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!