On Thursday 20 December, I gave a ‘Pavilion Tale’ talk at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, on ‘Festive Feasts: A Regency Christmas Extravaganza’. In this talk I explored Christmas food in the Regency period, with a special focus on Christmas dinner. Below, you’ll find a transcript of my talk.
Welcome to today’s Pavilion Tale, called ‘Festive Feasts: A Regency Christmas Extravagance’. This week I will be talking about some of the food eaten during the festive season by people living in the late Georgian and Regency period. The Georgian Christmas season ran from St Nicholas’ Day, December 6th, to Twelfth Night, January 6th. Certainly for the wealthy and those of the ‘middling sort’, the festive season was a month of games, balls, gift-giving, and of course, eating and drinking. My focus will be on the edible Christmas delights and delectations eaten by the wealthy and those of the ‘middling sort’.
Christmas dinner in wealthier households was usually eaten between six and seven in the evening. During the Regency period there was a move from serving food ‘a la francaise’ to ‘a la russe’. When dinner is served ‘a la francaise’, there are several courses, each with up to twenty items. Each course is laid out in an elaborate symmetrical pattern on the table, as we can see here in this engraving of a layout of a second course, from Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper from 1775. However, a different style of service was becoming popular during the Regency period: service ‘a la russe’. This style was made popular in Britain by George IV’s chef, Marie-Antoine Carême. Here, dishes are served sequentially – so that’s one after the other.
What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you think ‘Christmas dinner’?
The main courses in a wealthy Regency household would have been much more varied and unusual to our modern tastes. To whet your appetite, you might start with a soup. One popular soup in the Regency period was turtle soup, which is made from the meat and the green cartilage lining of a green turtle; you would need one turtle per guest to make enough soup. Turtles had to be imported from the Cayman Islands. Despite being an extremely expensive dish, turtle soup was so popular and sought after in the Regency period that it was always included on the banquet menu of the Lord Mayor of London, and the green turtle nearly went the way of the dodo – it was nearly hunted to extinction.
A variety of fish dishes would also be served at table. In The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy from 1788 there really is a fish dish for all seasons. This handy four hundred page guide to Georgian food helps you select the right dish for the right time of year. It states that the fish and seafood dishes appropriate for the Christmas quarter should use dorey, brile, gudgeons, gellin, smelts crouch, perch anchovy and loach, scallop and wilks, periwinkles, cockles, mussels, geare, bearbet or hollebet.
After your fish dish, you would be presented with the ‘main’ dish. Some of you mentioned earlier that you have turkey as part of your Christmas dinner today. Though turkeys had been introduced to Britain in the late sixteenth century, they did not become a central part of the Christmas dinner until the mid-nineteenth century, after they had been popularised by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. (There is, however, a delightful story of turkeys being driven from Norfolk to market in London wearing miniature booties during the nineteenth century.) Venison or roast beef were considered the ‘star’ of the table; roast beef was considered particularly traditional. Throughout the Georgian and Regency period, roast beef was considered a hearty meal, emblematic of British spirit and strength. After Henry Fielding published his ballad, ‘The Roast Beef of Old England’ as part of his Grub-Street Opera, roast beef was thought of as a patriotic British dish, a counterpart to food from ‘all-vapouring France’. This sense of patriotism around food would have been heightened during the Regency period, when British authorities were concerned about a French-style revolution and the Napoleonic Wars were in full swing. In the Regency period, roast goose was also a very popular dish at Christmas, one that was more accessible across social class. Indeed, roast goose was such a common Christmas dish that it has been immortalised in a children’s rhyme:
Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat
Please do put a penny in the old man’s hat
If you haven’t got a penny, a ha’penny will do
If you haven’t got a ha’penny, then God Bless You!
Brawn or ‘head cheese’, a terrine or meat jelly made of spices and the cleaned and boiled head of a calf or sheep would also have been served alongside the main meat dish – this would have been relatively cheap, and as it could be prepared before Christmas Day, would have reduced the number of dishes that needed cooking on the day itself. Mutton – meat from a sheep over two years old – may also have made an appearance at Regency Christmas dinner. Dishes based on game would also have been popular, particularly in wealthy households that liked to hunt. So by ‘game’ meat I mean pheasant, grouse, pigeon, partridge, bustard, and even peacock.
What vegetables do you have with your Christmas dinner?
In the Regency period, most households were limited by which vegetables were in season. This meant that your venison, beef, or goose would be accompanied by vegetables like carrots, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, turnips, and artichokes. Not all too different to the vegetables that go with our Christmas dinner today! Any fruit that accompanied your meal would probably have been turned into chutney or jam to preserve it. However, if you were particularly wealthy, say, an Earl, a Duke – or even a Prince Regent – you would be able to afford something slightly more exotic, like a pineapple, a melon, or some grapes! These would have been grown in hothouses owned by the household, and would have been extremely expensive to run. To give you an idea of scale the glasshouse of tropical plants at Chatsworth in the mid-nineteenth century used three hundred tonnes of coal per year to heat, and it only fell out of use during the First World War due to coal shortages. Meat and bread stuffing, and other accompaniments, would have been used to make the main meat dish ‘go further’.
Now, I hope you’re still hungry, as we are now on to the best bit of Christmas dinner – the pudding!
Talking puddings is particularly appropriate as Sussex is renowned for its puddings, a reputation that persists today as one food writer describes how ‘to venture into the county was to risk being turned into a pudding yourself’. And of course we are in the Royal Pavilion, the party palace for ‘Georgie Porgie pudding and pie’. Popular puddings in the Regency period included gingerbread, butter shortbread, syllabub (a sweet frothy drink – you can see examples of this on the Banqueting Room table), ginger nuts, and sugar plums. We can see some cones of sugar plums in the background of this print by James Gillray from 1797, called ‘Hero’s Recruiting at Kelsey’s’.
Then, as now, the pudding most associated with Christmas, is the Christmas pudding. In the Regency period Christmas puddings were also known as plum puddings, because one of the main ingredients was dried plums or prunes. There are satirical prints from the period that show a ‘plum pudding’, like this one where Pitt, the British Prime Minister, and Napoleon are carving up a plumb pudding that is actually a globe. The process of making a Christmas pudding started on ‘Stir-Up Sunday’, which took place on the Sunday before the first Sunday in Advent, and marked the ‘unofficial’ start to the Christmas season. On stir-up Sunday, the Christmas pudding was prepared in order for it to be ready for Christmas.
Now, why do you think it was called ‘stir-up Sunday’? It’s called ‘stir-up Sunday’ not for stirring all the ingredients together, but for the start of the traditional prayer used at the church service held on the Sunday before advent. This starts with the line ‘Stir up, we beseech thee, O Lord, the wills of thy faithful people’.
The humble Christmas pudding is a pudding full of symbolism. Traditionally, it is made from a mixture of thirteen ingredients, which represent Christ and his twelve apostles. All of the family members in a household take turns stirring the Christmas pudding with a special wooden spoon, which represents the stable and the rocking crib. Whilst they stir clockwise with their eyes closed, each person makes a wish during their turn with the spoon. Stirring the pudding clockwise, from East to West, is supposed to symbolise and honour the journey of the Magi.
If you wanted to ‘mix’ things up a bit, you could use the Christmas pudding to predict the future. To do this, you would add charms to the pudding, which would reveal the finder’s fortune. A thimble would signify spinsterhood or thrift, a ring symbolises marriage, a coin for wealth, a horseshoe or wishbone for good luck, and an anchor for safe harbour. After cooking, the Christmas pudding is served on fire with a sprig of holly on top. The holly is a reminder of Jesus’ crown of thorns and the flames represent the Passion of the Christ and the love and power of Jesus.
I hope you have enjoyed this quick journey through some of the Christmas food that was eaten during the Regency period. Please do visit the Banqueting Room to see the table decorations and some examples of some of the other puddings eaten at Christmas, which are set out on the table. I will be here for a few minutes so do feel free to come and ask any questions.
Thank you very much and happy Christmas!