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Menus show French food remained prominent in the UK during Napoleonic Wars

Kings and Queens past and present can often be viewed as unrelatable given their status but just like the rest of us, they have to eat.

Dr Rachel Rich carried out research looking at the eating habits of King George III

Now, Leeds Beckett University academics are lifting the lid on the flavour of the day for King George III as part of a British Academy-funded project.

Research looked at the eating habits of the ‘mad king’s’ household to examine European identity and what it meant to be British during the 18th century, referred to as the first age of nationalism.

For every day that the King and Queen Charlotte were in residence and ate at London’s Kew Palace, a record written by steward William Gorton was kept of the dishes served in the form of menu ledgers from 1788 to 1801.

They reveal that even though England and France were often at war in the 18th century, the British royal family still ate a lot of French-inspired dishes.

The collection of menus from The National Archives also show that popular royal dishes such as pigeon pie mirrored recipes found in contemporary cookbooks which were readily available to the general public at the time.

Academics noticed ‘sick dish foods’ such as soupe santé and soupe julienne began appearing on the menus while the king was suffering from a reoccurring illness which dogged his later years.

Records meals served to the King and Queen Charlotte whenever they were in residence at Kew Palace

Photo courtesy of The National Archives. 

Dr Rachel Rich (pictured), Course Director at the School of Cultural Studies & Humanities at Leeds Beckett University, has been digitizing and analysing the royal household’s menus.

She said: “This project looked at how the British have constructed their identity at the dinner table as a way of understanding the place of the royal family in the nation’s heart.

“We were also trying to shed historical light on some current questions about what it means to be both British and European in a globally integrated world.

“One of the things about that period is it’s during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars so with Britain being at war, it’s interesting to see how continuous and prominent the influence of French food was in Britain.

“I think for me the project’s biggest surprise has been how ordinary the food is, how many similarities there are between what was being served in the palace and what we are finding in cookbooks accessible by the general public.

“The same kinds of meals were probably being served not only in the homes of aristocracy and gentry but possibly even on a less lavish scale in the homes of the middle classes.

“Maybe that does show there is a kind of relatability of the royal family to people in terms of that they were living on a more lavish scale but were basically living a normal British life.”

Dr Rich has been working alongside Adam Crymble from University of Hertfordshire and Lisa Smith from University of Essex on the project.

During the process, the team found that dinner for King George III often consisted of up to 18 dishes which were served à la Française – a style of service where numerous dishes are served at once, then removed and replaced by a second course, also made up of a large number of dishes.

Academics also noticed that the king - whose reign lasted for 59 years - was a huge fan of asparagus and there was even reference to Turkish kebabs in the 250-page long menu ledgers.

For dinner on Christmas day 1788, King George III was served 21 dishes which included ‘beef roasted,’ duck, pheasant, Christmas pie and mince pies. 

But despite this, King George III and his wife were modest eaters which was the subject of much criticism from satirical cartoonists.

“The political cartoonists take that as almost a criticism of the king because he seems stingy and not generous,” added Dr Rich.

“It just shows that in the public imagination what people eat is a very important symbol of what kind of person they are.”

The menus reveal that Britain has a long tradition of mixing the local and European in our diet – even during outright warfare.

The findings of the project called ‘Europe Cuisine and British Identity in the Age of Nationalism, 1760-1837’ will be presented during a talk as part of the Leeds Cultural Conversations series organised in March.

In June, this research will be on display at the British Academy’s Summer Showcase in London – an annual two-day free festival of ideas for curious minds – giving the public opportunity to taste some pies cooked according to an eighteenth-century recipe.

Vanessa Cuthill, Director of Research at the British Academy, said: “The British Academy funds the very best researchers and research in the humanities and social sciences because we believe that by understanding our past, we can better understand our future.

“This novel research project is a fantastic example of combining digital resources and historical analysis to answer critical questions about British identity, past and present.”

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