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Chelsea Buns. Image courtesy @

Chelsea Buns. Image courtesy @Kathleen Corfield, The Ordinary Cook (Click on blog for the British recipe.)

Our crocuses and daffodils are blooming in Richmond, making me realize that Easter and spring and hot cross buns are just around the corner. Back in Jane Austen’s day, the Chelsea bun was the treat of choice.  These sticky sweet buns, filled with raisins and currants and topped with a sugary glaze, were sold by the tens of thousands at the famous Chelsea Bun-House on Pimlico Road near Sloane Square in London (technically Pimlico, not Chelsea), which was frequented by Royalty and the public alike.

During the last century, and early in the present, a pleasant walk across green fields, intersected with hedges and ditches, led the pedestrian from Westminster and Millbank to “The Old Bun House” at Chelsea. This far-famed establishment…stood at the end of Jew’s Row (now Pimlico Road), not far from Grosvenor Row. The building was a one-storeyed structure, with a colonnade projecting over the foot pavement, and was demolished in 1839, after having enjoyed the favour of the public for more than a century and a half. ” – Old and New London: Volume 5, Edward Walford, 1878, British History Online, Chelsea

“I soon turned the corner of a street which took me out of sight of the space on which once stood the gay Ranelagh. … Before me appeared the shop so famed for Chelsea buns, which for above thirty years I have never passed without filling my pockets. In the original of these shops—for even of Chelsea buns there are counterfeits—are preserved mementoes of domestic events in the first half of the past century. The bottle-conjuror is exhibited in a toy of his own age; portraits are also displayed of Duke William and other noted personages; a model of a British soldier, in the stiff costume of the same age; and some grotto-works, serve to indicate the taste of a former owner, and were, perhaps, intended to rival the neighbouring exhibition at Don Saltero’s. These buns have afforded a competency, and even wealth, to four generations of the same family; and it is singular that their delicate flavour, lightness, and richness, have never been successfully imitated.” – Sir Richard Phillips,  “Morning’s Walk from London to Kew,” 1817.

Chelsea Bun-House image from The Mirror, Google eBook

Chelsea Bun-House image from The Mirror, Google eBook

The building was fifty-two feet long, by twenty-one feet wide. The colonnade e xtended over the foot pavement into the street, and afforded a tempting shelter and resting-place to the passenger to stop and refresh himself. Latterly the floor of the colonnade was level with the road, which has probably been considerably raised; as in the old print it is represented as a platform with steps at the three doors for company to alight from their carriages. – The Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volume 11, 1839

Not all of the bun house’s customers enjoyed the sweet sticky buns, as Dean Swift attests in 1711: “Pray, are not the fine buns sold here in our town? was it not R-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-r-rrare Chelsea buns ? I bought one today in my walk ; it cost me a penny ; it was stale, and I did not like it, as the man said, [R-r-r-r-rnre] Sec.” – (Journal to Stella. May 2, 1711.)

It is not to be wondered at, that the witty Dean did not relish his stale bun ; for, to be good, it should be made with a good deal of butter, be very light, and eat hot. Chelsea Buns formed a frequent cry in the streets of London during the last century, and were as popular as the Bath Buns of the present time. The cry (or rather song) was ” Chelsea Buna, hot Cheheii Buns, rare Chelsea Buns! ” Good Friday was the day in all the year when they were most in request; and the crowds that frequented the Bunhouse on that day, is almost past belief. – Gentleman’s Magazine

The following account was written in The Mirror, April 6, 1839, the year that the original Bun-House was demolished for improvements.

CHELSEA BUN-HOUSE. This Bun-House, whose fame has extended throughout the land, was first established about the beginning of the last century; for, as early as 1712, it is thus mentioned by the celebrated Dean Swift:—”Pray are not the fine buns sold here in our town, as the rare Chelsea buns ? I bought one to-day in my walk,” &c.

The building consists of one story, fifty feet long, and fourteen feet wide. It projects into the high-way in an unsightly manner, in form of a colonade, affording a very agreeable shelter to the passenger in unfavourable weather.

The whole premises are condemned to be pulled down immediately, to make way for the proposed improvements of Chelsea and its neighbourhood, the bill for which is in committee of the House of Commons, under the superintendance of that most active member, Sir Matthew Wood.

It was the fashion formerly for the royal family, and the nobility and gentry, to visit Chelsea Bun-House in the morning. His Majesty King George the Second, Queen Caroline, and the Princesses, frequently honoured the elder Mrs. Hand with their company.

Their late Majesties King George III, and Queen Charlotte, were also much in the habit of frequenting the Bun-House when their children were young, and used to alight and sit to look around and admire the place and passing scene. The Queen presented Mrs. Hand with a silver half-gallon mug, richly enchaced, with five guineas in it, as a mark of her approbation for the attentions bestowed upon her during these visits: this testimonial was kept a long time in the family.

On the morning of Good Friday, the Bunhouse used to present a scene of great bustle; it was opened as early as four o’clock j and the concourse of people was so great, that it was difficult to approach the house; it has been estimated that more than fifty thousand persons have assembled in the neighbourhood before eight in the morning; at length it was found necessary to shut it up partially, in order to prevent the disturbances and excesses of the immense unruly and riotous London mob which congregated on those occasions. Hand-bills were printed, and constables stationed to prevent a recurrence of these scenes.

Whilst Ranelagh was in fashion, the BunHouse was much frequented by the visitors of that celebrated temple of pleasure ; but after the failure of Ranelagh, the business fell off in a great degree, and dwindled into insignificance.

Interior of Chelsea Bun-House. Image from 1839 edition of The Mirror, Google eBook

Interior of Chelsea Bun-House. Image from 1839 edition of The Mirror, Google eBook. The inside of the Bun-House was fitted up as a museum. It might have contained some very curious articles, but the most valuable had long since disappeared.The materials of the building, with the relics of the museum, were sold by auction April 18, 1839, and the whole was immediately cleared away. – Gentleman’s Magazine

Click here to see a color drawing of the Bun-House interior at the British Museum

See another image of the Bun-House at Swann Galleries

INTERIOR Of CHELSEA BUN-HOUSE. The interior was formerly fitted up in a very singular and grotesque style, being furnished with foreign clocks, and many natural and artificial curiosities from abroad ; but most of these articles have disappeared since the decease of Mrs. Hand.

At the upper end of the shop is placed, in a large glass-case, a model of Radcliffe Church, at Bristol, cut out very curiously and elaborately in paste-board ; but the upper towers, pinnacles, &c. resemble more an eastern mosque than a Christian church.

Over the parlour door is placed an equestrian coloured statue, in lead, of William, the great Duke of Cumberland, in the military costume of the year 1745, taken just after the celebrated battle of Culloden: it is eighteen inches in height.

On each side stand two grenadier guards, presenting arms, and in the military dress of the above period, with their high sugarloaf caps, long-flap coats, and broad gerilles, and old-fashioned muskets, presenting a grotesque appearance, when compared with the neat short-cut military trim of the present day. These figures are also cast in lead, and coloured; are near four feet high, and weigh each about two hundred weight.

Underneath, on the wall, is suspended a whole-length portrait, much admired by connoisseurs, of Aurengzebe, Emperor of Persia. This is probably the work of an Italian artist, but his name is unknown.

After the death of Mrs. Hand, the business was carried on by her son, who was an eccentric character, and used to dress in a very peculiar manner,; he dealt largely in butter which he carried about the streets in a basket on his head; hot or cold, wet or dry, throughout the year, the punctual butterman made his appearance at the door, and gained the esteem of every one by his cheerful aspect and entertaining conversation ; for he was rich in village anecdote, and could relate all the vicissitudes of the neighbourhood for more than half a century.

After his decease, his elder brother came into the possession of the business; he had been bred it soldier, and was at that time one of the poor knights of Windsor, and was remarkable for his eccentric manners and costume. He left no family, nor relations, in consequence of which his property reverted to the crown…A writer in the Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. LIU. for July 1783, p. 578, speaking of Cross Buns in Passion week, observes, that ” these being, formerly at least, unleavened, may have a retrospect to the unleavened bread of the Jews, in the same manner as Lamb at Easter to the Pascal Lamb. “

Chelsea Bun-House, image @ Gentleman's Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volume 11

Chelsea Bun-House, image @ Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, Volume 11. One can see the raised steps leading to three doors where ladies and gentlemen could alight comfortably from their carriages.

 

Apparently when Chelsea Buns were invented there were two rivals who vied for the honor of selling the best buns: the Old Chelsea Bun House or the “Real Old Original Chelsea Bun-house.” On Good Friday, long lines of people waited to purchase the buns. In 1792, the Good Friday line was so long that the Bun-House skipped selling them the following year. A notice stated:

“Royal Bun House, Chelsea, Good Friday.—No Cross Buns. Mrs. Hand respectfully informs her friends and the public, that in consequence of the great concourse of people which assembled before her house at a very early hour, on the morning of Good Friday last, by which her neighbours (with whom she has always lived in friendship and repute) have been much alarmed and annoyed; it having also been intimated, that to encourage or countenance a tumultuous assembly at this particular period might be attended with consequences more serious than have hitherto been apprehended; desirous, therefore, of testifying her regard and obedience to those laws by which she is happily protected, she is determined, though much to her loss, not to sell Cross Buns on that day to any person whatever, but Chelsea buns as usual.”

Forty six years later, the Bun-House closed its doors for good. One has to wonder today if during her many trips to London Jane Austen traveled to the Bun-House on Pimlico Road to purchase a half-dozen of these fresh-baked delicacies.

Pimlico Road in 2012

Google map image of Pimlico Road in 2012 London, near what was once Grosvenor Row.

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The week of Christmas and the new year has been traditionally a time for joy and celebration. In Jane Austen’s day, the decorations and celebrations weren’t quite so over-the-top commercial as they are today. Mistletoe, holly, and evergreen boughs decorated the halls, while roaring fires warmed hearth and home. Fine foods were prepared for friends and family at holiday gatherings, and gift giving was considered optional and not mandatory.

Cruikshank image. Holiday dinner party. Image @LIFE magazine.

Cruikshank image. Holiday dinner party. Image @LIFE magazine.

In her letters, Jane mentioned making wine. She was also  known to imbibe a glass or two, as did many Regency ladies. One can imagine that she heartily enjoyed a glass of homemade wine during long winter evenings. A Regency household in the country was akin to a cottage factory, processing freshly picked fruits and vegetables in summer and fall for consumption during the winter months.

Elderberry bushes, native to both Europe (Sambucus nigra)  and North America (Sambucus canadensis), ripened in August and September. The American elderberry can be found growing in old fields and meadows. The European elderberry blooms earlier than its American counterpart, with some sporting pink flowers. By Christmas, the first flasks of elderberry wine could be served at the table.  Some elder wines (depending on their strength) were ripened until spring. (Edible Landscaping)

Elderberry wine has a rich red color.

Elderberry wine has a rich red color.

Mrs. Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell’s elder wine recipe, written over two hundred years ago, reflects how housewives made the wine back then, using ingredients and kitchen supplies that were readily available. In 1806, John Murray (who published Emma, a second edition of Mansfield Park, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey)  published  A New System of Domestic Cookery: Founded up Principles of Economy; and Adapted to the Use of Private Families. Rundell’s cookbook became wildly popular in the first half of the 19th century in both England and America. One imagines that the Austen women were well aware of its existence.

Mrs. Rundell

Mrs. Rundell

According to Mrs. Rundell:

English wines would be found particularly useful, now foreign are so high priced, and though sugar is dear, they may be made at a quarter of the expense. If carefully made, and kept three or four year,s a proportionable strength being given, they would answer the purpose of foreign wines for health, and cause a very considerable reduction in the expenditure.”

Holly Bush Inn, where Mrs. Rundell, it is speculated, wrote her recipes.

Holly Bush Inn, where Mrs. Rundell, it is speculated, wrote her recipes. Image @Persephone books (Link below)

Rundell’s book of recipes went through dozens of editions in Britain and the United States, where it was published in 1807. The following recipe for Elder Wine comes from the Google eBook 1857 edition:

Rundell Domestic Cookery

Elder Wine.

To every quart of berries put two quarts of water, boil half an hour, run the liquor, and break the fruit through a hair sieve; then to every quart of juice put three quarters of a pound of Lisbon sugar, coarse but not the very coarsest. Boil the whole a quarter of an hour with some Jamaica peppers, gingers, and a few cloves. Pour it into a tub, and when of a proper warmth, into the barrel, with toast and yeast to work, which there is more difficulty to make it do than most other liquors. When it ceases to hiss, put a quart of brandy to eight gallons, and stop up. Bottle in the spring or at Christmas. The liquor must be in a warm place to make it work.

Elder berries and elder flowers. Public domain image

Elder berries and elder flowers. Public domain image

While Rundell’s recipe seems simple, some terms require explanation. In those days, sugar was classified according to place of origin, such as Brazil, or entrepot, a place of entry without excise duties, such as Lisbon. (Richard Bradley, 1736) Prospect book glossary.

19th c. hair sieve

19th c. hair sieve

Image of Hair Sieve at Worth Point

The hair sieve mentioned by Rundell was most likely made with coarse horse hair, as shown in the above image. The mesh is quite fine. Sugar was an expensive commodity (Jane Austen was in charge of the tea and sugar stores in Chawton cottage, keeping the keys, no doubt, to the locked containers), but as previously explained, making your own wine provided a cost saving measure. The High Price of Sugar.

Jamaica peppers are generally known today as allspice. The peppers are larger than peppercorns and were gathered from Jamaica pepper trees. The “toast and yeast” mentioned in the recipe most likely meant bread yeast. Elder wine ferments particularly well in oak casks.

Jamaica pepper

Jamaica pepper

One can only guess what Mrs. Rundell’s elder wine, which was fortified with brandy, tasted like – strong, sweet, alcoholic, and fruity. The clusters of berries, dark purple when ripe, had many uses:

Elderberry bushes … [have] a long history of use for food, drink and medicinal purposes. Elderberry pie, jam and jelly, tarts, flavored drinks, and of course wine are a few of its better known uses.

Elderberry wine has a unique flavor that changes considerably over time. When too few berries are used, the wine is thin and unlikely to improve. When too many berries are used, the tannins and other flavor constituents may overpower the palate and require dilution, blending or prolonged aging to mellow. Between these extremes are wines that often offer exceptional enjoyment. – Winemaker Magazine

It seems that the berries had to be processed as quickly as possible after picking. There were times, I imagine, that the Austen women were busy working alongside their servants in the kitchen, processing foods, canning and pickling, and making wines and ales from recently harvested produce.

Another “job” that the Regency housewife assumed was that of nurse. Recipes for cough lozenges and simple medicinals made from herbs and plants were passed down through the generations. Elder berries were known to have many medicinal benefits:

Recipe for a "Decoction fameuse," which contains elderberry (among other ingredients). Image @MCRS Rare Book Blog

Recipe for a “Decoction fameuse,” which contains elderberry (among other ingredients). Image @MCRS Rare Book Blog

Recent research shows that elder builds up the immune system and directly inhibits the influenza virus. Elder contains an enzyme that smoothes the spikes on the outside of the virus, which the virus uses to pierce through cell walls. Elderberries have also been recommended in cases of bronchitis, sore throat, coughs, asthma, colds and constipation.” – The Health Benefits of Elderberry Wine

18th century red wine drinker, Franz Laktanz Graf Von Firmian

18th century red wine drinker taking his “medicine”, Franz Laktanz Graf Von Firmian

What better way to soothe one’s respiratory condition than with a nice glass of elder wine!

Ma(i)sonry Maisonry - Vintage 18th Century Wine Bottles - 1stdibs

This article from KansasCity.com, “Elderberry wine as a medicinal: A recent USDA reaction,” shows how ridiculous current U.S. health laws can be on the use of medication:

Federal authorities have seized bottles and drums of elderberry juice concentrate from a Kansas winery, contending that the company’s claims of its benefits for treating various diseases make the product a drug.

…”Products with unapproved disease claims are dangerous because they may cause consumers to delay or avoid legitimate treatments, Dara Corrigan, the FDA’s associate commissioner for regulatory affairs, said in a news release. “The FDA is committed to protecting consumers from unapproved products on the market.”

Aquatint, Rowlandson. Image @Amazon

Aquatone, Thomas Rowlandson. Image @Amazon

Wine was reserved not only for medicinal purposes or family gatherings, but for daily consumption. Bumpers of wine, or a tankard or cup filled to the brim, were common quantities.  The Georgians were notorious drinkers, for alcohol was safer than unboiled water and contaminated city or town wells.

London society of the Georgian period was renowned for its heavy consumption of alcohol. Poor people tended to drink beer or gin, but a wider range of alcoholic drinks was available to the rich. These included wines such as French claret; fortified wines such as sherry, port or Madeira; and spirits such as brandy and rum. It is noted in the text that Mr Stryver and Sydney Carton have wine, brandy, rum, sugar and lemons with which to concoct their punch.

During the Georgian period, beer might be drunk from pewter tankards, and other drinks, from glass goblets or tumblers.- Bookdrum

Detail, Elder Win Stand in Holborne, by George Scharff, 1842

Detail, Elder Wine Stand in Holborne in Winter, by George Scharff, 1842

In winter, elder wine heated in coppers was sold for a penny per wine glass from portable wood stands that contained glassware. (See image above.) This tradition lasted at least through the Victorian era, as attested by the modern Wedgewood scene below.

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Wedgewood. Victorian scene of an elder wine stand

Wedgewood. Victorian scene of an elder wine stand

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Inquiring readers: Paul Emanuelli, author of Avon Street, has contributed posts for this blog before about the City of Bath as a Character and Law & Order and Jane Austen’s Aunt. He has graciously sent in an article about food preparation in the 18th and 19th centuries. The content will astonish you. Paul writes about Bath in his own blog, unpublishedwriterblog. It is well worth a visit.

Miss Bates, let Emma help you to a little bit of tart–a very little bit. Ours are all apple-tarts. You need not be afraid of unwholesome preserves here. I do not advise the custard.”

Michael Gambon as Mr. Woodhouse, Emma, 2009

So says the ever-cautious, Mr Woodhouse, in Jane Austen’s Emma as he entertains his guests at supper. Yet Mr Woodhouse’s fears were not entirely in his imagination. At the time it was relatively common for commercially bought pickles and preserves to contain poisonous sulphate of copper to improve their eye-appeal. And even when prepared at home, the copper pans in which they were cooked, unless properly looked after, could also poison the ingredients.

Churning butter

Yet for most people who lived in the country, as Jane Austen did for much of her life, food-safety was not a major concern. Food was prepared and preserved either by the family themselves or by their domestic staff, and cooking and baking was done at home.

Food preparation in the kitchen.

The ingredients were for the most part grown and bought locally, and word travels quickly in small communities. Meat came from local farms or estates, and farmers and landowners had reputations to maintain, as did the local mill for flour, and the local shopkeepers for all that they sold.

Costermonger from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, 1840s.

The situation though, was very different in towns and cities. Here it was the shopkeepers and “costermongers” who sourced, stored, prepared and supplied the produce. And with a wider market at their disposal these tradesmen were often less concerned with quality, as they were with cost. The worst affected were the poor. For the most part they lived from hand-to-mouth and bought food in “pennyworths” or even “half-pennyworths.” Buying in these smaller quantities (enough for the day) meant goods often cost four or five times more than they would have cost had they been bought in regular quantities.

Bread Seller, William Henry Pyne, ca. 1805

Bread itself could be bought as quarter or half loaves and the poor subsisted largely on bread. But even then, bakers used chalk to make the bread whiter, and alum to enable the use of inferior flour, and while alum was not poisonous it inhibited the digestion and decreased the nutritional value of anything else their customers ate.

Rabbit seller, William Henry Pyne, 1805

The wealthier residents in towns and cities could afford a “better” diet, yet this too carried its own dangers. There was of course no refrigeration at the time and little concept of hygiene. In towns and cities most meat was killed locally, but then it had to be stored, sold and transported to the home. As late as 1862 the government estimated that one-fifth of butcher’s meat in England and Wales came from animals which had died of disease or were carrying considerably disease. And at the start of the nineteenth century butcher’s boys would deliver meat to the wealthier homes, carried on their heads, in baskets or trays, open to the heat and dirt of the day.

A butcher’s shop, by James Pollard

As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the British population grew, and so did the towns and cities. The nation became more dependent on imported and processed foods. The growing “middle classes” were acquiring a growing taste for tea, coffee, sugar, cocoa, and sauces and spices from around the world. The problem that the fictional Mr Woodhouse had been concerned about a few years earlier rapidly became a fact of life as the century progressed.

Coachman, seated, holding a tankard. Mezzotint by Ryley, printed in colours for John Bowles in London Feb. 1st, 1768

The “adulteration” of food and drink became increasingly commonplace. Producers, importers, merchants and sellers were all adding ingredients to increase bulk or “improve” appearance. The making of beer had more to do with chemistry than the brewing process. As Dr Richard Wetherby says, in my novel, Avon Street,

Have you any idea of how they adulterate the beer in the ale houses around Avon Street? It is full of foxglove, henbane, opium and God knows what other concoctions. They use chemicals so that they can water down the beer, keep its taste and appearance, but make it stronger, and still sell it cheaply.”

Cow Keeper’s Shop in London, 1825, George Scharf

Milk too, was often watered down, sometimes by as much as 50%. So common did the adulteration of food become that books on housekeeping routinely carried warnings and tests for detecting added chemicals like plaster of Paris. Mrs Beeton in prefacing a recipe for a popular anchovy paste warned against shop-bought pastes,

In six cases out of ten, the only portion of those preserved delicacies, that contains anything indicative of anchovies, is the paper label pasted on the bottle or pot, on which the word itself is printed.”

Typical coffee house, late 18th century

In 1851 The Lancet, medical journal, commissioned a doctor from the London Royal Free Hospital to examine the adulteration of thirty common foods. The study revealed that China tea contained 45% sand and dirt together with traces of sulphate of iron; lard contained carbonate of soda and caustic lime; coffee included chicory, mangel wurzel (root vegetable) sawdust, and acorns; cocoa and chocolate were coloured with earth and included arrowroot and Venetian lead; sweets (candy) were found to contain chromate of lead, sulphate of mercury and various other noxious flavourings and colourings. Red lead and other chemical colourings were found to be routinely used in foodstuffs such as “Red Leicester Cheese.”

Six pence a pound, fair cherryes

Even after the study was published the merchants, tradespeople and government were slow to respond. It was not until 1860 that the Adulteration Act was passed. Thankfully, technology and innovation helped in the interim. In 1857 a process for the mass production of ice was patented allowing foods to be better preserved and transported. The availability of canned goods also increased. The army had been supplied with canned foods since 1820, but the cans had to be opened with a chisel or a bayonet, until the can-opener was invented in 1858. As technology improved, mass-produced processed foods like soups, sauces, biscuits, chocolate, pickles and egg-powder became more popular and were prepared to more rigorous standards. And though the Adulteration Act was still largely resisted, in 1872 official inspectors were created with the power to test food and impose substantial fines. Quality and safety of food gradually improved, which I am sure would have pleased the fictional Mr Woodhouse.

Old Covent Garden market, 1825, Scharf

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Refrigerated milk cart, 19th c. This design, from the USA, used ice to keep the air temperature cool for the transport of milk. Holes in the compartments allowed air to circulate from where the ice compartments to the milk compartments.

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As a blogger who is curious about all things in Jane Austen’s world and customs in her past that might have influenced her, I am still amazed at how one tiny clue points to another until I land on a series of sites that open up a whole new topic. While history foodies probably know about the elaborate lengths that pastry chefs took to please their patrons, the visual results of a full banquet are simply astounding. I can only assume that Georgian taste buds were equally pleased.

Modern chef and historian, Ivan Day, recreated a feast from the past using sugar structures and porcelain figures to arrange a fanciful garden centerpieces for the table.

I already knew about The Prince Regent’s elaborate 1811 dinner at Carlton House, which was described as thus:

“Along the centre of the table about six inches above the surface, a canal of pure water continued flowing from a silver fountain beautifully constructed at the head of the table. Its banks were covered with green moss aquatic flowers; gold and silver fish swam and sported through the bubbling current, which produced a pleasing murmur where it fell, and formed a cascade at the outlet.” – The Gentleman’s Magazine, describing the Prince Regent’s fete at Carlton House, June 19, 1811 in honor of the exiled French royal family.

The great kitchen at the Prince Regent’s Pavilion at Brighton could accommodate creating dishes for huge and fanciful banquets.

So great was the interest that the doors of Carlton House were opened for three days in a row. But instead of satisfying the curiosity of the masses, the result was ever-increasing crowds. Chaos ensued.

‘The condescension of the Prince in extending the permission to view the arrangements for the late fete at Carlton House has nearly been attended with fatal consequences,’ reported one newspaper. Read more: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1039063/As-Queen-opens-Palace-Ballroom-public-story-decadent-royal-banquet-ever.html#ixzz1s7ijkAEv

Detail of the design for an elaborate garden centerpiece. These engravings were showcased in Le Cannameliste Français by famed confectionary chef, Joseph Gilliers, in the mid-18th century. View the entire centerpiece here: Click on this link.

The banquet featured a recreation of a landscape at its center. Such a method of decorating a table was not new, especially when it came to desserts. Elaborate set pieces with architectural French influence were created for tables using spun sugar and Sevres bisque figures to create fantasy landscapes. Before the Napoleonic Wars, travel over the English Channel between British and French courtiers and diplomats was common, and thus the French chef’s custom of creating these elaborate centerpieces became well-known in England. Upper class households vied for highly paid (and desired) French chefs, and by the 1820s these gentlemen had by and large invaded British upper class kitchens. Their ability to create dishes that feasted both the eyes and the stomach was unrivaled.

 SEVRES BISCUIT FIGURES CIRCA 1755, Modeled after François Boucher. Image @Christies.

This was an era when confectionary was considered as much a branch of the decorative arts as of cuisine, and porcelain for the table represented prestige as well as a demonstration of power. The combination of French chef, porcelain, and fanciful confectionary desserts served as symbols of prestige and wealth, for no ordinary household could offer such an extravagant display of food and panoply. (View this porcelain table centerpiece set.)

Detail of Gilliers’ templates for cut outs.

Most of the images of the banquets and figurines are copyrighted. I encourage you to click on the links to view the spectacular results of sugar and porcelain table centerpieces that mimic gardens, sculptures, and figures based on famous paintings. The fanciful recreation included redesigning tables as well.

Modern version of Gilliers table. Image @Simon Beer.

Gilliers’ 1751 sketch of the table, plus seating.

Amy Hauft, VCU sculpture department. Confectioner Joseph Gilliers conceived his 100-seat rococo fantasy for the serving of a single course — dessert — in a garden setting. The centerpiece atop the tailored white tablecloth was to be a sculpture made of sugar paste fortified with dried sturgeon bladder. There is no record that this table was ever built by Gilliers. Image@Richmond Times Dispatch

More on this fascinating topic:

Ivan Day’s  pavilion made from a “pastillage sugar paste for an exhibition at the Met in NYC two years ago. They were exact replicas of ones made for Maria Theresa, the Empress of Austria in 1740. “

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Amongst herbs to be eaten I find gourds, cucumbers, coleworts, melons disallowed, but especially cabbage. It causeth trouble-some dreams and sends up black vapours to the brain . . .” – Richard Burton, 16th century

Cabbage was first introduced in Great Britain by the Romans. In ancient times the Greeks revered it for its medicinal qualities, and it was well known in the Mediterranean region, where it spread out to other parts of Europe. The vegetable was cultivated as food for man and cattle and consumed mainly by the poor,  for this hardy plant could be grown in the vegetable garden in temperate climates for long periods and harvested into early winter. White cabbage, used for boiling, braising, and stewing, was distinguished from the red cabbage, which was mostly used for pickling. From the 14th century and on, European peasants consumed cabbage in the form of soups and stews, which nourished them through the long winter months. It wasn’t until the 18th century that cabbages began to make their appearance on more aristocratic tables.

Cabbage’s long lasting quality made it a valuable and nutritious vegetable staple for long sea voyages. One imagines that Jane Austen’s sailor brothers ate a great deal of cabbage while sailing.

In his journal for July 1772, Cook gives the following account of the provisions placed aboard the Resolution and Adventure…Biscuit, flour, salt beef, salt pork, beer, wine, spirit [distilled alcohol], pease [dried peas], wheat, oatmeal, butter, cheese [hard], sugar, oyle olive [olive oil], vinegar, suet, raisins, salt, malt, sour krout [sauerkrout], salted cabbage, portable broth [dessicated soup], saloup, mustard, mermalade [marmelade] of carrots, water…” – Sailors & Sauerkraut: Excerpts from the Journals of Captain Cook’s Expeditions All Pertaining to Food With Recipes to Match, Barbara Burkhardt, Barrie Andugs McLean & Doris Kochanek [Grey’s Publishing:Sidney BC] 1978 (p. 23)- The Food Timeline

High in vitamin c and anti-inflammatory properties, this cruciferous vegetable was not only nutritious and helped to fight scurvy, but an apocryphal story states that during Captain Cook’s first voyage, members of his crew were saved from gangrene by doctors who applied poultices of cabbage to their patients’ wounds.

At the time, cabbage was called a ‘cabbage cole’ or ‘colewort. ‘By the mid eighteenth century, an array of different cabbages was grown, and as one anonymous writer put it:

‘There various Kinds of this Plant are endless to describe_’ The common White Cabbage, Sugarloaf, Pontefract, Battersea, Red Cabbage, and the green and White Savoy Cabbage’ [Anon (1744)].

1770 creamware teapot. Image @Earle D. Vandekar of Knightsbridge

Cabbages were grown in family gardens in raised beds, near the door for easy picking, and protected from damaging winds by a fence or hedge and mulch. Recipes for cooking cabbage were included in early cookery books, however, one defies the modern cook to be able to follow Hannah Glasse’s charming recipe for beans ragoo’-d with a cabbage (at least I would have a difficult time.)

TAKE a nice little cabbage, about as big as a pint bacon ; when the outside leaves, top, and stalks are cut off, half boil it, out a hole in the middle pretty big, take what you cut out and chop it very fine, with a sew of the beans boiled, a carrot boiled and mashed, and a turnip boiled,  mash all together, put them, into’a sauce-pan, season them with, pepper, salt, and nutmeg, a good piece of butter, stew them a few minutes over the fire, stirring the pan often. In the mean time put the cabbage into a sauce-pan but take great care it does not fall to pieces; put to it four spoonsfuls of water, two of wine, and one of catchup ; have a spoonful of mushroom-pickle, a piece of butter rolled in a little flour, a very little pepper, cover it close, and let it stew softly till it is tender; then take it up carefully and lay it in the middle of the dish, pour your mashed roots in the middle to fill it up high, and your ragoo round it. You may add the liquor the cabbage was stewed in, and send it to table hot. This will do for a top, bottom, middle, or side-dish. When beans are not to be had, you may cut carrots and turnips into little slices, and fry them; the carrots in little round slices, the turnips in pieces about two inches long, and as thick as one’s finger, and toss them up in the ragoo.

Cabbage tureen, mid-19th century Jacob Petit Porcelain. Image @Christie's

By 1773 the cultivation of cabbage in England was sufficiently commercialized to make it a criminal offence to steal or damage growing crops of cabbage, whose price had dropped by half since the 1730s. Chefs and cooks used cabbage to make ragout and pudding, or stuff it with meat. In the 16th and 17th centuries warm milk was added to make cabbage cream that was left to mature before being presented at dinner tables.

Red cabbage was prepared and sold as a pickle. Newspapers advertised the sale of cabbage seed, where it was defined as flat sided, green savoy, hellow (probably a misprint for yellow) red, Russia, sugar loaf, turnip, yellow savoy and Yorkshire. (Simone Clarke – British History Online.)

Still life with cabbage, James Peale

“The time has come…to talk of many things: Of shoes–and ships–and sealing wax–of cabbages–and kings–And why the sea is boiling hot–And whether pigs have wings.” – Lewis Carroll

Mrs. Beeton’s STEWED RED CABBAGE (19th century)

INGREDIENTS – 1 red cabbage, a small slice of ham, 1/2 oz. of fresh butter, 1 pint of weak stock or broth, 1 gill of vinegar, salt and pepper to taste, 1 tablespoonful of pounded sugar.

Mode.—Cut the cabbage into very thin slices, put it into a stewpan, with the ham cut in dice, the butter, 1/2 pint of stock, and the vinegar; cover the pan closely, and let it stew for 1 hour. When it is very tender, add the remainder of the stock, a seasoning of salt and pepper, and the pounded sugar; mix all well together, stir over the fire until nearly all the liquor is dried away, and serve. Fried sausages are usually sent to table with this dish: they should be laid round and on the cabbage, as a garnish.

Time.—Rather more than 1 hour. Average cost, 4d. each.

Sufficient for 4 persons.

Seasonable from September to January.

Hannah Glasse’s 18th century Recipe for Pickled Red Cabbage declares this dish to be useful only for garnish:

To pickle red-cabhage.

SLICE the cabbage thin, put to it vinegar and salt, and an ounce of all-spice cold cover it close, and keep it fer use. It is a pickle of little use but for garnishing of dishes, sallads, and pickles, though some people are fond of it.

Years ago, my then husband and I spent an outrageous sum of money eating Bubble and Squeak at a chichi Mayfair restaurant in London. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that this costly (to us) side dish consisted of the humble potato and cabbage, a dish invented by Maria Rundell in 1806.

Maria Rundell’s recipe for Bubble and Squeak.

Boil, chop, and fry, with a little butter, pepper, and salt, some cabbage, and lay on it slices of rare done beef, lightly fried.

In both the following receipts, the roots must be taken off the tongue before salted. – A new system of domestic cookery: formed upon principles of economy, and adapted to the use of private families, Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell, 1808

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