Dinner parties in well-to-do Victorian and Edwardian households developed into events that were as much about the food as they were about promoting the social status of the hosts. Until the Victorian era, it was fashionable to dine buffet style, all of the courses brought to the table at once. This type of dining was known as service à la Française. Mrs Beeton in her domestic bible, Household Management, gives an interesting account of early dining practices:
‘….A Greek dinner-party was a handsome, well-regulated affair. The guests arrived elegantly dressed and crowned with flowers. A slave, approaching each person as he entered, took off his sandals and washed his feet. During the repast, the guests reclined on couches with pillows, among and along which were set small tables. After the solid meal came the “symposium” proper, a scene of music, merriment and dancing, the two latter being supplied chiefly by young girls. There was a chairman, or “symposiarch”, appointed by the company to regulate the drinking, and it was his duty to mix the wine in the “mighty bowl.” From this bowl the attendants ladled the liquor into goblets, and with the goblets went round and round the tables, filling the cups of the guests.’ (1915 Edition: pp. 1682-1683).
In the early 19th century the Russian Ambassador Prince Alexander Kurakin is credited with revolutionising dining habits. In 1808, whilst acting as Russian Ambassador in Paris, he introduced to Parisian society a new dining style, service à la Russe. The popularity of this style spread across Europe and Mrs Beeton observes that ‘…dinner service à la Russe was introduced into England in the latter half of the nineteenth century, and after a few years’ rivalry with the dinner à la Française almost succeeded in banishing the latter.’ (ibid. p. 1685)
In Service à la Russe each course is presented one at a time and in a set order. It was not uncommon for there to be 14 different courses, each one being cleared away before the next one presented. The cutlery is pre-set and the table laid with empty water, wine and champagne glasses. Each setting had a service plate on top of which was placed the napkin, arranged in a creative way and every guest had his/her own place-name card of a fancy design.
This style of dining required a large number of servants to ensure that each successive course was delivered and cleared away efficiently. Only the wealthy Victorian and Edwardian host would have been able to have afforded the required number of servants for a traditional, 14 course, dinner service à la Russe. We still adopt today, albeit in a simplified form, the dining method of eating one course at a time.
Mrs Beeton’s Menu for a Summer Ball Supper à la Russe
Julienne Soup; Lamb Cutlets with Peas; Quails and Watercress
Salmon Mayonnaise; Lobster Salad; Prawns in Aspic
Chicken masked with Sauce; French Pigeon Pie; Galantine of Turkey Poult
Roast Chickens; Ham and Tongue; Medallions of Foie Gras (Goose Liver)
Strawberries in Jelly; Pistachio Cream; French Chocolate Cake;
Mixed Fruit with Kirsch; Coffee Eclairs; French Pastry;
Vanilla Cream Ice; Lemon Water Ice.
Mrs Beeton’s Mayonnaise
Ingredients – 2 yolks of eggs, 1 teaspoonful of French mustard, 1/2 a teaspoonful of salt, a pinch of pepper, 1 tablespoonful of tarragon vinegar, about 1 pint of best salad oil, 1 tablespoonful of cream.
Method – ‘Put the yolks into a basin, add the mustard, salt and pepper, stir quickly with a wooden spoon. Add the oil, first drop by drop and afterwards more quickly, and at intervals a few drops of the vinegar. By stirring well, the mixture should become the consistency of very thick cream. Lastly, add the cream, stirring all the while. A little cold water may be added if the sauce is found to be too thick. In hot weather, the basin in which the Mayonnaise is made should be placed in a vessel of crushed ice.’
Mrs Beeton’s Salmon Mayonnaise
Ingredients – cold boiled salmon, lettuce, cucumber, beetroot, gherkins, capers, boned anchovies, hard-boiled eggs, Mayonnaise sauce.
Method – ‘A Mayonnaise of Salmon may consist of a large centre-cut, a thick slice, or the remains of cold salmon cut into pieces convenient for serving. In all cases the skin and bone must be removed, and the fish completely masked with thick Mayonnaise sauce, the stiffening properties of which are greatly increased by the addition of a little liquid, but nearly cold, aspic jelly. When procurable, a little endive should be mixed with the lettuce, for although the somewhat bitter flavour of this salad plant is disliked by many people, its delicate, feathery leaves greatly improve the appearance of any dish which it forms a part. Many other garnishings, in addition to those enumerated above, may be used; the leaves of the tarragon and chervil plants, and fancifully-cut thin slices of truffle, being particularly effective when used to decorate the surface of Mayonnaise sauce.’
Mrs Beeton’s Pistachio Cream
Ingredients – 1 pint of cream, 4 ozs of pistachio nuts, 2 ozs of castor sugar, 1 oz of leaf gelatine, a little sap-green liquid colouring.
Method – ‘Blanch, skin and chop the pistachios finely. Dissolve the gelatine and sugar in 3 tablespoons of water. Whip the cream stiffly, add the gelatine when cool, the pistachios, and sap-green drop by drop, until the desired colour is obtained. Pour into a decorated mould and let it remain on ice or in a cold place until firmly set. Moulds should be thoroughly clean, and when possible rinsed with cold water, before being used. In preparing them for decorated creams, they are usually coated with a thin layer of jelly.’
If you want to experience the elegance and sophistication of an Edwardian Banquet, the Langtry Manor Hotel, Bournemouth, Dorset host a 6 course Banquet Experience every Saturday evening (£39 per guest – Tel: 01202 553 997). The staff wear period costume to serve you. Between the 4th and 5th course there is also a 10 minute live performance of the “Life of Lillie Langtry”. For further information on Victorian/Edwardian actress Lillie Langtry, together with history and further images of the charming Langtry Manor Hotel, click here.