Thursday, 29 November 2012

Tavern Feasting in Bristol, Christmas 1788

As well as turtle imported into Bristol from the West Indies, 'British Turtle' is listed on this fascinating 1788 Christmas bill of fare from a Bristol tavern. Was British turtle, the popular substitute dish made from calf's head which becomes more commonly known as 'mock turtle'? Or was it real turtle landed perhaps in the Bristol Channel by local fishermen? Various species, including Leatherbacks, Loggerheads and even the rare Green and Kemp's Ridley Turtles still occasionally turn up in British waters. These rare visits were probably more frequent in the eighteenth century. When caught by fishermen, these valuable reptiles would have been sold at considerable sums and ended up on the tables of the wealthy.
Those of you who follow this blog may have noticed that I have not posted anything for quite a long time. There are quite a few reasons for this. Among them is the fact that I have been working hard on two important food history exhibitions - Feast Your Eyes here at the Bowes Museum in the UK, which opened last month and Supper with Shakespeare at the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts which runs from 12th December 2012 to 31st March. I will be in Minneapolis for much of December. There are links to the two museum sites below and I will post some more detailed articles about the exhibitions when I find time.

However, since Christmas is approaching rapidly I thought I would share a small festive item with you. Yesterday I bid unsuccessfully at a book auction for a minor piece of culinary printed ephemera, a long list of food items published by a landlord of a Bristol tavern in 1788. John Weeks was the master of the Bush Inn and Tavern in Corn Street, Bristol between 1775 and 1800. His establishment was one of the most important watering holes in the city in the Georgian period and was noted for its elegant entertainments. Week's long bill of fare informed customers of the food items in stock over the holiday period from which they could choose to construct their entertainments in the tavern. I have seen a number of similar lists published by Weeks in other years. For instance, there is one from 1790 in the Bristol Record Office. 

A nineteenth century view of the Bush Tavern, Corn Street, Bristol, chromolithograph by William Lewis after J.H. Maggs.

The last quarter of the eighteenth and the first quarter of the nineteenth century saw the apogee of tavern dining in Britain. Forget about 'pub grub' - these places were pretty lush and luxurious places, often with commodious dining halls for corporate affairs and private chambers for more intimate gatherings. The London Tavern in Bishopsgate claimed to be able to feed 355 people all at the same time in its various rooms. Many of the cooks who ran the kitchens of these establishments published their own recipe books, some like John Farley, John Townsend, Richard Briggs, Francis Collingwood and John Woolams becoming household names. However, there is much evidence to suggest that at least a few of them, like Farley who cooked at the London Tavern, did not write their own books. Many of the recipes in the tavern cooks' collections were lifted from other authors by unscrupulous publishers who just wanted to use the name of a well known cook to sell the book. So their books do not offer an accurate idea of the actual dishes that were served in the taverns of the day. 

Feasting in the palatial rooms of the London Tavern in the nineteenth century - hardly mere 'pub grub'. In the cellars of the London Tavern there were holding tanks for the turtles to keep them fresh and alive before they were dispatched. To help them feel at home, these tanks were decorated with ceramic tiles depicting tropical scenes.
However, Week's various Christmas Bills of Fare do give us a clear idea of the scope of the food on offer at these establishments. Although it was not in the capital, the Bush Inn, which sadly no longer exists, was a tavern in a major international port with a sophisticated cultural life. Here is the section of the 1788 list, showing the game and poultry on offer. Variety and quantity were of course everything at this period.

A number of the birds listed here, such as the bittern, land rail (corncrake) and golden plover are quite rightly now protected species. The item 'water dabs'  puzzles me in a list of birds. A dab is usually the name for a flatfish, which closely resembles the flounder. I used to fish for them when I was a child. If anyone knows the identity of a water fowl with this name please contact me. A 'mew' was of course a sea gull.

In the next section, dealing with butchers meats there are also a few other items that may be unfamiliar to you. 'Pork griskins' were the most tender parts cut from pork loins and 'veal burrs' were the perennially popular sweetbreads.

Among the cold dishes on offer were 'collars of brawn', not the paté-like head cheese we now call brawn, but domestic boar meat which had been cut up into flat boned pieces called collars, wrapped in linen and boiled in a souse of wine, vinegar and spices. 'Rounds of beef' were rolled joints of brisket, salted, spiced and boiled in ale - what we might now call spiced beef, but which had various names at this period, including hunter's beef. A round of beef was a very popular Christmas dish. The baron of beef was a huge roasted joint, the full back end of the animal, which was always served cold. Cold sturgeon, usually pickled, was also popular at this time of year. Although there are minc'd pies on the bill of fare, it is noteable that there is no mention of plum pudding. Below is John Week's complete bill of fare - note the pin hole at the top. How does your planned Christmas dinner compare with this?

The study of recipe books alone can lead to a very inaccurate perspective on what was really eaten in the past. Bills of fare and menus of actual meals like this marvellous survival can frequently tell us much more about our ancestors' real dining preferences. A scholar who concentrates on digging up this kind of eighteenth century source material on dining for whom I have a great deal of admiration is India Mandelkern. India is a rising star in the culinary history world. She has an acute eye, an admirable methodology and like Food History Jottings own research assistant Plumcake, is brilliant at discovering new sources. I recommend you read her marvellous blog Homo Gastronomicus. She has recently penned some interesting observations on turtle.

As promised I will say a great deal more about the two culinary history exhibitions on which I have been working, but for the moment here are a couple of links.


  1. Thanks for your kind words about Homo Gastronomicus! I have greatly enjoyed your post .. I am fascinated by late 18th century tavern dining as well, and I really do believe that it contributed more to the making of 'restaurant culture' than historians give it credit for. Also very impressed by your culinary credentials ... Have you ever recreated an orgiastic alderman's feast (complete with green sea turtle, of course)?

  2. I wonder if the water dab might refer to a member of the grebe family. They are a tiny water bird and varieties are present all over the world. (There's a tiny one that swims locally near my home.) You can see information about the UK variety at

  3. I think that it is very likely that the "Water Dab" is a type of grebe. Where I grew up the little grebe was known as a "Dab Chick".

    I assume these taverns are the model for La Grande Taverne de Londres and similar in Paris?