There was a generic flavour to aristocratic and diplomatic dinners in Europe in the nineteenth century. Menus were generally-speaking, written in French (with varying degrees of accuracy) and it is near-impossible to tell where the meal was held simply by looking at the list of dishes.
There is an interesting item on “London Dinners” in Macmillan's Magazine in 1872. The author of the piece waxes lyrical for some length on the good and bad points of dining in the great city, and invokes the opinion of a “lady friend” residing in Russia. The lady would seem to be English, and “at Court” in that country – so perhaps is married to an ambassador or other diplomat?
“In this country, where people do not converse freely with each other without an introduction, any foreigner should be specially introduced by host or hostess; and the only good reason which can be given for not doing the same to every guest, is that in our vast London society, those may be inadvertently asked together, who have been trying to avoid each other all their lives, and then an introduction becomes awkward. A little arrangement is of course necessary as to sending down the right ladies and gentlemen together, and also as to seating them properly at table, so that husbands and wives, brothers and sisters, are not placed next to each other; and for want of this previous forethought the best assorted parties are sometimes quite spoiled. Having begun with the assumption that parties of fourteen or sixteen are best suited for the size of ordinary London dining-rooms, as well as for conversation, the number of attendants upon such a party must of course be regulated by the fortune of the entertainer; but to ensure perfect attendance, one servant to every three guests is about the necessary number. Much of general comfort, and more of mental activity than is generally supposed, depends upon the temperature and ventilation of a room. With the thermometer at 62°, conversation may flow easily, and wits may be at their brightest and sharpest; but raise the temperature to 75° or 80°, and the most elastic spirits become subdued, the most brilliant genius subsides into mediocrity. I am always tempted to ask, when I hear that some wit “was not himself last night,” what was the state of the thermometer“! No dinner should last more than an hour and a quarter, or at longest an hour and a half; if it does, a pleasure becomes a pain. There is no country in Europe, I believe, where so much time is spent at the dinner table as in England, and this is owing to the greater number of dishes which we think necessary. I have on this point consulted a lady friend in Russia, whose table there is considered as well and plentifully supplied as that of anyone at the Court, and her answer is as follows : ”
“St. Petersburg, June 17, 1871.”
“1 send you menus of our own three last dinners, which are very good specimens. The one for twenty-two was set up in a hurry for Marshal Comte Berg* and other Government generals, only here for a few days; otherwise two soups, one clear and one purée, would have been better: it is the very largest dinner as to dishes ever given here. The dinners in Berlin, at the King’s and Crown Princess’s, I remember, were even smaller. Sometimes at very State dinners a Punch à la Romaine is put in between the cold entrée and the rots; that is all. Of course beyond twelve or fourteen there are doubles and trebles of each dish handed round at the same time, and each dish comes in separately and is quite done with before another comes. The dessert and flowers are on the table. It is thought a very badly served dinner if it takes more than 1 or 1¼ hour. The dessert is then handed round, each dish, and the plates changed for each dish; then the finger glasses and water put down on a plate each, which is the signal for the end. The serving of the dessert is included in the time I have named. It would be a most happy revolution in London if you could bring it about. Here they wait very dexterously, and no one is ever forgotten in handing a dish as each goes regularly round.”
The menu for the dinner set up in a hurry for Marshal Comte Berg (presumably Field Marshall Count Friedrich Wilhelm Rembert von Berg} was given by the lady correspondent as:
FOR 22 PERSONS
Diner du 8 Mai, 1871.
Consommé de volaille à la D’Orleans.
Truites saumonée, sauce hollandaise.
Filets de bœuf à la Jardinière.
Suprêmes de volaille à l’écarlate.
Côtelettes de foies gras en Bellevue.
Poulets nouveaux, perdreaux et cailles rôtis.
Haricot verts à l’Anglaise.
Plum puddings, sauce John Bull.
Glaces à l’écossaise.
The John Bull sauce on this menu is intriguing. There was certainly a commercial bottled sauce by this name available in 1871, and it is possible that this is what was offered by the British hosts at this dinner in St. Petersburg (in a beautiful sauce-boat, presumably), as a nod to national sentiment. In view of the apparent short notice for the dinner, it is unlikely that the chef created a new sauce for the occasion, although he could have tweaked and re-named a classic.
I have been unable to find a recipe for a John Bull sauce, so instead give you John Bull pudding – from an American cookery book.
John Bull Pudding.
Time, six hours. – One pound of flour, one pound stoned raisins, one pound currants, quarter of a pound sugar, one ounce citron, one pound suet chopped fine, six eggs beaten very light, one gill good brandy. Some of the flour (sifted) should be reserved to mix with the dry fruit. Boil six hours; keep boiling water at hand to replenish as it boils; to be eaten with hard or liquid sauce, as taste may dictate; turn the pudding a few times when you first put it to boil.
Bride's Cook Book, (San Francisco, 1909)