Immerse Yourself in Regency Historical Romance

Tag: food

What was Regency Food Like?

Today, we don’t think a lot about our food – we can get most any kind of food, all year round, just with a quick trip to our local supermarket. So we eat whatever grabs our attention, whatever we particularly like, maybe what’s on special, or what we can afford. But we don’t think about what went into making that
food available to us.

In Regency times, there were far more limitations on food. There was no
global transport infrastructure, beyond ships that took months to go from
one part of the world to another. There was no refrigeration (although snow
and ice was used in winter, and there was a trade in big blocks of ice cut from
the high snowbound mountain tops and transported to the cities for those who could afford it), and there were limited, very expensive, greenhouses.

So food was grown and used in fairly close local areas. Food that could be transported further had to be foods which were preserved in some way (pickles, jams, salted meats, alcohol etc). And, most importantly, food was only available when it was in season, in the relatively close district.That meant that many foods were only available for a few months each year.

In Winter, food options were limited, unless you were fabulously wealthy, and could afford to have a greenhouse, with hot air piped from a system based on a wood-burning boiler, on your property, and a dedicated gardener to grow foods out of season. Most poorer people lived through winter on stored vegetables, which were kept in cellars, so that the cold of the earth made them last longer, plus porridge and other ‘gruel-like’ things, with small amounts of meats and the old stored vegetables added. plus apples etc that were months old, and shrivelled as a result.

Sugar, salt and spices were enormously expensive, so they were not often available to ordinary people. Food could get very bland.

For the aristocracy, who could afford the best, it was still a challenge to get it. The ‘things don’t grow much in winter’ issue still existed, as did the fact that foods have a season. Some things could be brought from France or Spain by ship, if they were items that could stand a few days to a week or so in transit, without refrigeration – but you can imagine the cost!

Meat was also a challenge, even for those who could afford it. With no refrigeration, meat needed to either be salted and preserved in some way, or to be consumed within a day or two of the animal being slaughtered – or it went off, especially in summer.  The creation of heavily spiced dishes, in many parts of the world, was a direct result of them needing to disguise the taste of slightly off meat.

So for our aristocratic heroes and heroines, who blithely eat opulent many course meals, there was always a cook or a chef and a small army of kitchen servants, working in the background, to do miracles with whatever was available in that location, in that season. One of the reasons that the wealthy had country estates was that those estates not only provided income from the produce that was sold, but also ensured the best possible variety of foods available on the table of the estate’s noble owner.

Next time you trundle that shopping trolley through the supermarket, and pick up fresh fruit or veg with a label that says ‘produce of XXX’ where XXX is a country on the other side of the world, spare a though for people in the regency era, and the limitations they faced with food!

How Did They Buy and Store Food?

Today, we go to the supermarket to do our weekly (or sometimes daily) shopping, we bring it home and store a lot of what we buy in the refrigerator, and we
think nothing of being able to get a wide range of fruits and other foods all
year round, even though we know that those things are only in season near
us for a few months of the year.  But what happened in Regency times?

In Regency times there were no refrigerators……  there was no supermarket…….  there was no easy global transportation….

So what did they do?

Lets start with the shopping.  In major cities and towns, there were large farmer’s markets – places where anyone who grew produce of any kind, to sell, came each day to sell, and the housewives, or the cooks and housekeepers of the nobility, came early each morning to buy.  Because there was no refrigeration (unless you were a wealthy aristocrat and could afford to have large blocks of ice brought in regularly, at great expense…), it was critical that the end consumer get the foods as soon as possible after they were picked / killed / baked, so that they could be consumed before they went off.

There were bakers, who baked bread and cakes every day, there were butchers, although the way that they operated was very different from today, and meats were often rather more ‘aged’ when they got to the consumer than we would consider acceptable now. There were starting to be a range of ‘dry goods stores’ which stocked flours, nuts, dried foods (always air dried and sun dried..) etc, that would not go off so easily.

So a wide range of food was available on any one day.  But that range varied wildly throughout the year, as, with horses the primary form of transport, things could not easily or quickly be brought long distances and stay fresh (or anything close to it).  There were some vendors, who sold to the nobility, who did have special carriages designed to transport food with large blocks of ice to preserve it longer, but obtaining the ice was costly (in summer – winter made that a lot easier…..).

Once the daily shopping was done (and that could be a huge thing in itself, for a large home of the aristocracy, especially if a Ball or other large entertainment was planned), and everything brought home, how was it stored?

Almost all houses had cellars.  Not just for wine (although that was stored there too), but for food storage.  Why a cellar? because cellars are colder than above ground, and stay that way for most of the year, kept cool by the earth around them.  If it was available at that time of year, and could be afforded, blocks of ice might also be bought and put in the cellar to make it colder still. So foods that needed to be kept fresh (like meats and fruit) were stored in cellars.  But cellars could be a bit damp, so foods that needed to stay dry (like flour, nuts, dried fruit, dried herbs etc) were stored in large pantry rooms on the ground floor of the house, usually next to the kitchen.

Purchased foods were also supplemented by foods grown in the kitchen garden attached to the house (almost all houses in the country would have a food producing garden, and any house in the city with even a small amount of garden would have part of it planted with herbs and foods). Herb gardens were very popular with the nobility, because they could be pretty, and smell wonderful, as well as provide flavours for their food, and materials for perfumes, lotions, clothes fresheners etc.

Food preserving techniques were also used whenever possible, from making jams and other preserves, to drying food, to pickling, salting, storing in oil, or storing in alcohols.  Many of the foods that we have today came into existence because someone was looking for a way to make their meagre food supplies last longer, or to keep the flavours of summer available in winter.

So next time you eat a delicious antipasto platter, or have jam on toast, think about how inventive people were in earlier times, and be thankful!