Thursday, 30 August 2012

One Family and Empire Christmas Pudding

The King's Christmas Pudding made from the 1927 recipe published by the Empire Marketing Board
Towards the end of our previous post The Pudding King we touched on the subject of plum pudding as a potent emblem of British patriotism. We also explained how the dish was reinvented in the early decades of the twentieth century for a variety of political reasons, including the emergence of its role as an imperial symbol. The story about plum pudding which follows is from a time when Britains's vast empire included almost one fifth of the world's land surface and one quarter of its population. Its colonies provided the mother country with a remarkable range of raw materials, including many food items. It is ironic that a number of celebratory British food stuffs are made from ingredients that cannot be grown in the British Isles - plum cake, plum pudding, mince pies and marmalade all depend on exotics imported from warmer climates.

It is often said that plum pudding was first consumed at Christmas in the medieval period and then banned during the Commonwealth by Cromwell until revived by George I in the early eighteenth century. However, we have not found any contemporary sources which verify these claims. So far, the earliest reference we know that firmly associates plum pudding with Christmas is in the diary of Henry Teonge, a British naval chaplain who served on board a number of Charles II's ships. On Christmas Day 1675, somewhere off the west coast of Crete on board His Majesty's Ship Assistance, he wrote in his journal,

'Our Captaine had all his officers and gentlemen to dinner with him, where wee had excellent good fayre: a ribb of beife, plumb-puddings, minct pyes, &c. and plenty of good wines of severall sorts; dranke healths to the King, our wives and friends; and ended the day with much civill myrth.'*

Perhaps HMS Assistant's cook bought the dried fruit, sugar and spices to make the pudding in the market at the ship's last port of call, the Levantine town of Iskendarun. 

From at least the time of Henry Teonge until the Great War, roast beef and plum pudding were the British celebratory foods of choice for all sorts of festive occasions, not just Christmas. By the first half of the nineteenth century, cookery authors such as Elizabeth Hammond and Eliza Acton had started to call it Christmas Pudding rather than Plum Pudding, a process that Food History Jottings research assistant Plumcake has discovered had started back in the eighteenth century, or possibly earlier. We will say more about Plumcake's findings in another post.** Charles Dickens also played some part in fixing the pudding as a dish more specifically linked to Christmas. Despite this more specialised role during the Victorian period it continued to be served at occasions such as jubilee ox roasts and other junketings. During the First World War plum pudding took on a new patriotic role as a symbol of solidarity. Embroidered silk Christmas cards showing a pudding struck with allied flags became a popular souvenir, which soldiers sent from the trenches to their loved ones back home. 


No doubt these striking images of plum puddings spiked with the flags of the nations had some influence on the members of the British Women's Patriotic League, who in the decade after the Great War urged families to buy Empire goods. In 1922 they inaugurated the first Empire Shopping Week, during which they set up displays of food and produce from Empire countries and encouraged the big West End stores to follow suit. This was a period of unbridled free trade when Californian dried fruit was coming into Britain on the back of an aggressive advertising campaign. The American importers were aware that dried fruit sales in Britain were rather poor other than at Christmas time and attempted to boost the market by publishing advertising leaflets with raisin recipes for cakes and raisin loaves which could be eaten all year round. Australian vine fruit growers were horrified with the American competition, as were the rank and file of the British Women's Patriotic League, who recognised the debt that Britain owed to the Australians for their sacrifices during the war (though of course the Brits also owed a great deal to American troops!). In 1924 they urged the housewife to 'make your Christmas Pudding an Empire Pudding' and to boycott imports from non-Empire sources. They published a leaflet with a recipe which listed ingredients from various Empire countries. The concept of the Empire Christmas Pudding was born.

Spiked with both the Australian flag and the Union Jack this giant Christmas Pudding paraded in London in 1925 was sandwiched between a stuffed emu and a kangaroo. 
In 1925 when the Lord Mayor's Show explored the theme 'Imperial Trade', the Australian fruit growers paraded a huge Christmas Pudding pulled by a team of white horses. Emblazoned on the back of the pudding were the words 'make your pudding of Empire products'. None of these initiatives came directly from the British government, who in these difficult economic times wavered between unfulfilled whispers of protectionism and unregulated free trade. They could not formulate a firm policy on supporting Empire trade and at first were very quiet on the whole issue. However in 1926 they inaugurated a rather ineffective quango called the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), whose main purpose was to research the production, trade and use of goods throughout the British Empire and to promote the idea of 'Buying Empire'.

Taking their initiative from the British Women's Patriotic League, the EMB adopted the idea of the Empire Pudding. A short time before Christmas 1926 they issued a recipe in the form of a poster with an image of Britannia holding a flaming plum pudding surmounted by a union jack flag.

The Empire Marketing Board's first campaign poster. Only a few Empire countries are listed.  Courtesy of Public Record Office
The EMB's campaign was a little late in the day, but they did boost their publicity by asking the ruling monarch King George V if he and the Royal Family would eat the empire pudding on Christmas Day. He agreed and as a result the pudding also became known as the King's Christmas Pudding.

The last ingredient in the 1926 recipe above was a silver 3d. bit 'for luck!' 
Another body which promoted the pudding was the Empire Day Movement, led by the charismatic Irish peer Reginald Brabazon 12th Earl of Meath. Lord Meath masterminded a publicity stunt in which the pudding was made at Vernon House, the headquarters of the Overseas League in London. He ensured this event was filmed for a newsreel called Think and Eat Imperially, which was shown in cinemas all over the Empire, giving the campaign a tremendous amount of publicity. As early as 1909 Meath had realised the power of  the cinema as a promotional tool. In that year he commissioned a film of a vast Empire Day gathering in the town of Preston. This remarkable archive movie  has survived and I have supplied a link to it at the very end of this posting.

The chef adds Australian sultanas to the mix, while Lord Meath (on the right) looks on
Meath's vision of Empire saw Britain and its distant colonies as one large extended family. So at his publicity event, he invited representatives of the various empire countries to stir up the pudding. The various ingredients were also delivered to the chef by ushers from each producing nation. The 'pudding spice' from India was brought to the table by two Indian ushers in turbans.

The family tradition of stirring the pudding was adopted by Meath as an emblem of imperial unity
Meath stirs the 1926 Empire Pudding in the garden of Vernon House
The following year, the campaign took on an added dimension when George V's chef Monsieur Cédard provided a better recipe with a few more nations listed in the ingredients table. The campaign lasted well into the thirties, only fizzling out with the outbreak of World War II. In 1930 a propaganda film called One Family was released to promote the pudding and Empire Trade. In its day it was a complete flop. It was originally filmed as a silent movie in 1929, but to keep up with dramatic new developments in the cinema, a sound track was added to it. The film stars a London schoolboy who notices an Empire Christmas Pudding recipe in his father's newspaper. He lingers on his way to school to admire a display on the pudding in a grocery store and is late for his lessons. During one on the subject of empire geography, he falls asleep and dreams he goes to Buckingham Palace. He meets the king and is sent on a quest to collect the ingredients in the producing countries. It is sixty nine minutes long, but as a period piece is really worth watching. Much of it was actually filmed in Buckingham Palace and there is a tantalising glimpse of the palace kitchen in one scene. I have put a link to the full One Family film at the end of this posting.

Though suitable for a royal palace where puddings were made in vast numbers for distribution to staff as Christmas  presents, the large quantites in this recipe were not practical for modest family households. This is the recipe which the schoolboy sees in his father's newspaper in the 1930 movie One Family. Courtesy of Public Record Office.
A somewhat whittled down recipe, but with more Empire producing countries credited. Courtesy of Public Record Office
Courtesy of Public Record Office

Watch One Family, a 1930 British propaganda film on the King's Christmas Pudding

An Empire Day meeting in Preston in 1909. You will recognise Lord Meath to the left of the mayor

* Henry Teonge, The Diary of Henry Teonge, chaplain on board His Majesty's ships Assistance, Bristol, and Royal Oak, anno 1675 to 1679. Charles Knight. London 1825, pp. 127-28.

** Plumcake has pointed out to me that in A Voyage to Virginia, by Colonel Norwood, from A Collection of Voyages and Travels by Awnsham Churchill and John Churchill (1745) Vol. 6 p.153, there is the following diary account of an improvised shipboard Christmas dinner - and the pudding is called a Christmas Pudding,

'Many sorrowful days and nights we spun out in this manner, tille the blessed feast of Christmas came upon us, which we began with a very melancholy solemnity; and yet, to make some distinction of times, the scrapings of the meal-tubs were all amassed together to compose a pudding. Malaga sack, sea water, with fruit and spice, all well fryed in oyl, were the ingredients of this regale, which raised some envy in the spectators; but allowing some privilege to the captain's mess, we met no obstruction, but did peaceably enjoy our Christmas pudding.'

Norwood's voyage took place in 1649, so if Churchill's transcription of Norwood's diary is reliable, then this would mean that this is the earliest reference we have so far found to a Christmas pudding.

Food anthopologist Kaori O' Connor has written a marvellous paper on this subject. I would encourage you to read it. Here is the citation -

Kaori O’Connor, The King's Christmas pudding: globalization, recipes, and the commodities of empire,  in Journal of Global History. Volume 4, Issue 01. March 2009,  pp 127 -155.

Ivan was recently interviewed by Michael Mackenzie, the host of the excellent Australian ABC RN First Bite food programme. We chatted about the extraordinary phenomenon of Empire Christmas Pudding, the subject of which Ivan dealt with in a former posting on this blog. Click here to listen to the programme.

Watch a video of Ivan making and discussing the Empire Christmas Pudding.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Dining with Edward VII at Polesden Lacey


Menu for a dinner served at Polesden Lacey on 6th June 1909. The guest of honour was King Edward VII. An interpretation of this menu can be found towards the end of this posting. Photo courtesy and copyright of the National Trust.
In my last posting I described a number of museum table recreations which I have worked on in recent years. I also banged on a bit about the difficulties encountered when attempting to bring back historical settings of this nature convincingly to life, especially in films. Earlier this year I set up a table for the National Trust in the dining room at Polseden Lacey in Surrey, the former home of the Edwardian socialite Margaret Greville. Over the weekend of 5-6 June 1909 Mrs Greville hosted a house party which included King Edward VII as guest of honour. Since menus for both the Saturday and Sunday dinners have survived, the National Trust decided that it would be exciting for visitors to see a recreation of one of these meals in the actual dining room where it took place. I was invited to mastermind the project. Some items of silver and porcelain, which were almost certainly displayed on the table in 1909 have survived in the house's collection, so we had the bare bones of our royal table display.

Mrs Margaret Greville. Photo courtesy and copyright of the National Trust.
Mrs Greville's beautiful house at Polseden Lacey near Guildford
King Edward VII was fond of fine dining
Decorated with ferns, Malmaisson carnations and roses, Mrs Greville's table is dressed with items of silver from her collection. The artificial flowers were made by Charlotte Hepworth and the chartreuses and other replica food items by Sue Hall.
However, the difficulty came when deciding which items of food we should use in our setting. Because food at this period came to the table in a succession of courses dictated by a dining protocol known as service à la russe, we could only show a particular moment in the meal. But which one? Many of the dishes were specially invented by Mrs Greville's chef Monsieur Delachaume for the occasion, but unfortunately he never recorded his recipes. In the end we decided to recreate the stage in the dinner when the sweet entremets were being served. The particular dish we focussed on was Pêches à la royale, the penultimate one listed in Mrs Greville's attractive menu. We will never know how her chef prepared his version of the dish, but a recipe for a Chartreuse de pêches à la royale was published in 1885. Of course this may have not been the actual dish that appeared on Mrs Greville's table, but it is a visually stunning entremet with the signature of the age stamped all over it. So we decided to go for it.

The dining room at Poleseden Lacey. The four corners of the tablecloth are decorated with trails of flowers and ferns
Listed in an inventory of Mrs Greville's silver are 'six chased and engraved menu holders'
The illustration which inspired the floral ornaments on the tablecloth corners
It is often stated that the Alexander Kurakin, the Russian Ambassador to Napoleon, introduced service à la russe to fashionable Parisian dining rooms when he was resident in the city between 1808 and 1812. It slowly took over from the older service à la française where all the dishes were placed on the table at once. In England it did not become commonly used until the 1870s. It was championed here by the French chef Urbain Dubois, who was a refugee in London during the Franco-Prussian War. He also advocated a particularly British variation on the theme which he called service à l'anglaise. In this mode of service, the dishes came to the table sequentially as in à la russe, but extra dishes were laid out on the sideboard to give the guests additional choices.

At a service à russe dinner, the dishes arrived from the servery in the following order.

Potages - Soups
Poissons - Fish
Entrées - formerly known in England as 'made dishes'
Relevées - Removes
Rôts - Roasts
Entremets - a medley of sweet dishes and dishes of delicately prepared vegetables

There were variations on this structure. A selection of hors d'oeuvres might be offered before the soups, a frozen punch or sorbet after the relevées and a savoury after the entremets. A dessert of fruit, confectionery, ices etc might follow. In order to give you a clearer idea of what was served to Mrs Greville's guests I have classified all of the dishes that Delachaume prepared for the dinner of 6th June 1909 below. 

Potages – Soups 

Consommé Impériale – Imperial Clear Soup 

Naming consommés in honour of empresses, duchesses, monarchs and emperors was a common nineteenth century culinary protocol. Consommé Impériale was a beef bouillon which had a savoury custard or royale poached in it. It was usually garnished with quenelles and truffles. 

Crème Ambassadrice – Ambassadorial Cream soup 

As well as a clear soup it was standard practice to offer a purée soup as an alternative. I can find no recipes for this particular thick soup in any of the standard works of the period, so I assume it was an invention of the chef. Whatever its ingredients were, it would have been thickened with butter, raw egg yolks and cream. This was also served on the 5th June. Must have been popular! 

Poissons - Fish 

Darnes de Saumon – Thick slices of Salmon 

A darne is a thick salmon steak cut from the middle of the fish. Sometimes decorated, as in the version below by Queen Victoria’s chef Charles Elme Francatelli. The New York chef Charles Ranhofer also popularized a decorative version of the dish and illustrated it in his book The Epicurian (1894). His illustration is below that of Francatelli’s.




Sauce(s) Hollandaise et Génévoise – hollandaise sauce and genoise sauce. 

These were for serving with the two fish dishes.  Hollandaise is well known and is intended here for the salmon. More normally spelt Genoise, the second sauce was a piquant sauce flavoured with anchovy butter - intended for serving with the whitebait. 

Blanchailles – whitebait. 

Entreés 

Boidins de Volaille Princesse – little puddings of poultry Princess style 

The word boidin means pudding, but at this period they were very light poached quenneles, usually rolled into cylindrical form. The style of presentation would have been an invention of the chef. 

Relevèe - Remove

Selles d’Agneau glacées Moscovite – iced saddle of lamb Moscow style. 

This dish looks more like an entrée than a standard remove, which would be something like roast saddle of lamb. A Moscovite was actually a kind of ice cream usually made with gelatine and frozen without being churned. The idea of Moscow being a cold place gave the name to the dish. Frozen savoury dishes were popular at this time, though it would be foolish to call them savoury ice creams. I can find no printed recipe, so I assume it was an invention of the chef. The remove served at the dinner the day before was also a chilled meat preparation, in that instance of duckling - Cannetons Glaces Sevillane. These light iced meat dishes were better suited to summer dining than the hot heavy joints that were usually served as the remove.

Rot - Roast 

Cailles flanquées d’Ortolans – Quails accompanied with ortolans 

Ortolans were expensive and once highly esteemed little birds, actually a kind of bunting (Emberiza hortulana). Their consumption is now illegal. They were kept in the dark for a month, which encouraged them to gorge themselves and put on weight. They were eaten whole - heads , bones and all. Some chefs actually killed the poor little birds by drowning them in Armagnac! 

Salade – Salad 

This could have been any kind of salad, but prepared from fresh salad herbs grown in Mrs Greville's extensive kitchen gardens. 

Entremets 

Asperges d’Argenteuil – asparagus of Argenteuil 

Argenteuil is a town on the outskirts of Paris, which gives its name to this old variety of asparagus with very thick (up to 2 cm) spears. It was considered by some to be the most elegant of all vegetables. Fine vegetable dishes designed to be eaten by themselves were often served at high class dinners at the same time as the sweet entremets, probably for those who did not enjoy sweets very much.

Sauce Mousseuse – Frothy Sauce 

This was probably for serving with the Pêches à la Royale. It was a whipped cream flavoured with lemon and vanilla. 

Pêches à la Royale – Royal Peaches 

As I have mentioned the only dish I have been able to find with this name is a recipe for chartreuse of peaches à la Royale in Agnes Marshall’s Cookery Book (1885), one of the most popular of this period. Marshall died in 1905, but her books remained popular until the outbreak of the Great War. Here is her recipe and a design.



A finished chartreuse with its garniture of strawberries and hatelet skewer
At the table, the chartreuse, with its three coloured interior is garnished with maidenhair fern
At this period it was standard practice to garnish sweet entremets such as ice creams with maidenhair fern. This chromolithigraph of a Fürst Pückler Eis appeared in Karl Scharrer, Süße Speisen und Eis (Nordhausen: 1906).

Savoury or Entremet? 

Barquettes Ecossaises – Little Scottish ‘boats’ 

Barquettes were little pastry cases in the shape of boats. This was probably a decorative little savoury invented by the chef. With no evidence to go on our recreation is entirely speculative. Merriam Webster dictionary states that barquettes first appeared around about 1949, which is clearly wrong.

Sue Hall of Museum Cast's replica Barquettes Ecossaises
Unfortunately the kitchen and its ancillary offices is no longer extant at Polseden Lacey, so here are some wonderful archive photographs of what the kitchen looked like in the early twentieth century. 

The kitchen at Polseden Lacey probably in the opening years of the twentieth century. Photo courtesy and copyright of the National Trust.
Monsieur Delachaume and his staff c.1905. Note the two charlotte moulds on the far right of the top shelf, perfect for creating a brace of chartreuses! Photo courtesy and copyright of the National Trust.
Delachaume and his ladies again, but in a much modified slightly later incarnation of the Polseden Lacey kitchen c.1905. Note the large brand new central range. The nearest table, which is neatly covered with cloth is dressed with the chef's seasoning boxes. Photo courtesy and copyright of the National Trust.

Although Mrs Greville's two dinners for the king are very well documented, with detailed menus, guest lists etc., it has still been very difficult to recreate the table exactly as it would have been. Much of what we have done is conjectural. So again this is more of an evocation rather than a recreation. If you find yourself in southern England please go to see the dining room at Polesden Lacey. As well as the table there is some marvellous interpretation.You can even check out Mrs Greville's glamorous Edwardian guests on an iPad app in the dining room!


Monday, 20 August 2012

Dining with Empresses, Cardinals (and Vermeer)

One of two sugar paste pavilions I made for an 'evocation' of Empress Maria Theresa's Feast of the Oath of Allegiance for the exhibition Imperial Privilege: Vienna Porcelain of Du Paquier, 1718–44, at the Metropollitan in New York
Over the past few decades I have attempted to recreate a considerable number of major period table layouts for museums and art collections in Britain, Europe and the US. These have usually been designed as vehicles for displaying important period tableware in the context of historically accurate meals. In 2009 I worked on a table at the Metropolitan Museum in New York based on the engraving below, which shows the Archduchess Maria Theresa enjoying an instalment feast in Vienna in 1740. I was invited to work on the installation by the exhibition curators Jeffrey Mungar and Meredith Chilton. Our version of the Archduchess's table was laid out with an extraordinary array of du Paquier porcelain from the period. It was dominated by two sugar paste baroque baldacchini, which I based on those depicted in the engraving. These were filled with pyramids of paper and sugar flowers as in the engraving. But it must be understood that even the Metropolitan Museum could not fully muster the resources to make an exact replica of a table from this lofty imperial level. To quote from Meredith Chilton, our version was more of an evocation than a recreation.

The Feast of the Oath of Allegiance, Vienna, November 22nd 1740. Engraved from a drawing by Andreas Felix Altomonte (1699-1780) in Kriegl, Georg Christina. Erb-Huldigung welche... Mariae Theresiae... Als Ertz-Herzogin zu Oesterreich von denen gesammten Nider-Oesterreichischen Ständen... abgeleget den 22 Novembris Anno 1740. Vienna: Johann Baptist Schilgen, [1742].
A few years earlier at the Bard Graduate Center, also in NYC, I was invited to set up another imperial table using Elizabeth Empress of Russia's 1745 Meissen St. Andrew's service, which was on loan from the Hermitage. The service was a gift to the Empress from Augustus III, Elector of Saxony and included a remarkable Parnassus centrepiece made up of figures of Apollo and the Muses modelled by J.J. Kandler. This animated table setting illustrated the vivacity and energy of baroque table art at this elevated social level. But again it was only possible to evoke the spirit of the age rather than stage a perfect reproduction of the Empress's table. For instance you will notice in the image below that there is no cutlery. This was because very little of that belonging to the service has survived. 

A table at the Bard Graduate Center laid with the St. Andrew's Service, a gift from Augustus III of Saxony to Elizabeth Petrovna Romanova, Empress of Russia 1741-1762.
Another exciting table I put together in 2011 at Hillwood Museum in Washington DC was designed to evoke a French dessert of the 1770s by using elements of the precious celestial blue service made at Sèvres for the Cardinal Louis de Rohan. At Hillwood we only had enough pieces of the service to construct a fairly modest table with a surtout dressed with chenille covered parterres. Rohan was famous for very large scale entertainments, especially when he was Louis XV's ambassador to Maria Theresa's court in Vienna. Our modest arrangement would have been dwarfed by Rohan's actual table settings, but again the aim was an evocation rather than an exact recreation. Rohan had a troubled relationship with Maria Theresa and her daughter Marie Antoinette. If you have heard about the remarkable 'affair of the diamond necklace' then you will know what I am talking about. If you don't, look it up, because it is an unbelievable story.

My table at Hillwood laid out with elements of Cardinal Rohan's Sèvres dessert service
All of the plates in Rohan's service are decorated with his monogram. You will notice that slightly to the right of the nearest place setting in the photograph above is an object ornamented with the same monogram. This was me having a bit of fun with history. The object is actually a sugar place name marker I made in the form of a rococo cartouche supported by gilded dolphins. In 2003 I made a number of these for an exhibition I curated at the Bowes Museum here in the UK called Royal Sugar Sculpture. I made them from two very important wooden sugar moulds which originally belonged to the office (confectionery kitchen) of the Princesse Lamballe de Savoie Carignan. The princess was a confidante and favourite of Marie Antoinette. The moulds, details of which are depicted below, are carved with motifs in the form of the ciphers of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. One that could also be used to make a small sugar basket.  

Sugar place markers ornamented with the cipher of Marie Antoinette and the arms of the Princesse de Lamballe. In the foreground is a sugar basket and in the background one of Marie Antoinette's actual Sèvres dessert plates, kindly lent by Lord Rothschild. Lamballe, who tended to ape Marie Antoinette in matters of fashion, ordered an identical service from Sèvres for her own use. 
These moulds were almost certainly carved to make sugar table ornaments for an entertainment in the Princess's palace in honour of the king and queen. Although they are tiny and fairly inconsequential, these stunning sugar objects tell us much more about the dining style of the ancien regime than the silly story about 'let them eat cake'. In fact, because they are authentic, they get us much closer to the excesses of Versailles court life than the grand slam displays of food in the recent movie Marie Antoinette, which though beautifully crafted were entirely wrong for the 1780s.

Sugar basket made from the confectioner's mould below
Motif for making the sugar basket and the ciphers of the king and queen of France- 1780s
The Princesse de Lamballe
Rococo sugar table marker ornamented with the arms of the Princesse
Carved motif on sugar mould to make the arms of the Princesse
Taking precious table objects out of the display case and arranging them with authentic period food in the manner for which they were designed can be a revelatory experience, but can only really be undertaken within a museum context. Period table settings in movies and television for instance, are in many cases spurious because the tableware - silver, porcelain, flatware etc is usually hired from prop companies and is rarely true to period. For instance, a few years ago I created the food and arranged a table for 100 guests for the Scorsese film The Young Victoria. The production designer organised the hire of the tableware, but what he provided me with on the set was a medley of late Victorian and early twentieth century middle class crockery, which was disappointingly inappropriate for a royal setting from the time of William IV.

At the king's original birthday party held at Windsor Castle in 1836, which the film was attempting to recreate, the table was actually dressed with brother George IV's extraordinary silver-gilt Grand Service, which is still in the Royal Collection. Of course it is highly unlikely that a film company would be allowed access to a precious royal service like this. So as glamorous as our table may have appeared on the big screen, it would have faded into insignificance next to the real one, which all goes to show that it is rather difficult for Hollywood to do royal.  Though loosely based on historical events, films like these are of course in reality fictional exercises. What is most important to the viewer is how well the stars perform their parts in the overall drama, not minutiae such as their knives and forks. So you might argue that it is a rather sad and obsessive of me to expect perfect historical accuracy in minor background details like table settings and food. However, a great deal of research often goes into other aspects of these productions, such as costume, hair styling, choreography of ballroom scenes etc., but only rarely does food and its service get truly expert attention. 

Let me give you an example. One film which I really enjoyed for the extraordinary effort that was made in recreating the atmosphere of place and period was the movie version of Tracey Chevalier's historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. This was set in seventeenth century Delft, mainly in the home of the artist Johannes Vermeer.  The almost miraculous lighting of the sets throughout the film was inspired by that mysterious soft diffused illumination for which the artist is celebrated. Art historians specialising in Vermeer must have been consulted because the rooms in the set were hung with paintings we know the artist actually owned. This attention to detail was tremendous and the film quite rightly won many awards for its remarkable cinematography. 

A still from Girl with a Pearl Earring showing the offending forks and spoons
However in the context of such a well researched film, one scene really disappointed me. This dealt with the preparation and service of food for a meal at which the artist entertains his patron. And I am afraid it was truly awful. There were many contemporaries of Vermeer who specialised in nothing but pictures of tables laden with food. As a result the Dutch table of this period is the most scrutinised in the history of art. Surprisingly this incredible wealth of evidence was entirely ignored by the filmmakers. At one point a servant cleans and lays out a ridiculous set of nineteenth century silver gilt forks and spoons. In 1665 most Dutch dinner guests turned up wearing their own cutlery at their belt or girdle. Sets like the one above of forks and spoons just did not exist. Because you carried it with you, your dining equipment was an expression of your status and each guest's was different. Some were extremely decorative and were probably used to show off, rather like the way that some people flaunt their mobile phones today. The kind of knives used by Vermeer's family and guests probably looked more like the Dutch seventeenth century examples below.

Left - knife and fork with ivory handles. The other two images are details of other ivory knife handles. All are Dutch and all were made during the lifetime of Vermeer. The example on the right depicts Bacchus. 
I have chosen these particular Dutch eating implements in order to illustrate another detail in the film that irritated me. This was the manner in which the actors held and drank from their glasses. Look at the knife handles above and you will note that all of them depict somebody drinking. Note how they are holding their glasses - in every case by the foot. Dutch paintings of this period are also full of images of drinkers holding glasses in this way. Compare those I have reproduced below with the still from the film. The actor Tom Wilkinson is drinking from his glass in an entirely modern way. Imbibers all over Europe at this period held their glasses by the foot. Despite the wealth of evidence illustrating this mannerism, I have never seen a single actor in any period film or drama drinking in the correct style.

Tom Wilkinson drinking. A still from Girl with a Pearl Earring
Note how this drinker in a painting by Frans Hals is holding his glass by the foot
Detail from a painting by Vermeer's Delft neighbour Peter de Hooch
Another detail from a painting by Vermeer's Delft neighbour Peter de Hooch
Woman drinking. Detail from a painting by Jan Steen

So if a number of Vermeer's contemporaries (not just painters, but also the cutlers of the day) clearly show us the correct way to hold a wine glass, what did he himself have to say on the matter? Well below are details from two of his paintings. I think they speak for themselves. The second one, The Girl with the Wine Glass is actually shown in the film and Tom Wilkinson explains that the lecherous male is the character he is playing. A pity that a little more attention wasn't paid to the lesson that could have been learnt from looking at the picture more carefully. 


Johannes Vermeer. The Drinking Glass. (Detail). 1658-60.
Johannes Vermeer. A Girl Drinking. (Detail). 1659-60.
Attempting to recreate the food and dining culture of the past, whether in museums, film or television is fraught with problems. Authenticity for its own sake can be rather dry and pointless, but when it enhances the narrative and makes for better cinematography it can be wonderful. I would have loved to have seen Vermeer's guests showing off their fancy custom-made knives and quaffing their wine in the highly mannered style of the period.