Monday, 16 May 2011

Dining in 18th century England

Dinner in the eighteenth century was, as now, the main formal meal of the day and was originally taken at 12 noon. During the century however it gradually crept later to mid-afternoon, often at around 3pm or 4pm. In the cities, where 'fashionable hours' pushed everything later and later, dinner could be held at 7pm, significantly earlier than in the country. By the end of the long eighteenth century, in the Regency period, 7pm had been firmly established as the usual time for dinner. Throughout the period however class differences continued with the labouring class eating much earlier than the aristocracy.

In country houses, formal dress was worn for dinner and guests and hosts met in a saloon or drawing room first before filing into the dining room in order of precedence. Ladies sat at one end and gentlemen at the other. However by the end of the century 'promiscuous' seating was permitted where men and women sat alternately.

Dinner was a social affair and the vastness of the quantity of food and drink could be daunting to foreigners. Contemporary Francois De La Rochefoucauld wrote:

"Dinner is one of the most wearisome of English experiences lasting, as it does four or five hours."
Dinner usually consisted of three courses, the first being soup and fish, followed by a course of cooked dishes such as fricassees and ragouts and finally a course of meats such as roasts which were carved by the host in an elaborate symbolic display of their generosity. Then the tablecloth was removed and desert was served. (Incidentally the tablecloth was a huge piece of fabric reaching down to the floor and was used by guests to wipe their mouths until the early 19th century when napkins became fashionable.) Desert was not in fact puddings as we know them but generally fruits, nuts and sweetmeats displayed in beautiful china baskets as well as jellies, ices or syllabubs.  

Each course was laid out in its entirety by servants (service a la francaise), so a table was covered with all the different dishes of each course at once and this formed the table 'decoration'. Guests could either help themselves to dishes near to them or if they were lucky they could catch the eye of a footman so that they would bring them a dish from the other side of the table. However it was seen as rude to do this too often so it was common to have to suffice with dishes near to you and often food was cold by the time you ate it.

Service a la russe was introduced in Paris by the Russian Ambassador in c1810 and had eventually completely replaced service a la francaise by the 1860s. Rather than having all the different dishes served and displayed all together, now the table was laid out with a profusion of cutlery and crockery, flowers and decoration. Servants could then bring dishes to each guest and the tablecloth was retained for desert, and this service style would be much more familiar to modern diners.

A profusion of crockery and glasses in Service a la Russe

After desert, the servants would exit and there could be half an hour of wine drinking before the ladies retired to a drawing room to prepare and serve tea (at first green tea, then later black tea was more commonly drunk) while the gentlemen smoked and drank port. A servant then called the gentlemen to tea and coffee with the ladies, and cake or thinly sliced bread was eaten with the tea and these could be followed by cards and dancing. At midnight there may even have been a supper of foods such as cold meats and fruits before guests went home.

A surtout de table, in imitation of a garden

See also for useful information.