian cookery book of 1812.

    Microsoft Word - Document1Diarists and housekeepers also left their legacy of recipe writing and accounts of domestic kitchen and dining routines that were so integral to the Georgian lifestyle. The journals of James Woodforde, a simple country parson provide us with an indication of how even the humblest of middle class Georgians ate. We learn how he attends regular country dances, often into the early hours of the morning, feasting on roasted shoulder of mutton and plum pudding, followed by veal cutlets, frill’d potatoes, cold tongue, ham, cold roast beef and eggs in their shells. This was all washed down with punch, wine, beer and cider. Food is a regular theme throughout Woodforde’s diary and is a stark reflection of the importance placed upon culinary satisfaction and excess at this time. His description of one dinner he hosts for three acquaintances is quite hard to swallow (literally). The first course alone consisted of a couple of boiled chickens, a tongue, a boiled leg of mutton with capers and a batter pudding. The second course provided roasted ducks, green peas, artichokes, tarts and blancmange. And it continues - with almonds and raisins, oranges and strawberries, naturally ending with port wine. Such extravagance on a regular basis makes it so understandable that we associate poor health and obesity significantly with this period. Interesting how our own society mirrors some of this today alongside the Georgian throw away, disposable culture.

    Celebrity chefs, endless recipe books promoting the latest fad or baking craze, elitist French cuisine, a new gadget for the kitchen marketed every month, Immigration, class divide and cheap imports. We are not so different after all.


    Emma Kay's The Georgian Kitchen is available for purchase now.

  • Dining with the Victorians by Emma Kay

    Microsoft Word - Document1Dining with the Victorians explores the narrative of the history of cooking, eating, wining and dining in this fact packed follow-up to Dining with the Georgians, my first book that defined Britain’s contemporary culinary history as being largely established in the eighteenth century. Whereas the Georgians gave us celebrity chef culture, a recipe writing mass media and a culinary consumerist society, the Victorians evolved the way Britain’s ate, largely as a consequence of increased leisure and holiday time, invention and experimentation.

    Alongside a confusing back-drop of austerity; aspiration, inherent belief in old superstitions, piety, morals, principles, social awareness, innovation and tradition, Victorian society is the closest to our own recognisable heritage, as well as representing one of the most visibly transcended periods in history. Despite philanthropy and great social change, the nineteenth century divide between rich and poor was hugely conspicuous. This is the era that saw the shift in the great French cooks of the century before moving from the estate kitchens of the wealthy, into the new Hotel and early public dining venues opening across cities and towns across the country. Tea rooms, lunching spots and dining halls catered to the rising and diligent middle classes who now often commuted long distances for work. The role for women in society was also shifting and for those middle class wives and daughters not engaged in the modern industrious workforce, they spent their new found freedom from the constraints of the home out shopping, visiting galleries and museums, parks and gardens stopping for tea and light refreshment in the abundance of new establishments catering for them. The labouring and poor capitalised on street and market trades or sought food from the sewers, mud flats and animal swill bins of the neighbouring prosperity.

    Microsoft Word - Document1 ©Museum of Kitchenalia

    Dining with the Victorians investigates the altruistic nature of nineteenth century culture, something that was evident in Georgian society, but became a burgeoning force by the late eighteen hundreds. A recognition of the cyclical nature of poverty and the need to implement real change in order to create stronger, more prosperous communities led to revolutionary widespread changes in the teaching and training of cooking and domestic health and hygiene for all. Newly established schools, colleges and centres of learning adopted the art of cookery as an essential tool for life which was rolled out for the benefit of all, particularly targeting the poor. Charitable pioneers like William Booth who invested in the soup kitchen philosophy of the century before, by providing farthing breakfasts for children on their way to school and Alexis Soyer; who spans both Georgian and Victorian eras researching and conversing with the poor, developing recipes and manufacturing affordable practical kitchen equipment, are just two names associated with this break from the past. This was also the age of advancements in science, germ theory and an awareness of wider health implications leading to new legislation concerning the adulteration of food. By the mid nineteenth century it was not uncommon to find alum in your bread, lead to colour cheese and arrowroot to thicken cream amongst many other deadly component ingredients to keep the cost of production down and the appearance of food attractive to the consumer.

    The one theme in the book that I was very keen to impart and have to a much larger extent done so when writing about the Georgians, is to emphasise Britain’s many different cultural culinary influences. As a nation with a legacy of exploration, migration, immigration, trade and Empire, this inevitably impacted on the type of food the British were eating during the Victorian age. The dominant French and Italian influences of the century before yielded German bakeries, Jewish fried fish sellers, Indian and Chinese food emporiums, American imports and a wealth of new cuisines available to a wide demographic by the late nineteenth century; not just to the wealthy classes, but for the aspiring middle and some sectors of working class society. Perhaps the greatest Victorian enthusiast of all for Indian cuisine was Queen Victoria herself, who towards the end of her life insisted on eating curry every day and had a controversial relationship with her personal Indian chef Abdul Karim, far less documented than that of the one she had with John Brown.

    Microsoft Word - Document1Given the fact that we live in a somewhat food obsessed culture where programmes like the Great British Bake Off and come Dine With Me dominate the television ratings while the likes of Mary Berry, Gordon Ramsay, Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (to name a few) are often hotter news than the news itself - food and the British food cultural legacy, including the extraordinary story of the evolution of the British kitchen, is a somewhat neglected and unconventional category of academic historical research. It remains a vast area of largely unchartered discovery, with just a handful of writers dedicated to its research and interpretation. My first book Dining with the Georgians and the now paperback Georgian Kitchen, explores the even less chronicled area of kitchen utensils and the early revolution in kitchen technology, labour-saving devices and methods of food preparation and production. Dining with the Victorians takes this narrative forward by charting the correlation between a changing and modernising society, alongside the astounding growth in consumer demand for the accessibility of food in public. By the eighteen eighties Britain’s Aerated Bread Company (ABC’s) were mass producing baked products off site to sell in bakeries that had chain shop stores on most high streets, food could also be bought from vending machines at train stations and consumers could sample the tastes of various different cultures; not only on the streets of port cities but by travelling on package excursions courtesy of Thomas Cook tour operators, who made copious notes on all the early group package tours regarding the nature of food served from country to country.

    I hope my continued research in this area will go some way to contributing towards the largely untold history of what has shaped Britain’s rich culinary inheritance.


    Emma Kay's Dining with the Victorians is available for purchase now.

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