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Cakes and Ale: the golden age of british feasting by Judy Spours

As anybody who knows me will testify, I enjoy my food, both eating and cooking. So it will be no surprise that I have chosen this as my featured book.

The Victorian age saw the rise of the middle classes and their desire for the refined things in life and there were a plethora of people to help them achieve this.

Celebrity chefs are by no means a modern phenomenon; Alexis Soyer, Isabella Beeton and Eliza Acton, all had books published on how to buy and cook food. They also gave advice to the emerging middle classes on household management. Entertaining at home was not just a matter of eating, it was equally important for business and social contacts as well.

Eliza Acton published her 'Modern Cookery for Private Families' in 1845. Eliza promoted fresh ingredients but she also included recipes for the new preserved foodstuffs that were beginning to become available, such as baking powder, instant custard and Bovril.

In her book, Judy Stours explains how "Packaged baking powder opened up a much wider range of cake making and pudding making." 

Even today I still use a  lemon rice pudding recipe that is an adaptation of one of Eliza Acton's original ideas and which is, by far, the best rice pudding my family has ever tasted.

Another woman who is probably more well-known was Mrs Beeton and her 'Book of Household Management'. Although her fame endures today she is widely acknowledged as having built upon many of the foundation ideas espoused by Eliza Acton.  The genesis of her great book, published in 1861, was a series of articles she wrote for her husband's publication 'The Englishwoman's Domestic Magazine'. The book is as much about how to instruct your household and manage your servants as it is about recipes and cooking.

Even Alexis Soyer, the celebrated chef of the Reform Club, wanted to write recipes "that would be of use to the artisan, cottager and mechanic". Among his published works were 'The Gastronomic Regenerator' and 'A Shilling Cookery for the People'

For those whose households did not run to servants, more convenience foods were coming onto the market which meant that cooking at home was made easier. Products such as desiccated coconut, Merrills' Ice Cream Mixture and powdered gelatine enabled Victorian cooks to be more adventurous in satisfying their love of puddings and cakes. Elaborate jellies and blancmanges were an impressive feature of Victorian dining. As Spours quotes in her book, "Entertaining was not just about the food, but also about the decoration of the table"

It was not just about eating, all this wonderful food was washed down with copious amounts of alcohol "In 1831, 254,000 gallons of French wine were imported, but by 1861 that figure had risen to 2,227,000 gallons."

An excerpt from 'Manners and Rules of Good Society' explains; "Sherry is always drunk after soup, Hock either with oysters before the soup or with fish after the soup, and Chablis sometimes takes the place of Hock. Champagne is drunk immediately after the first entrée has been served and so during the remainder of dinner until dessert. Claret, Sherry, Port and Madeira are the wines drunk as dessert and not Champagne, as it is essentially a dinner wine."

No wonder they often had digestive problems! 

All manner of food could also be bought on the streets, from pickled whelks to Chelsea buns and from milk to hot elder wine. That most traditional of British fare, fried fish, began to be sold by street vendors. Although not yet settled into the happy union with chips, fried fish was both popular and cheap and is believed to have its origins in the Jewish community ofLondon.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book is its celebration of food and eating in the period from the Great Exhibition of 1851 up to the sinking of the Titanic in 1911 and the consequent shift to austerity and hardship that came afterwards.

Contributed by Theresa

(Published 4th Dec 2014)

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