The EU and the UK are now negotiating the terms of their new relationship after Brexit. Food supply problems are a very real potential problem, but Britain is also having a food-related identity crisis: what will happen to its cosmopolitan and global diet? Will it end up having to replace olive oil with lard or gateau with steamed pudding? Is it destined to return to a diet of roast beef – or Quorn, for the vegetarians?
The question of what it might mean to be both British and European, however, is one that has been asked for longer than the past three years. Our research team is examining Britishness and European identity, focusing on the eating habits of the English at the end of the 18th century – the first age of nationalism.
We started our project when we came across a book of menus – not yet available online, sadly – written by William Gorton, the steward at Kew Palace. His job was to keep track of food bought and served at the palace, since even George III had to answer to the taxpayer.
The menus reveal that even though England and France were often at war in the 18th century, the British royal family ate a lot of dishes with French-sounding names. Dishes such as “gateau a la duchesse” and “mutton roulade” were frequently on the tables of King George and Queen Charlotte, the equerries or officers of the royal household and pages, and the princesses and their governess.
For the royal household, French food was not associated with a specific European identity – indeed, “identity” is a recent concept that would have made little sense to 18th-century royals. Rather, French food marked their high social status. At Kew, grooms and servants were served roasted meats: the plain, hearty fare of the English working people.
While many well-off Britons dined happily on French-inspired cuisine, it remained a commonly held view that English food was more honest than the food served on the other side of the Channel. Some writers, for example, disparaged French food as “foreign kickshaws”, a word supposedly derived from the French quelque chose, which has come to mean a trinket, but originally was about foreign – French – food. Yet, by the 1860s, Mrs Beeton, the most British of cookery writers, could describe “modern cookery” as “greatly indebted to the gastronomic propensities of our French neighbours” – even offering a three-page lexicon of French culinary terms used in English.
French cuisine was not the only foreign influence we found at the king’s dinner table at Kew, although it might have been the most established. French dishes had been making their way into the elite English diet since at least the English translation of Francois Pierre de La Varenne’s The French Cook in 1653. By the mid-18th century, other European flavours were arriving in England via travellers, particularly well-to-do young men who extended their education by taking a “grand tour” of European cultural sites.