(from guest blogger Virginia Cunningham)
Jane Austen, the author of Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey and Emma has become something of a symbol for old England to many people. The time Austen lived in was actually known as the Regency period or Regency era.
While much of what we consider to be part of traditional English culture was formed in this era, many of the customs and traditions of the time bear little resemblance to anything we might think of as traditionally English. Some food items, like the still-prepared roast beef and vegetables, were introduced during the Regency period, while others have long been forgotten. In fact, they might even be considered strange by today’s standards.
Jane Austen, who lived a relatively modest life, often would have prepared her own meals along with her family. To shed some light on this version of England that no longer exists, let’s take a look at some of the foods Austen and others would have eaten during that time.
Meat dishes were a major part of the Regency period diet, even for the less wealthy families; however, much of the meat consumed was of fairly low quality if it wasn’t butchered locally, since it would have traveled many miles before being consumed.
Among the most common meat dishes were fowl dishes. Roast fowl cooked over an open fire and served with a simple sauce (usually made of shallots or mushroom gravy) was common. Fowl dishes, like fricassee of pigeon and stewed larks, were also popular. While roast fowl with shallot sauce or similar dishes might still be on the menu around the world, stewed larks aren’t particularly common anymore.
Boiled meats like veal, liver of calf, pork butt and whole turkey, were also common. Boiling isn’t a common method of preparing meat any longer for obvious reasons, but it was often done to combat any potential bacteria that could come from less-than-fresh meat.
The period also marked a point in English culinary history when tomatoes, potatoes and carrots became very popular, and were commonly served with just about every meal except breakfast. These vegetables were commonly boiled, often alongside meats and served with few garnishes.
Forced cabbage – a dish prepared where a cabbage is par-boiled and stuffed with bacon, veal and eggs before being cooked in a strong beef stock – was also quite popular.
Sugar was very important in the Regency period and played a major socioeconomic part in the development of the country around this time. As a result, sugar was available to almost everybody and was used frequently, even in savory dishes.
Sugar was commonly used in breakfast foods, as plum cakes, pound cake and bread and butter, often served with sugar. Small pastries were common snacks for many people during the day, usually served alongside a cup of tea. Desserts made from rich custards that contain ample sugar, butter and heavy cream were readily available and regularly consumed.
At this point in England’s history, it was most common for people to wake up early and consume breakfast a few hours later. This was typically followed by a light snack around mid-day.
Dinner typically started around six in rural areas, and families and individuals in the city typically dined around eight. This particular period marked the latest dining hours of the era, which are still somewhat common today.
While you might consider some of the foods consumed by Regency era individuals like Jane Austen to be a bit strange – especially those stewed larks – the fact is that most people in England around that time had plenty of food and received adequate nutrition. Agriculture had come a long way around since the start of the period in 1811, and people of all classes benefitted.
Many of the foods eaten regularly during the Regency period are no longer served, but it should pointed out that it was a time when cooks and chefs started to incorporate French technique into their cooking. This, along with access to ample amounts of food, helped push England toward the culinary traditions most are familiar with today.
Virginia Cunningham is a writer for Northwest and mother of three who loves writing about food, history and good reads! Her writing also covers the health, marketing and beauty industries.