A Trip Back In Time
The Aperitif Guy, Features Writer
Have you ever wondered about the influences that create our culinary culture and styles of dining?
I have been creating dinners for the last few years that explore these influences – the places, the people and the moments. I’ve come to believe that the most significant moment for British cuisine was the accession of Edward VII and the changes that came with his 9-year reign.
Edward VII acceded the throne in January 1901, having been largely excluded from power (and from his mother’s company, even) for most of Queen Victoria’s widowhood. She blamed him for his father’s death and could not bear his company.
During this extended period of mourning, Britain’s social and table manners had become rather rigid, despite its growing wealth and power. The Queen simply would not countenance change. Prince Albert Edward, as he was called before becoming king, was forbidden to take up the army commission he desired and had little public rôle but to travel, make money and do his best to enjoy the wait.
Wealthy and leisured, and a successful gambler to boot, he developed a reputation for enjoying the social high-life. His accession, therefore, ushered in a number of rapid changes in the way Britain ate, drank and socialised.
One of the first Victorian conventions to change was “service française,” the practice of serving many dishes – savoury and sweet – together. Each collection was known as a “remove,” as they were laid out and removed together.
Edward introduced at court the newer practice of “service russe” (Russian service), where dishes are served one at a time, in a sequence the chef has planned to show off his skills and innovation. “Removes” now came to mean the last dish of each sequence, when all used cutlery and glassware was removed, to make room for the next sequence of dishes.
In time, this would be reduced to the three or four courses we recognise today, but with the vast wealth of the Edwardian middle and upper classes, the emphasis was still on conspicuous display: aspics, glazes and moulds, to show off the colours of the ingredients; fresh and exotic fruits from one’s own hothouses; piped work to show off the skills of the kitchen staff; preserved goods shipped in from abroad...
Another change was the greater availability of wines. As steam technology increased the speed and ease of transporting wine, the price dropped, and the variety of wines available to the British market increased. While nothing like the variety we enjoy today, it was still a massive advance on the previous generation, where only wines commonly served were ones that travelled well and could be kept easily.
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Certain wines quickly established themselves as the wines for certain dishes: Chablis with oysters, sherry with soup, claret with game, port with desserts. While some of these combinations are regarded as classic even today, we might yet raise an eyebrow at hock with fish.
Although both America and the Continent had been serving pre-dinner drinks since the late 1860’s, the practice was still somewhat mistrusted in Britain, perhaps for the very reason that it was practised abroad!
The apéritif may have been served in some of the more radical London houses but it probably wouldn’t have reached Yorkshire before the Great War. Cocktails, incidentally, were immensely popular with wealthy Americans at this time, but only really took off in London when Prohibition brought those Americans to Europe in search of alcohol.
Dress was beginning to relax a little. As Prince of Wales, Edward had started to wear black tie and a short jacket at private dinners. While the practice was adopted at Sandringham and Balmoral, white tie continued to be worn at Windsor and Buckingham Palace for decades to come. This differentiation between informal, “at home” wear and formal dress is with us still, although black tie is seen as formal these days!
We can see in these changes the modern dinner party emerging. For my own “Edwardian Dinner,” I invited a friend to decorate a table in the style of the day and briefed guests on Edwardian manners – gentlemen were to stand whenever a lady did so, the Sovereign was to be toasted and ladies would withdraw from the company for a short while after dinner. My modern ladies were not impressed with that suggestion!
The menu was as follows:
An hors d’œuvres plate of asparagus hollandaise, quail’s egg & peas in aspic and buttered radish
Beef consommé with tarragon and royales (savoury custard cut into decorative shapes)
Dressed English crab
A first “remove” of veal tongue on salad leaves
Roast loin of veal in a mustard & cream sauce, with duchesse potatoes & braised lettuce
A second “remove” of Champagne sorbet
Mulberry bavarois with summer berries
A final, small, savoury course of Roquefort toasts with chopped bacon
Rather than serve strictly Edwardian dishes and wines, the menu uses modern and classic foods, served in Edwardian styles. British tastes are now for drier wines than was common at the time, and winemakers create wines to suit the market, so it’s likely that, even following the conventional wine matches of the period, we did not experience exactly the dinner our forebears would have done.
The Aperitif Guy has a regular blog at blog.theaperitifguy.co.uk or you can follow him on Twitter @AperitifGuy
A Trip Back In Time, 28th March 2019, 16:34 PM