Thursday 6 April 2023

F is for Food! Boring or not? Day 6 April A to Z blog Challenge

Welcome to Day 6 of my April A to Z Blog Challenge.


Food? Is that not a boring choice to use for the letter F? Victorian food definitely could be boring but it naturally depended on what your circumstances were.

My character Margaret has grown up in Milnathort, Fife, and is used to eating pretty plain fare. However, by the time she was born in 1839, some standards of food were much improved, supplies of milk being much better than before for many people. Having been reared in a fairly small rural town Margaret’s food would have been a much better quality than for working people in the cities. Fresh vegetables would have been onto Margaret’s noon dinner plate much more regularly than for those who scratched an evening meal after working all day in the city factories. She was also more likely to have had the occasional meats (cheaper cuts) and fish to eat, which again would have been of better quality and freshness than items transported from the farms and quaysides into the four main Scottish cities.

Porridge was a common breakfast for all working class people, a good item as it has long, slow-release energy properties. For Margaret, it was intended to break her night fast, though for many poor people it was the only thing they might eat in a day, save for some less good quality bread, or the cheapest meat cuts used for soups or stews. In large families, porridge would have been served in various thicknesses depending on the amount left in the larder: a thin brose, or gruel, went much further than a thick oatmeal.

When flour was able to be bought, cakes or buns would have been a treat for the poorer people in society. Seasonable fruit would have been sought from hedgerows or city markets when it was cheapest.

Dripping/animal fats/ lard was commonly spread on bread, a much cheaper option than butter. Jams tended to be afforded by the well-to-do because of the sugar content, which was pricey. People in the larger towns and cities had to be careful of the drinking water drawn from local wells or stand pipes, since it was often contaminated. Watered down beer or ale, or tea (when affordable), was drunk more regularly than tap water.

For the middle and upper classes, eating was much more of an art, their cuisine indicating the level of wealth.

Middle class families ate together more often, their food sometimes prepared by a cook who had studied French or foreign cuisine. The serving of middle class food was more elaborate than in the houses of the working class, but not nearly as rigid as dining for the upper classes.

Dinner at Haddo House- Edward Emslie

Society dining demanded many rules were adhered to and the use of crockery and cutlery was rigidly set and highly formal.

Like the poorest people in Victorian Scotland, Victorian middle and upper classes might have a porridge option at breakfast but they would also have many other hot choices – sausage, kidneys, bacon, eggs and often fish options like smoked haddock or kippered herring.

A heavy upper-class breakfast was often followed by a fairly hefty luncheon which may have included meat, potatoes and vegetables. Afternoon teas were common which tended to include delicate sandwiches; cakes; petit fours; biscuits; glazed fruits or chocolate delicacies. The final meal of the day tended to be a long-drawn-out dinner of many courses, which often went well into the evening if guests were attending. In upper class houses, not only was the table beautifully set for the many courses but changing clothes for luncheon, afternoon tea and then dinner was not uncommon.

To someone living in the 21st century this seems far too extravagant, even wasteful, but at the time the rigid presentation for such elaborate eating meant many servants and staff were employed to keep up the standards. The outdoor staff would have contributed to providing home grown vegetables, or home reared animals for meats and poultry for the table in countryside dwellings. The cook and his/her staff would have ensured beautifully presented and delicately cooked food for the table. A file of servants would serve the dishes on time, as dictated by the butler. Different household servants (chamber maids. laundresses, personal maids, valets etc.) would have ensured that the family were properly dressed and suitably presented.

In upper class Victorian Scotland, some recipes were tried and tested favourites, handed down from family to friends and family. Martha, Countess of Elgin in the late 1700s, had many of her recipes copied and used down the decades by upper class families. Her turtle soup (mock or otherwise) graced many elegant dining tables.

Mock Turtle

So, food for the upper and upper-middle classes was not just sustenance to prevent the employers from starving. Food for the poorest in society was definitely of the poorest quality and just enough to keep body and soul alive. 

In a later April A to Z post, I intend to give some insight into fabulous Victorian kitchen utensils that made life easier (never easy) for some Victorian servants. Look out for that one.


Mock Turtle- National Library of Scotland,_1884_by_Alfred_Edward_Emslie.jpg

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