The dinner detective

Gosh, I’m back! Soz, I’m working on a book, and it turns out to be even more work than a PhD. However, it also turns out to be the most fun I can possibly have, and, with only two months to go until I submit the manuscript, I am already having mild conniptions at the thought of being bookless in the autumn. However, it probably will mean more time to add to this occasional blog, and almost certainly many of those posts will be shamelessly self-promotional and you’ll all learn way more about Queen Victoria than you ever wanted to – and if you don’t, then BUY MY BOOK (getting into it already). (You can’t actually BUY MY BOOK yet anyway, but it should be out late spring next year, so you might be able to pre-order it at some stage). Trust me, I will be tweeting about it like a broken record.

In a sort of vaguely linked-to-the-book, but largely fortuitous scenario, I have been working with Historic Royal Palaces and the University of Reading on their soon-to-be-over (sorry – but it is re-running at the end of the year) FutureLearn MOOC (Massive Open Online Course – free and lovely educational courses on all manner of things, run through the Open University’s latest platform). It’s called A History of Royal Food and Feasting, and covers off the food (obvs) of some of the monarchs associated with the palaces run by HRP. My ‘bit’, apart from being generally helpful with recipes and such like, was the Victorian section, which I had great fun with, doing some writing, some videos, and wincing every time the video of me making a cake came on (I have dreadful hair in it). One of the more challenging moments was coming up with 5 minutes worth of material on Victoria’s 17th birthday dinner, which was held at Kensington Palace in 1836 during the first visit of Prince Albert to the UK (he was ill, and had to come home early from the ball which followed the dinner – Victoria was terribly sad, but still stayed out partying until 2.30am). The challenge, one which learners on the course have remarked upon, is that we know quite literally nothing about it.

It would be nice if the young princess had given us a menu or even a hint at the dishes for her birthday meal but, as is pretty characteristic, in her journal for the day she merely says, ‘at 7, we dined‘. The dinner wasn’t the focus of the evening anyway – that was the ball (and her presents, but still). The journals of Queen Victoria are, on the face of it, an amazing resource for anyone studying her and her reign, and indeed, they are – but the early ones were written with the audience of her mother in mind, and the later ones were edited to hell and back by her daughter Beatrice who took out many of the everyday things her mother talked about – names of servants, for example. They are selective, and do not always give the details that the avid researcher is looking for, as is exactly the case here. When using them, they do have to be read with other sources, and, when it comes to food, those sources are not always obvious. Not only that but, while you might assume that royal record-keeping was meticulous, things do get lost over the years, and records might be destroyed. For Victoria’s childhood, which includes this birthday dinner, the household wasn’t part of the main royal establishment, which means that both the keeping and the preservation of records were not subject to the same rigour as they were at, say, Windsor. When Victoria became Queen, her menus were carefully written into dining ledgers, which detail what she ate, and sometimes the quantities of meat in specific dishes. The run is not complete though, and doesn’t include all of the palaces, so even then it’s impossible to say what she ate throughout her whole life. The supply books for the palaces give a bit more detail, or rather, different detail, and sometimes the newspapers of the time feature an article or two with a tiny glimpse of the food. But it’s still hard to decipher exactly what was eaten on any given day, and that’s with good record-keeping. While there are accounts of some of the festivities at Kensington in newspapers, this one escaped comment, and the other records don’t exist for the 17th birthday meal, because all of the records of life at Kensington were destroyed by Victoria’s mother’s Comptroller (and general villain of the piece), John Conroy, and his successor, in an attempt to hide the rather blatant fraud he’d been practising on her for much of the time he occupied that position.

So where do we start? We know a little about the household in general: they had a French cook, probably a man called Chevassot, as a cook of that name started work in the Royal Household on the day of Victoria’s succession, and he almost certainly had male help, as well as female help, for there are references to male cooks as well as maids in the inventories drawn up after Victoria moved out. The kitchen in 1836 was reasonable, for the Duchess of Kent (Victoria’s mother) had managed, after years of wrangling, to have a new kitchen built in her apartments, replacing the old kitchen which was still that built by William III (it was converted into a chapel). Plans for this new kitchen exist in the Royal Collection, so we can see what was in it – probably – assuming it was built as planned. It included a roasting range, ovens, steam-heated hot closet and chafing stoves, among other fixtures. We can also make assumptions about dishes which would have been served based on a couple of inventories, including one of the Duke of Kent’s kitchen before his death in 1819, which lists jelly moulds, ice cream making equipment and various pans, dariole moulds etc, which help to build up a general idea of what could have been cooked. His crockery lists are included in the same volume. We know as well that the dinner would have been served à la Française, as that was the prevailing style at the time, and, as an aristocratic meal designed to show off to visitors, it almost certainly consisted of a first course of two types of soup, two fish, four entrees, possibly with a remove dish or two replacing the soup or fish before diners dug into the entrees, and then a second course of game, vegetables in a sauce, sweet puddings, fruit tarts and patisserie, ending with dessert of fresh fruit and ices.

We do not know, and never will know, what the menu was. But – to me- that’s part of the fun. One of the joys of the book has been teasing out information and weaving it together like a jigsaw with half the pieces missing to form a fairly good – but never entirely exact – picture of the whole. Gaps are good, gaps are interesting, gaps make the writer and the reader work together as one. Certainly the comments from learners on the HRP course have indicated that they are engaging with the material and the challenges of historical research, and that they are forming their own opinions based on the available evidence. OK, some people are citing wikipedia at each other (grrrr), but in general there’s a real spirit of curiosity as they get to grips with things which, let’s face it,  are unusual in the current media environment: experts, admitting they don’t know for sure, but showing solid evidence to enhance understanding for all. I suppose that some learners may have expected simple facts and figures, but history (and, indeed, life) doesn’t really work like that. Engaging with the process is at least as important as finding out the stuff (more, really, for the facts are largely irrelevant in many ways – though my advice is not to try and argue that in your first year of an undergraduate history course as it leads to nastiness). That said, stuff can be enlightening, and at the very least, every learner was encouraged to practice what the course preached, and cook and eat historic recipes as well.

The course will run again later in 2016: click here to register interest.

Press release here about THE BOOK, which was shortlisted for the Jane Grigson Trust Award earlier this year (amazing: was most chuffed).