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The Evolution Of British Cuisine

By Lucy Marin, author of A Pinch of Salt 

 


In 1807, poet Robert Southy wrote that “All parts of the world are ransacked for an Englishman’s table.” He was not wrong. By Jane Austen’s lifetime, British cuisine had been influenced by imported food products and styles of cooking from around the world. To understand what she and the characters she created in her beloved books might have eaten, we have to go back centuries, and when we do, we can understand the richness of possibilities—at least for those who could afford the sometimes-steep price of imported goods.

 

In researching these influences, I found myself going further and further back in time to the early decades of the common era when the Romans introduced spelt as a key wheat variety to their menu, as well as pheasants, Guinea fowl, fallow deer, vines, figs, walnuts, mulberries, chestnuts, a number of herbs including parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme (really!), leek, onion, and other vegetables such as radish, cabbage, and lettuce. The wealthy elite could also indulge in dates, almonds, olives and olive oil, wine, seasonings such as cinnamon and ginger, and a fermented fish sauce. This pattern of early trade was disrupted by the fall of the Roman Empire in the 470s CE.

 

The next major influence appears to have been the Norman conquest in 1066, which brought with it a new French elite and their preferred styles of eating. Then, as the Crusades began in the final years of the century, soldiers encountered Middle Eastern cuisine, notably sugar, pomegranates, rice, dates, and rose water.


Throughout the next two centuries, many foods were imported to England from southern Europe, including dried fruits such as raisins, currants, and prunes, along with almonds, lemons, and bitter oranges. By the reign of Richard II at the end of the 1300s, food consumed by the upper classes generally made use of spices and almonds. There was a fondness for sweet-and-sour dishes created by using sugar, honey, dried fruit, and grape products such as vinegar, verjuice, and wine. The first major published collection of recipes dates to the same period. Titled The Forme of Cury—cury originating from the French verb cuisiner or ‘to cook’—it included a recipe using macaroni, cheese, and butter, a sign of ongoing commerce with Italy.

 

The preference for sweet-and-sour combinations persisted for centuries. To create the ‘sour’ aspect, cooks in the late 1500s and early 1600s used lemon and orange juices in addition to grape products. Onion and garlic, and herbs such as thyme, marjoram, parsley became more prominent. in the evolving British cuisine.


By the start of the 1500s, a greater variety of fruits and vegetables were cultivated in England, thanks in part to Flemish refugees, who were fleeing religious prosecution and settled in the south and east; at the same time, the gentry developed an interest in horticulture. New types of produce such as asparagus, kidney beans, and cauliflower emerged, and vegetables were often pickled to preserve them for the cold season. Fruit cultivation in the 16th and 17th centuries expanded to include black and red currants, gooseberries, and raspberries among other popular fruits such as peaches, apricots, plums, cherries, mulberries, and strawberries. Salads made with herbs and flowers became popular.


As Britain became a fixture in the ‘New World’ in the 1600s, unfamiliar foodstuffs, such as potatoes, were brought back to the ‘Old World’. This crop could be grown in England, and it became a staple in Ireland. Sugar supplies increased thanks to imports from British colonies in the West Indies. (This trade was intricately linked to that of slavery, of course, but that is not a topic for this blog.) The availability of large quantities of sugar led to an expanding interest in sweet dishes. In previous periods, sugar had been used primarily as a spice in savory rather than to make what we consider desserts today.

 

Trade with the Americas added other foodstuffs to British households too, notably tomatoes and spices such as cayenne, vanilla, and allspice, which was also called Jamaican pepper. This was same era during which the East India Company was established to facilitate trade in the region of the Indian Ocean; it was in operation from 1600 to 1874.


Tea, coffee, and chocolate became favored beverages in the 1600s. Chocolate, which which was not available in bar form until after the Regency years, came from the Americas, while coffee originated in East Africa, and imported tea was from China. The first coffeehouse opened in Oxford in 1650, with such establishments quickly proliferating. Chocolate houses opened a few years later, though with less success. These were spaces for men to discuss business and politics, and some later morphed into gentlemen’s clubs. Tea was associated with the home and thus women.

 

Catchups, or ketchups, were also used more frequently as a component of meat sauces. These are not ketchups as most of us think of them but rather thin brown liquids. One source describes them as being made from anchovies, oysters, walnuts, or mushrooms, along with salt and spices.

 

The Restoration of the Stuart monarchy in 1660 strengthened ties to France, which resulted in a French culinary influence spreading among the elite classes. The interest in sweet-and-sour meat dishes fell, and there was generally a greater division between savory and sweet food than in early periods. By the late 1600s, dishes such as terrines, poupetons, and bisks gained popularity, as did ‘raggoos’ (or ragouts), though the meaning evolved from the original—a garnish of truffles, morels, cockscombs, and other delicacies in a rich sauce—to a meat stewed with flavorings and garnishes.

 

Few cookbooks had been available in the 16th century—notably A Boke of Cokery and A Proper Newe Boke of Cookerye—but a century later, as book publishing became more widespread, more cookbooks appeared. Some had Turkish and Persian dishes, illustrating an influence from these regions. By the end of the century, cookbooks written by women for middle-class households appeared. The first was by Hannah Woolley in 1661. Cookbooks otherwise tended to be by male authors and were often aimed at the upper classes, which held a preference for male cooks because they added status to the estate owner.


Moving into the early 1700s, cookbooks introduced recipes for meringues and cream sauces as well as those thickened with roux. Puddings, both savory and sweet—including plum, Yorkshire, and haggis—were also being made. One highly successful cookbook at the time, authored by Hannah Glasse, was The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. First published in 1747, it was revised and expanded many times over the following decades, reaching about twenty editions by 1830. It is easy to imagine that Jane Austen’s family owned a copy of Glasse’s book. The volume included traditional English dishes, as well as those influenced by the cuisines of Italy, India, South-East Asia, France, and the Middle East—truly a reflection of food from around the world. Various editions of Glasse’s book introduced the first Anglo-Indian curry and held the first reference to hamburger as ground meat in a recipe for hamburger sausage.



Bread made from white wheat had been growing in prominence starting in the 1500s, and by the time of Jane Austen’s birth, it was being served at all meals. The sandwich was developed in the 1760s, and people began to enjoy savoy biscuits, gingerbread, and Shrewsbury cakes, which are similar to more modern shortbread. Butter and cheese had become more important in food preparation, and both were used in sweet-and-savory dishes.

 

Thanks to the ongoing industrialization of agriculture, food was increasingly plentiful in the late 1700s and 1800s. Not everyone had access to this abundance, let alone more exotic imported food, and diets were still mostly limited by the seasonality of produce, meat, and fish, unless you were wealthy. Evolving food storage techniques helped with this, such as the use of ice houses, which were more and more common in the 1700s and later. Another new technique that would ultimately have a profound impact was that of canning, first using glass (1790s) and then metal (1810s). The Prince Regent and queen reportedly sampled tinned meat in 1813, and apparently approved—which vastly increased the popularity of such goods.

 

In the 1807 Southy quote which opened this blog, the poet gave examples of what the world was then supplying to British tables. They ranged from turtles (the West Indies), spices and sauces (India), ham (Germany and Portugal), reindeer tongues (Lapland), caviar (Russia), sausage (Bologna), macaroni (Naples), oil (Florence), olives (France, Italy, and Spain), cheese (Parma and Switzerland)—to say nothing of what was was obtained from Scotland and Wales, and ongoing imports from Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

 

The home cook might make Swiss soup meagre—a vegetable soup with egg yolks and cream—or Indian-inspired chicken curry, or perhaps something we would more usually associate with British food—muffins, biscuits, broiled fish, roasted meat, and apple pie. Black, pink, and white pepper, nutmeg, galangal, cardamom, and cumin were all used, along with the many other spices that had been introduced over the centuries, all to be combined with a delicious assortment of food grown, raised, or caught in England or imported from elsewhere.

 

All told, it represented a feast for the senses of Jane Austen, her contemporaries, and her beloved fictional characters. And with that, I believe I have a meal to prepare! Tonight, I am being inspired by China. As for tomorrow…we’ll see!

 

 

 

Sources:

 

Black, M. and Le Faye, D. (1995). The Jane Austen Cookbook. McClellans & Stewart, New York and Toronto.

Byrd, M., and Dunn, J.P. (Eds.) (2020). Cooking Through History. A Worldwide Encyclopedia of Food with Menus and Recipes. Greenwood (Accessed via Google Books https://books.google.ca/books?hl=en&lr=&id=IOTNEAAAQBAJ&oi=fnd&pg=PP1&dq=recipes+in+England+1800s&ots=Rn6ngGy21S&sig=GO9AIDTONW4S4GvfIYuPqBpntHk#v=onepage&q=recipes%20in%20England%201800s&f=false)

Food in the Seventeenth Century (n.d.). More than a Kitchen Aid https://mediakron.bc.edu/capellmanuscript/food-in-the-seventeenth-century-1 

Mortimer, I. (2020). The Time Traveller’s Guide to Regency Britain. The Bodley Head, London.

Olsen, K. (2005). All Things Austen. Greenwood Press, Oxford.

Shapard, D.M. (2004). The Annotated Pride and Prejudice. Anchor Books, New York.

Wilson, K. (2004). Tea with Jane Austen. Frances Lincoln Limited, London.


Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Still Life With A Fish On A Terracotta Plate, Bunches is a painting by Jacob Foppens Van Es Cries of London, Thomas Rowlandson

A Maid Peeling Potatoes, J.F. Crochr...




 

 

 

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