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A food history story and recipe every weekday of the year.
Over the years I have posted quite a
number of menus for late nineteenth century civic and other official dinners. I think it is fair to say that, looked at with
modern eyes and tastes, those formal menus appear drearily predictable and
ponderous. They were, of course, also written in French, and I have no doubt
that the guests knew exactly the ingredients and style of each dish, even if they had no other skills with the
The report of the dinner that I have for
you today suggests that these guests may have not, however, have always taken
the process quite as seriously as we tend to believe.
The tradition of London’s “Ceylon
Dinners” continued for many decades in the late nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, as a celebration of Britain’s imperial motives and achievements in
the country we now call Sri Lanka. An article in the Hindu Organ, of 29th January, 1908 briefly summarises
the rationale for the tradition:
The Ceylon dinner in England brings together all Ceylonese young
men who are at that time residents in the British Isles as also such
Britishers, retired officials and others, as have the welfare of the Ceylonese
at heart, and sympathise with their aspirations. The function affords an
opportunity for the sons of Ceylon scattered over in different parts of Great
Britain and Ireland not only to become acquainted with each other but also to ventilate
the grievances of their country in England before the British public.
Hindu Organ, 29th Jan. 1908.
The Ceylon dinner for which I am going
to give you the menu details today took place on January 22, 1875, and was duly
reported in the Ceylon Observer
(Colombo) a few months later – because the British folk doing their colonial
service in the far reaches of Her Majesty’s empire were ever keen to know what
was happening “at home.”
The writer begins:
For, there was a Ceylon dinner at the Criterion last night. Thirty
Ceylon men sat down to feed, in number two of the establishment at the corner
of Piccadilly Circus, John Anderson, Esquire, in the Chair; and there were the
Patriarch of Uva, the Patriarch of Dimbula, other Patriarchs and merchant
Princes, and last, though not least, Mr. John Capper, Prince of Editors. To begin with the beginning, this, what
follows was the
MENU OF THE BILL OF FARE.
Ponche à La
– sauce homard
one’s saucy Hoer with
de merlans piqué
and a marlin spike.
Mark and Burn.
volaille à la financière.
wool oily tal de ral de ral de rido.
Hide and Seek.
de veaux piquéaux petits pois
and woe of picked clean and skinned planters.
Dry mon and pale
quarter of Agent with
salad and sauce.
goose that lays the golden eggs.
chaudes au curacoa
hot, in curacao.
Hide and Seek.
Dry mon and pale.
au fromage parmesan.
comes into the garden, Maud of age.
glazed and fired.
Port old and tawny.
I have not come across such a “free
translation” of a standard menu of the era before, and I do wonder at the
motivation for it being provided. What do you think?
As for the recipe for the day, I have
chosen from Savouries à la Mode (London,
1886) by Mrs. De Salis (Harriet Anne.)
Ramequins au Fromage.
Crumble a small stale roll and cover it
with a breakfastcupful of milk, which must be quite boiling; after it has well soaked, strain and put it in the
mortar with four ounces of Parmesan and four ounces of Gloucester cheese
grated, four ounces of fresh butter, half a teaspoonful of made mustard, a little
salt and pepper, and a saltspoonful of sifted sugar. These ingredients must be
all well pounded together with the yolks of four eggs, adding the well-whipped
whites of the eggs. Half fill the paper cases or china moulds with this, bake
them in a quick oven about ten to fifteen minutes, and serve hot as possible.
Modern recipe writers generally note how
many persons a dish will serve, and they occasionally suggest accompanying
dishes or even complete menus. They don’t however, feel the need to advise how
many staff will be needed to serve a suggested menu. In previous times, when
servants were found in almost all homes, except those of the lowest classes, this
must have been most useful advice.
The popular book The Complete Family Cook; Being a System of Cookery, Adapted to the
Tables not only of the Opulent, but of Persons of Moderate Fortune and
Condition (fourth edition, 1796) by Menon (writer on cookery) and S. Taylor
(writer on cookery) gave suggested menus for meals for different occasions, of
varying degrees of seriousness, requiring from five to twelve servers.
Today I have chosen a supper menu from the
book, for your late 18th century self, on the assumption that you have
a moderate fortune and have five servants at your disposal.
A Table of Twelve Covers for Supper, served
A leg of mutton
roasted for the middle
Four dishes (entrées); veal
la Lyonnoise, a beef rump en matelote,
a duck with
turnips, two chickens en giblotte.
A sallad for the
Two dishes (plats
a young turkey, a young duck.
A plate with
Plate with a remoulade
in a sauce [pan?unreadable]
Five small dishes,
(entremets); cheese-cakes for the middle, eggs with streaked bacon,
bread fritters, burnt cream.
Iced cheese for
the middle, or a bowl of fruit.
Compote of apples à la Portugaise.
Compote of peaches.
Two plates of
Plate of grapes.
As the recipe for the day, I give you Burnt
Cream, from the same book.
two spoonfulls of flour, mixed by little and little with the whites and yolks
of four eggs, into a stew-pan, with half a spoonfull of orange-flower water,
and a little green lemon peel shred very fine: moisten them with a gill of
milk, and put in a little salt, and two ounces of sugar; let it simmer half an
hour over a flow fire, constantly stirring ; then put a bit of sugar, with half
a glass of water into your dish; set it upon a stove over a good fire, and let
it boil till of the colour of cinnamon, and then, pour in the cream: have
a large knife to spread the sugar which remains on the rim of the dish upon the
cream, taking care to do it quickly.
An American “Southern Food Expert and
Lecturer” by the name of Bessie R. Murphy compiled and edited a wonderful set
of books called the Three Meals a Day
Series during World War II. Each volume was dedicated to
To be used by
The editor explains her mission in the
This little series of books is a collection of tested and economical
recipes for everyday foods that are obtainable everywhere and suitable for any
of the three meals of the day. These recipes are written in plain, everyday
terms. They are not all original — the authors of many of them are unknown.
They form just a little series of everyday books for everybody from everywhere.
The World War gave every homemaker an opportunity to realize the
difference between use and abuse of foods. For years we have wasted much of the
bountiful supply of food produced by our country. Let us then not go backward,
but let us go forward, bending every energy to make lasting the benefit in
health and economy gained from a diet that not only eliminates extravagance and
waste in buying and serving, but also affords greater variety.
The recipes in this series call for flour, sugar, and butter. To
conserve these three foods just as long as our country and the peoples of
Europe need them is the loyal and patriotic duty of — not the other fellow —
The principle concept was to give recipes based
on a single staple item which were suitable for one or more of the three main
meals of the day. I do love that theme. To date I have found volumes focused on
rice, corn meal, peanuts, legumes, salad and potatoes. I have featured several
of these in previous posts (see the links below) but have not so far covered
the potato – which is a strange oversight given that I have not yet met a
potato I didn’t like. Today I want to rectify that omission.
Note that in the following recipes the
editor refers to the white potato as the “Irish” or “English” potato (Solanum tuberosum) to distinguish it
from the sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas)
– which, to add confusion to the puzzle, is in some regions referred to as the
yam (Family Dioscoreaceae) which it most certainly is not. Sweet potatoes are
covered in the second half of the book, and I will surely make them the subject
of another post in the future.
So, how do you fancy your breakfast
For my American friends, who persist in calling
a scone a biscuit, and a biscuit a cookie (in spite of which I love you anyway)
I have chosen:
Irish Potato Biscuit
cup mashed potatoes 1
cup flour 1
teaspoons baking powder ½
cup milk (scant)
the dry ingredients. Add these to the potatoes, mixing well. Work in lightly
the butter and lard. Add gradually enough milk to make a soft dough. Put it on floured
board, roll lightly to about inch thickness, cut in biscuit shape, place in
greased pan, and bake in hot oven.
For my own breakfast, I have chosen
Irish Potato Omelet
cup potatoes (mashed) 3
the eggs and separate the yolks and the whites. Beat the yolks and add them to
the potatoes, beating until mixture is light and there are no lumps. Add seasoning.
Beat the whites until they are stiff and carefully fold them into the mixture.
Put the omelet into a well-greased frying pan and bake it in the oven until it
is brown. Turn the omelet out on a hot platter and serve it at once.
For dinner, I feel sure that the concept of
cheesy mashed potatoes will not cause any international disagreement:
Irish Potato and Cheese
cups cooked potatoes 2
tablespoons grated cheese ¼
the potatoes through a sieve, melt the butter in a saucepan, add the potatoes,
and mix well. Then add the milk, half the cheese, and the seasoning. Put into well-greased
baking dish, sprinkle the rest of the cheese on the top, and bake in hot oven
about 10 minutes.
1 ¼ cups sugar ½ teaspoon each nutmeg and cinnamon
tablespoons butter 1 teaspoon
cup mashed potatoes
cup milk Flour
teaspoons baking powder
one-half of the sugar with the butter. Add the remaining sugar and the milk to
the well-beaten eggs. Combine the two mixtures. To the cooled potatoes add the
dry ingredients sifted together. Mix thoroughly, put on a well-floured board,
and roll out and cut. Fry a few doughnuts at a time in deep hot fat.
It is supper time, and what better time to
use up leftover mashed potato and cold cooked meat? And as a bonus, you don’t need
to put the deep fryer away after dinner!
cups mashed potatoes 1
cup cold cooked meat Bread
¼ teaspoon salt Dash of paprika
teaspoon onion juice 1
the mashed potatoes, add the salt, pepper, onion juice, and half the parsley.
Mix well. Add the rest of the parsley to the chopped meat and season well.
Flatten out a teaspoonful of the potato mixture and place a teaspoonful of the
meat mixture in the center. Fold the potatoes around the meat, then shape into
a roll, being sure that the meat is well covered. Roll balls in bread crumbs,
then in the well-beaten egg, again in bread crumbs, and fry in hot fat until a
As a final act of homage to the potato, I
give you the instructions from the book for drying your own potatoes:
many parts of the country, owing to weather conditions and improper storage,
hundreds of bushels of potatoes spoil by rotting. To prevent this waste the potatoes
can be dried. Blanch the potatoes about 3 minutes in boiling water, remove,
peel, and slice or cut into cubes. Dry in the sun, in oven of the stove, or in
a homemade dryer. When they are dry, run them into a hot oven until heated
through. This will prevent bugs and weevils. Put into jars or cans. Soak the
potatoes ½ hour before using them.
In 1823 a French liberal economist
called Jérôme-Adolphe Blanqui visited England and Scotland. The narrative of
his travels was later published under the title Voyage d’un jeune Français en Angleterre et en Ecosse, pendant l’automne
de 1823. The book was discussed at length and quoted from quite extensively
in The Westminster Review (Vol. 4, 1825,)
a quarterly British publication founded by the political radical Jeremy Bentham.
The editors of The Westminster Review justified their
interest in the book thus:
The book we are now going to notice is
neither the work of a slanderer of our women, our institutions and our manners,
like the famous performance of the Knight of the Hulks, alias the Chevalier
Pillet; nor is it the production of an outrageous Anglomane, furious in defence
of everything English, for no other reason than because he misunderstands our
language, and can misapply some misquoted passages from our poetry: but it is
the genuine effusion of a genuine Frenchman, sufficiently inclined to libéralisme of all kinds, and equally
disposed to regard with indulgence the barbarism of our customs, and with
horror our treatment of his great idol Bonaparte. It is in short a publication,
which will be looked upon in the French provinces, and among certain classes in
the French capital itself, as an
authority on the subject of England; and it is on this account, and because
we know that it expresses the opinion of nine-tenths of the French, on the
subject of English manners, that we shall notice it at so much length here.
Naturally, what is of most
interest to us here on this blog is the French visitor’s view of English food:
…. At last the author is
introduced, "avec le cérémonial inévitable, dans la salle à manger (dining-room).
“The dinner, without soup,
consists of a raw and bloody beef-steak, plentifully powdered with pepper and spices, and covered with slices of
horse-radish, similar, in appearance
and size, to the chips which come from under the plane of the carpenter. The
beef-steak is immediately followed by a plate or two of vegetables in naturalibus, that is to say, plain
boiled: then a cruet-stand with five or six bottles, containing certain drugs, out of which you choose
the ingredients necessary for giving some taste to the insipid mess. Sometimes
a fowl succeeds these dishes of the primitive
ages: but the English themselves agree that
chickens with them, are tougher than beef, and therefore they prefer ducks.
I was thus enabled to understand, why our deck on quitting Havre was so crowded
with French fowls. [We appeal to every one who has ever been in France, whether
the flesh of French fowls does not resemble ivory in all but whiteness.] The
dinner finishes with a heavy tart made of cherries, plums, or apples, according
to the season— taking care always to leave the stones in them.”
So much for the dinner—now
for the wines and the dessert:
“The English have rather more
variety in their drinks: the porter, the small beer, and the ale, which is between the two, and better than
either. The wines in use are port, madeira, and sherry, which they drink
always without water, though abundantly charged with brandy. From thence,
perhaps, arises the bright scarlet complexions, injected with blue, and the
carbuncled noses of almost all the English gastronomes. After the raw beef and
potatoes were removed, we were consoling ourselves, in our absence from France,
by talking of its glory and its pleasures, when the waiter appeared with the
dessert, consisting of an enormous cucumber, flanked with four raw onions
bedded in watercresses: des gateaux de
plomb (plumb-cakes) worthy of their name, and what he called Cheshire
cheese. At the sight of these preparations for poisoning us, we all deserted
the table. Let it not be said that the description of a dinner is an
unimportant matter: besides, English good cheer being absolutely the same in
every inn, tavern, and hotel, in the three kingdoms, it is right to prepare
Frenchmen for the enjoyments they are to expect on the other side of the
One of the most popular English cookery books
at the time of M. Blanqui’s visit was Apicius
Redivivus, or the Cook's Oracle, by the eccentric Dr. William Kitchiner, first
published in 1817. The 1823 edition (I am not sure about the earlier editions)
includes a recipe for “Potatoes fried in Slices or Shavings” – which you may or
may not agree are a form of “chips,” “crisps,” or even “French Fries.” Take that, M. Blanqui.
Potatoes fried in Slices or Shavings.
Peel large potatoes, slice them about a
quarter of an inch thick, or cut them in shavings round and round, as you would
peel a lemon; dry them well in a clean cloth, and fry them in lard or dripping.
Take care that your fat and frying-pan are quite clean; put it on a quick fire;
watch it, and as soon as the lard boil, and is still, put in the slices of
potatoe, and keep moving them until they are crisp; take them up and lay them
to drain on a sieve; send them up with a very little salt sprinkled over them.