Saturday, 25 December 2010

An Edwardian-Style Christmas

Christmas feasts during the Edwardian period were very much along the lines of its Victorian predecessor. For rich, poor, and middle classes alike, the festivities were an important time of conviviality, celebration, fun, and charity. The very poor could look forward to some paternalistic charity, the only slightly poor would save in order to be able to afford a few treats. I have forgotten the reference from this period that I once read, to the effect that the rich were better able to scoff at Christmas than the poor. For the poor any receipt of food hampers or charity might prove essential to surviving the cold winter months. The wealthier, without such worries, were able to obtain all the fineries and expensive ingredients that went into many specialities such as meat pies, plum pudding, or rare aspics and jellies.

["Christmas Dole"- A Painting by Joseph Clark]

Christmas dinner consisted of fare that had become popular in the Victorian period, and that is largely unchanged today. Food critics who dislike the traditional Christmas meal are keen to point out that since it comes around only once a year, it has not had a chance to "evolve" as have other modern culinary standards. Yet it is unlikely that they will change to any great extent -- entwined as they are with nostalgia, memory, and our innate longing for things as they were. So the Edwardian Christmas feast is not at all unfamiliar to us: turkey or goose, stuffed. Gibblets and drippings were used to prepare vegetable dishes such as potatoes.

The meal was capped off with a traditional plum pudding -- full of expensive ingredients such as currants and candied fruits -- which had been prepared some weeks before and allowed to mellow. It was served with brandy butter, usually, and along with mince pies and other Yule pastries and treats. All, of course, washed down with clarets and port -- that most favourite Edwardian drink.

And so I raise a proverbial glass to all the lovely readers of this occasional blog about food, history, nostalgia, Britishness, and random things. Knowing that you are out there reading these musings make them worthwhile. A very merry Christmas and a happy new year to all.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 

Saturday, 11 December 2010

A Legend: Rules Restaurant of Maiden Lane, Covent Garden

Rules Restaurant in London is one of the finest culinary experiences available to an individual of Edwardian inclinations (described as a haven of "porter, pies and oysters"), but sadly it is one that I have not yet experienced. The reasons for this are a bit inexplicable, despite having spent large blocks of time in the Imperial Metropolis. It is certainly not down to lack of desire, but perhaps lack of will, or more particularly the lack of the right dining companion(s) at the right time.

The Restaurant, tucked away on quiet Maiden Lane (steps away from the less grand, but equally iconic, Maple Leaf Pub replete with stereotypical Canadiana -- canoes, replica grizzly bears, models of lumerjacks and the like) is the oldest in the city. It opened in 1798, and has passed through relatively few hands since, maintaining the sterling quality of its food, ambiance, and service.

As stated in the history section of the Restaurant's website, it has long been "crowded with writers, artists, lawyers, journalists and actors. As well as being frequented by great literary talents – including Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, John Galsworthy and H G Wells – Rules has also appeared in novels by Rosamond Lehmann, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, John Le CarrĂ©, Dick Francis, Penelope Lively and Claire Rayner."

Edward VII, for whom the Edwardian age was named -- and no stranger to a surfeit of fine food and drink -- was a regular habitué. Great actors of the stage and screen such as Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton, Clark Gable, Charlie Chaplin, and John Barrymore have also eaten there. The literary and theatrical history of the restaurant lives on in the series of sketches, pictures, and caricatures that line the walls. [Below]

[Pictures property of Rules Restaurant, Rules website:]

Today, Rules is commonly described as one of the prime servers of "British food," which often becomes conflated with ideas about modernity versus "tradition." No matter how pleasurable the experience of Rules, I would dispute the notion that "British food" somehow equals "tradition" or "the old." British food does not merely consist of rich Edwardian dishes of game, sausage, meat, oysters, and thick cream sauces. The spirit of Rules and hearty British food lives, necessarily diffused, in other locales -- some dark-paneled and traditional, others bright, airy and modern. No other cuisine is so relentlessly pigeonholed into some particular notion of aesthetic appeal; nor should British food be. Nevertheless Rules remains the gold standard of this ideal, and one day -- soon one hopes -- the Idle Historian will partake of it and report back with pleasure.

Read more reflections on history, idleness, and the art of living from the Idle Historian in To The Idler The Spoils 
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