Monday, November 18, 2013

A Frenchman writes on English Food, in 1698.

As most of you know, one of my favourite themes is “foreign” food – food that is seen through the eyes of a visitor to the country. Today we have the opinions of M. Sorbiere, who wrote of his impressions in A Journey to London, in the year, 1698.  The book was translated into English soon after publication, and it is to be wondered what English readers thought of the author’s comments about their daily food. The great difference in the relative consumption of meat and vegetables at that time in England compared with France is interesting.

Of the Food of Londoners.
The Diet of the Londoners consists chiefly of Bread and Meat, which they use instead of Herbs. Bread is there as in Paris, finer and courser, according as they take out the Bran. This I observ'd, that whereas we have a great deal of Cabbage, and but a little bit of Meat, they will have Monstrous pieces of Beef; I think they call 'em Rumps, and Buttocks, with a few Carrets, that stand at a distance as if they were fright'd; nay I have feen a thing they call a Sir-Loin, without any Herbs at all, so immense, that a French Footman could scarce set it upon the Table.
They use very white Salt, not withstanding, I told ‘em, the Gray Salt of France is incomparably better, and more wholesome.
The Common people feed much upon Grey Pease, of which there are great Provisions made, and to be had ready Boiled. I believe they delight in ‘em most for Supper; for every Night there goes by a Woman crying, Hot Grey Pease, and Bacon. Though I take Pease to be too windy for Supper meat, And am inclinable to believe, that Hot Ox Cheek, and Bak’d Wardens, cried at the same time may be wholesomer.
Their Roots differ much from ours, there are no long Turneps, but round ones. Hackney near London is famous for this most excellent Root, they are most excellent with boil’d and stew’d Beef.
I found more Cabbage in London than I expected, and I saw a great many great reserves of old stalks in their publick Gardens. I asked the Reason. I was told the English were Fantastick, as to Herbs, and pulse; that one Trade, or Society of Men, fancied them and Cowcumbers, and that a whole Country were as much admirers of Beans and Bacon; and this they thought might be the reason of it.
Lettice is the great and Universal Sallet; But I did not find much Roman Lettice, because about Ten Years ago, a Gentleman sending his Footman to Market, he mistook, and asked for Papist Lettice, and the ill Name has hindred the vent of it ever since.
There are several others in the Herb market, as Mints, Sorel, Parsley, very much us’d with Chickens, White Beets, Red Beets, and Asparagus; these they ty up in Bundles, and impose so far, as not to sell under a hundred at a time.
This City is well serv’d with Carp, Herrings, Cod, Sprats, Lobsters, and Maccarel; of which there are such incredible quantities, that there is a public allowance for Maccarel, as well as Milk, to be cried on Sundays.
Being desirous to see the Markets, I had a Friend that one Morning carried me to Leaden hall. I desired to know what Mushrooms they had in the Market. I found but few, at which I was surpris’d, for I have all my Life been very Curious and inquisitive about this kind of Plant, but I was absolutely astonish’d to find, as that for Champignons, and Moriglio’s, they were as greatr as strangers to ‘em as if they had been bred in Japan.
He promis’d to carry me to the Flesh Market, and there to make me amends, but when I came there alas, there was a Thousand times too much of it, to be good, the sight of such a quantitiy was enough to surfeit one. I verily believe in my Conscience there were more Oxen, than Cabbages, and more Leggs of Mutton, than Heads of Garlick in the Market. What Barbarous Soupes then must these poor people Eat! Their Veal, has not that beautiful Redness,which belongs to ours; and indeed their mutton seems more like it only it is Fatter, and their Beef is large and Fat, to that degree, that it is almost impossible to Roast it dry enough for to make it fit for any Christian (that has the least of our Country indisposition about him) to Eat it with any safety.
There were several Mountains of this Beef, with they call’d Barons and Chines, which they told me were for one of the Sheriffs. I’ll undertake with one of these Chines, together with Cabbage, Turneps, and other Roots, Herbs, and Onions Proportionable, to make Soup enough for the Parliament of paris.
The English People, by Custom, Cover the freshest Meat, and cannot endure the least tendency to Putrefaction, which gives it a higher and salter Tast; for as Meat rots, it becomes more Urinous and Salt, wich is all in all in the matter of Soups.
I saw but one Fowl in the Market that was fit to be Eaten, its smell was delicious, and its colour of a beautiful Green; I desired my Friend to ask the price but the Poulterer told him it was sold to a French Merchant.

Today’s recipe is a short one from the classic seventeenth century cookery book The Accomplish’t Cook, (1685) by Robert May:

Other Sausages. 
Mince some Buttock-Beef with Beef suet, beat them well together, and season it with cloves, mace, pepper, and salt: fill the guts, or fry it as before; if in guts, boil them and serve them as puddings.


Anonymous said...

That was a very interesting read. I'm English and a foodie. I grew up on pheasant, rabbit, venison as much as beef and chicken. I prefer English cuisine above all, and find it peculiar when foreigners (especially the French) make jokes about English food. I was keen to read this, and pleased with it in general.

korenni said...

"its smell was delicious, and its color of a beautiful green...." Argh!

In James Michener's book Iberia, he tells about warning an American family in a Spanish restaurant that partridges in Spain are aged a lot longer than meat in America...and then himself receiving a partridge that had been allowed to cross the line even for Spain.

When my ex and I were stationed in the Azores, we got used to freshly killed meat from the butcher down the hill (how I miss his shop!). After a year of this, we took a short vacation to New York, and I discovered I couldn't eat the beef -- it all tasted rotten to me. After we moved back to the States I got used to it again pretty quickly, though.

Gary Gillman said...

A Journey To London was, by numerous accounts I have read, authored by William King, a poet and writer. The story is a bit obscure and odd-sounding to modern ears, but it appears that there was a real Sobiere, a Frenchman who wrote a book about travels to England back in 1664 (over a generation before King wrote his book). King used the name of this Sorbiere, presumably then deceased, as a nom de plume, to write a book which, while undoubtedly accurate in its social detail, was a spoof on a travel book Dr. Martin Lister, the doctor and naturalist, wrote of a trip to Paris a little earlier.

Why would King do a take-off of Lister's book? Because apparently he considered that a travel tome was unworthy of a serious scholar. In a word the intent was satirical.

In sum, there was a book in French by a Sorbiere of a trip to London but it is not the same book and was written many years before.

The only reason I know of all this: some years ago I happened upon the Journey To London as well because it contains some interesting old terms for various kinds of beer and ale then current in England. So in trying to get to the bottom of who Sorbiere was, I found out about William KIng and all the rest as stated above.

But again, there is no reason (as fas as I know) to doubt the social accuracy of the book.

Here is a bit of information on King which states that he wrote this book: