East Midlands Food

East Midlands Food

If you can’t afford a Baron of beef…

In my previous blog I was talking about the sort of Christmas fare enjoyed by Queen Victoria and her family at Christmas in the 1890s. Further down the social scale, as Punch magazine noted in December 1872 in its usual satirical manner, middle class families might like to imitate the royal Christmas but few had the incomes for such lavish feasts: so ‘if you cannot afford a Baron of beef, be content with a Sir-loin; if a boar’s head is beyond your purse, make your self happy with a pig’s cheek; and in the not improbable event of the absence of woodcock pie, substitute any other Christmas game you please’.

Simpkin & James, Leicester, in 1890

While the diet of many working class families remained very basic well into the twentieth century, the middle classes with their higher disposable incomes were an obvious market for food and drink, particularly at Christmas, and the range on offer became ever greater as it became possible to mass produce foodstuffs, preserve them by canning and other processes, and transport them all over the country through the extensive railway system of late Victorian Britain.

Changes in retailing in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also played an important part. As well as the local butchers’, bakers’ and confectioners’ shops -often promoting themselves as ‘High Class Purveyors’ - specialist food stores appeared on the High Street along with the ‘Food Halls’ of department stores. People in Leicester have particular memories of Simpkin and James, which also used to bottle its own wine. This ‘used to come to us in casks…’, one former employee recalled of the period after World War II: ‘When wine came in, one had to look at its clarity, and if the clarity was such that it needed treatment in the form of filings to clarify it, then one had to sort of try and associate the amount… Christmas was undoubtedly the busiest time of the year in the wine and spirit trade. I seem to think that one’s turnover would be about a third of the annual turnover, at least… in the month, six weeks, prior to Christmas… You’d begin to get a build-up from the beginning of November right through to Christmas Eve… [when] we used to have tremendous queues for wine’ (Interview with John Clarke, East Midlands Oral History Archive, 931, LO/286/237, 1986).

A whole range of pies and cakes were available by the later 19th century, either to eat at home over the festive season or to give as presents. An advertisement in 1881 for one such supplier, Viccars Collyer of Silver Street, Leicester, urged readers to give ‘sensible Christmas presents’ such as its small selection box ‘for those who cannot afford to pay 10s 6d’ for the larger version. This consisted of a 3lb pork pie, 1 lb sausages, 1lb iced cake, a dozen minced pies and a large Leicester cake (‘title registered’ and presumably one of Viccars Collier’s local specialities). This cost 5s 6d, the box itself being free and delivered at no charge anywhere in Leicester. The large selection included a 4lb pork pie as well as Genoa, Madeira and sponge cakes, and a 3lb ‘rich’ fruit cake.

By the 1870s the emphasis in newspapers and popular magazines on Christmas ‘traditions’, including food, was such that Punch was moved to send it up – so don’t take this advice too seriously:

‘Our Yule Log should be either of wood or some other description of timber, and ought to be well steeped in brandy, nutmeg, and ginger, before it is placed in the fire… The cloth in which the plum pudding is boiled ought to be kept, from year to year, in the plate-chest, or some other place of security, wrapped up in Carols, and covered with the holly that has been used in the Christmas decorations… [In the case of poultry] it is laid down in the cookery-books that it should be boiled in cream, and eaten in good feeling. If, however, it is a gift, you should baste it in butter, and lard your discourse at dinner with praises of the donor…’.  




    Bridget Masters January 4th, 2011 at 11:27 am

    A look at how eating out habits and the food offered have changed would be worth looking at. e.g.
    * takeaways are not a new idea and researching establishments that used to offer ready cooked hot food could be interesting
    *the Picture House cinema used to have a restaurant where afternoon tea could be taken
    *the Gentlemen’s Club in Leicester


    Robert Spurr January 26th, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Viccars Collyer the pork pie maker was unhappily persued by a crowd in Leicester with cries of ‘Lynch him’ after two to three tons! of rancid pork was discovered at his premises. This was intended for his Christmas pork pies and sausages – jummy! He hid in the Criterion on Gallowtree gate.


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A research project that looked at various aspects of food in the East Midlands, linking them with museum displays and objects in the region, and making the results available to as many people as possible in different formats.