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!