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  • Writer's pictureTastes Of History

A Brief History of Food: Victorian Innovation

Updated: Feb 17

The Sun never sets When Victoria succeeded to the throne in 1837, Britain was already a global maritime trading power. From the late 16th century, Britain had spent nearly two centuries increasing its maritime and trading contact with Asia, Africa and the Americas. By the time Queen Victoria adopted the title of Empress of India in May 1876, Britain’s influence and access to exotic spices, foods and drinks extended across a quarter of the world.

By looking at three every day, popular beverages one can perhaps see the benefits of living in Victoria’s Empire. Tea, coffee and chocolate all had origins outside Europe; the first from the Far East and the latter two from the New World. Introduced in the 16th century, coffee became fashionable in 17th century English coffee houses where, for the price of a penny, customers purchased admission and a cup of coffee. Here people could gather to drink coffee, to socialise, learn the news of the day, and perhaps meet with others to discuss matters of mutual concern. The absence of alcohol created an atmosphere in which it was possible to engage in more serious conversation than in an alehouse. Coffee houses thus played a key role in both politics and the development of financial markets and newspapers.

Anyone for tea? Just ten years after first coffee house opened in Oxford in 1650, the English diarist Samuel Pepys mentions drinking tea for the very first time. As Pepys was a member of the wealthy and fashionable London set, his failure to mention tea drinking before his diary entry for September 25th, 1660 suggests it was an uncommon practice. This was soon to change.

Catherine of Braganza is said to have popularised the Portuguese habit of tea drinking in England after her arrival and marriage to King Charles II in 1662. She was familiar with tea as traders had been importing it from the East to Catherine’s homeland, Portugal, for some time. Its high price and exoticism helped tea drinking become very fashionable in aristocratic circles and at the royal court where Catherine grew up. Once in England, her taste for tea likewise became the vogue at the British royal court. Tea drinking’s popularity spread through aristocratic circles and then to the wealthier classes. By the 19th century, as the price of tea dropped, its use became widespread, and tea became a staple of Victorian Britain.

As for food At the beginning of Victoria’s reign Britain was still a rural nation with four-fifths of the population living in the countryside. Almost all food was still produced locally and since most people lived in the countryside, they had ready access to it. For most, seasonal crops would be supplemented with preserved and pickled foods.

The Industrial Revolution rapidly gained pace during Victoria's reign largely due to the harnessing of steam power. Victorian engineers developed bigger, faster and more powerful machines that could run whole factories. The substantial increase in the number of factories, particularly textile factories or mills, and the invention of new machines that could perform labour intensive tasks in a fraction of the time left many people out of work. The rural population flocked to the towns in search of jobs in the new industries. By the middle of the 19th century over 50% of the population lived in towns and cities.

Much as today, there was great disparity between rich and poor. While the wealthy ate a tremendous amount, and wasted far too much of it, a large proportion of the population relied on a simple diet of bread, dripping, vegetables, and tea. With such a dramatic increase in the urban population it became imperative to find new ways to transport and store food. The arrival of steam ships and the railways made it possible to move the basic foodstuffs - grain, flour, potatoes, root vegetables and beer - at speed and over greater distances.

Other innovations making food distribution easier included long-life products such as condensed milk, dried eggs and soups, and bottled sauces. In 1865 Britain’s first meat-canning factory was established, and by the 1870s almost every middle-class kitchen had a tin opener. By the 1880s refrigerated transport became possible allowing meat for example to be moved over even greater distances. Large-scale imports of meat from the Americas meant it became cheaper and a regular part of the diet of all classes for the first time.

Imperial influences During the period of British rule over India, known as the British Raj (1858 to 1947), the Victorians started appropriating and adapting Indian recipes to create an Anglo-Indian cuisine with dishes such as Kedgeree (1790) and Mulligatawny soup (1791). Indian food was served in coffee houses from 1809 and cooked at home from a similar date as cookbooks of the time attest. In her cookbook Modern Cookery for Private Families (1845), Eliza Acton recorded recipes for curries which, being a favourite dish of Queen Victoria, became evermore popular amongst ordinary Britons. Today curry is considered a national dish.

Popular cookbooks During the Victorian era, the diverse nature of English cooking was finally collected and made available to the middle classes by a series of popular books. Certain authors became household names. One of the first was Mrs Rundell whose cookbook, A New System of Domestic Cookery, was published in 1806. It went through sixty-seven editions by 1844, selling hundreds of thousands of copies in Britain and America. A year later food writer and poet Elizabeth ‘Eliza’ Acton's Modern Cookery for Private Families was published. This was one of Britain's first cookbooks aimed at the domestic reader and, uniquely, introduced the practice of listing ingredients and giving suggested cooking times for each recipe. Acton's innovative layout described the cooking process followed by listing the ingredients and the total cooking time required for the preparation of the dish.

Modern Cookery contains mainly English recipes, although Acton labelled several of them ‘French’. One chapter, however, focuses on curries and provides recipes for Eastern ‘chatneys’ (or chutney), which are treated as naturalised Anglo-Indian dishes rather than of exclusively Indian origin. In a series of firsts, the book contains the earliest mention of ‘Christmas pudding’, which had hitherto been called ‘plum pudding’, the first recipe for brussels sprouts, and the first use in an English cookbook of the word ‘sparghetti’ [sic.].

Rather unfairly Acton’s work has been overshadowed by the most famous English cookery book of the Victorian era, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management. In 1857, when Isabella Beeton began writing the cookery column for The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine, edited and published by her husband, Samuel, many of her recipes were taken from readers’ submissions or plagiarised from other works, especially Eliza Acton’s Modern Cookery. In 1859 the Beetons launched a series of 48-page monthly supplements to The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine. When October in 1861 the 24 instalments were published in one volume as Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, the book went on to sell 60,000 copies in the first year, and nearly two million copies in the next seven years to 1868.

Unlike Acton, whose book was to be read and enjoyed, Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management was a manual of instructions and recipes to be referenced as needed. If evidence of her plagiarism was needed, then Beeton’s recipes copy the novel layout of Acton's Modern Cookery, albeit with one major alteration. Where Acton’s specifies the method of cooking followed by a list of the required ingredients, Beeton lists the timings and components before the cooking process. This latter format is still the commonest format today.

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