BACKGROUND TO VICTORIAN (LATE 19TH CENTURY) MENUS

 

Eat like a Middle Class Victorian

The Victorians were the people who lived in the 19th century. It was the industrial age, when people who owned railways or factories or oil wells and coal mines made vast amounts of money, while many people working for them remained desperately poor. The story of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist living in the workhouse and asking for an extra bowl of gruel sets the scene.

In Victorian times everything was formal everything in its place. That included people, who were organised by class. Classes were often based on what people did for a living.

Wealthy Victorians had servants. They had cooks and a housekeeper who oversaw the menu. Mrs Beetons' book of how to run a wealthy household was the most famous book of Victorian times.

If you were wealthy, then meals were complex, and the rules for eating were also set out with great care. This was invented in Britain and copied by the wealthy in America.

So which menu you prepare depends on who you are trying to remember. The very poor lived on things like potato peelings and scraps, so that is perhaps best avoided.

You get more opportunity with middle class people such as shop managers, as they would be able to afford to go to a 'Supper Room' (restaurant) and eat out.

Breakfast
Breakfasts were far more elaborate than today. It is the time when the term 'full English breakfast' came into use. There would be bacon, eggs, ham, haddock, toast, coffee and fruits.

Lunch
Lunch was reduced in importance in Victorian times. Before this, people ate their main meal in the middle of the day, but the factory age meant that people were too busy working, and most factories and shops allowed only a short break for food at midday.

Supper (dinner)
In the 18th century, there was an early evening dinner, between about 5-6 pm. In Victorian times, with people out at work, this was moved to 8-9 pm. It was called supper. Restaurants serving dinner only were known as 'supper rooms; and in them people sat communally at large tables. The menu was set. It had various courses, but it did not contain choices.

Afternoon tea
The Victorians invented afternoon tea for the upper middle classes (especially women) who were not at work. It was a kind of filler meal because supper was so late.

But it became much more than that. To cater for people who had time to take tea in the middle of the afternoon, tea rooms sprung up in most towns. They were places where mostly women met, and they became plaaces for talking while eating a light snack. This is when cucumber sandwiches became popular (they have a low calorie value and so do not fill you up).

The wealthy of Georgian times and before had heavily spiced foods. This was partly because the food was often bad and the spices were to mask the taste, and also because the spices were expensive, so it was a way of showing you were wealthy. So in Victorian times, as food became fresher, and had more of its own flavour. That did not mean that the foods became simpler.

In America and Britain, many middle class people turned away from the extremely elaborate continental European foods and turned to what the continentals called "Anglo-Saxon foods" which were plain roasts or boiled joints or meat. This was enhanced by the fact that Queen Victoria liked simple food, and so everyone else followed.

The important thing to know about a restaurant setting in Victorian times was that it was extremely complex, with vases of flowers, candles, tablecloths, doilies, napkins, and the best crockery and silverware that could be afforded. Glasses were for water and wine (if it could be afforded).

Indian foods became very popular and recipes were imported from the British Empire and also used in America. So this was a time when curries and chutneys became popular. However, they were altered to suit European taste, much as still happens in many Indian restaurants.

The menu did not change from week to week (that is there were no regularly changing specials on a weekly basis). But there was a different menu for each day of the week, but it was, for example, the same menu for a Tuesday in March as it was for a Tuesday in October. So you would get boiled beef on one day, roast pork another, and always fish on Friday. In many places, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays were baking days, so extra treats were on the menu.

However, because this was still the time before long-term freezing, vegetables changed with the seasons. But the development of the railway had changed everything. Fish could be packed with crushed ice and could be delivered fresh to inland cities within a day. Beef could be brought from distant farms to cites by rail. And there were no shortages as there had been in previous centuries if crops failed, because if food failed in one area it could be brought in from somewhere else by rail.

This change meant that fish, which was once an expensive food, became a cheap food. So, to make use of this, the Victorians invented fish and chips, and fast food shops (fish and chip shops) were soon commonplace.

Food was becoming more reliable, and of a better quality. But there was not a great deal of thought to healthy eating. People were just glad to be able to eat. Victorians were very keen on meat and sweet foods. They did not think vegetables were important. That is in part because, down the centuries, vegetables had been connected with the poor. So you showed your wealth by not eating vegetables.

Sweets were very popular, often coloured. But the colourings used were not what we would use today - and for good reason. Gold and silver colours were achieved by the addition of copper and zinc. Iron was used to make blue colourings, and red was made by adding lead. Arsenic gave a lovely green colour!

Victorians loved long, complicated words, and this made their menus 'flowery'. So you might think of using words like epicurean delight (from epicurean, a gourmet), delectable and so on.

Here is a sample of an upper middle class late 19th century dinner menu:

Soup An imaginative delight of the cottage garden (in plain English: pea soup) and so on. You try these:

Oysters

Remove

Striped bass with fine herbs
Potato fritters

Entrees (a heavy, meat course)

Rump of beef
Noodles
Duck paupiettes
Tomatoes

Roast

Plovers

Salad

Hot Entremets (in plain English: dessert)

Rice croquettes with orange raspberry sauce
(Ice) Mousse of fruits with pineapple

So you can see it was very complex.