The moveable feast : Food, fashion and madness


Today it’s difficult to keep up with fashion in any sphere, they change all the time. In the 17th century however, change was slower and you had King Louis XIV’s second wife Madame de Maintenon saying about green peas, “Some ladies, even after having supped at the royal table, and well supped too, returning to their own homes, at the risk of suffering from indigestion, will again eat peas before going to bed. It is both a fashion and madness.”

A little later in 1840 in Britain, Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, had introduced the idea of afternoon tea. Because the noon meal had become skimpier, and there was no other meal until eight o’clock dinner, the duchess used to suffer from “a sinking feeling” at about four o’clock in the afternoon. Adopting the European tea service format, she invited friends to join her for an additional afternoon meal at five o’clock in her rooms at Belvoir Castle. The menu included ham, tongue or beef sandwiches, small cakes, assorted sweets and tea. This summer practice proved so popular, the duchess having returned to London sent cards to her friends asking them to join her for “tea and a walking the fields”.

You will note that sandwiches were an essential part of the menu and I’ve just discovered an intriguing bit about John Montagu who invented the sandwich but was far better known as a scoundrel, a rogue and a scandalous blackguard a reputation well recorded.

Montagu held his posts in his day. He was at one time or another postmaster general of the British Isles, secretary of state, and the first Lord of the Admiralty.

For corruption and incapacity, Sandwich’s administration is unique in the history of the British Navy. Offices were bought, stores were stolen, and, worst of all, ships, unseaworthy and inadequately equipped, were sent to fight battles for their country. Such madness.

However horrible the inventor, the sandwich so caught on that Queen Victoria who in 1876 became Empress of India, had an excessive liking for beef marrow which she ate on toast for tea everyday which might be called the first open sandwich. Her favourite sandwich is the Victoria sandwich which was created after her husband Prince Albert died and Queen Victoria retreated to the Isle of Wight where she was encouraged to give tea parties during which the Victoria sandwich made of sponge cake filled with various preserved food was served. Not really a sandwich, but it was fashion that caught on in England and spread to the next generation when a new sponge cake made with apricot jam was named a Battenberg cake in honour of Queen Victoria’s daughter Princess Victoria’s marriage to Prince Louis of Battenberg.

After the death of his mother, Queen Victoria, Edward VII became king of England. The new king was well known for his numerous extravagant court functions and his obesity. He faithfully recorded the height and weight of his guests after weekends at Sandringham to ensure they had eaten well. Breakfast for Edward was eggs followed by large thick slices of bacon then fish (turbot, lobster or salmon) with finally steak or chops with a little game or poultry. He then had a 10-course lunch at 1:00 sharp. Dinner could be up to 12 courses. “Tum Tum,” as he is nicknamed, especially enjoyed grilled oysters and pheasant stuffed with snipe all washed down with champagne. And here is a final bit of madness when a footman accidentally spilled a jug of cream over him, Edward retorted, “My good man, I’m not a strawberry.”