One of the great things about history is that it doesn’t always stay in the past. But you can see echoes of it around you. And sometimes you are not even aware of it until later.
Recently I went on a visit to Cambridge. Not only did I get to see the somewhat new Corpus clock -- Chronophage or Time eating clock which looks like it is straight from a sci fi movie or Dr Who set and will suddenly come alive and break free of its captivity, but I also unwittingly got to experience some of the old when I went out to dinner.
For a variety of reasons (mainly having to do with Halloween), I ended up eating at the Cambridge Chop House rather where we had originally planned to eat. I just vaguely wondered about the name and was slightly disappointed there was no explanation on the menu.
The Cambridge Chop House was very traditional British with a twist and the emphasis was on meat with typically British fare. I had the braised Ox cheek. I had heard about ox cheek before and figured it was worth a try. Done properly it is a melt in the mouth meat (a bit richer than stewing steak). I like trying the strnage cuts of meat because then I know. I once had pig's ears which are very chewy and can be chalked up to experience. This was done properly with horseradish mashed potatoes, as well as steamed cabbage and some other vegetables. It was absolutely delish. I had bread and butter pudding for dessert. I had sort of wondered about the name but I wasn’t in Cambridge to do research. And right now I am writing Vikings, rather than Regency or Victorian so I filed the question away.
Then last night, I happened to be watching Clarissa Dickson Wrights Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner on BBC 4 in which she examines the history of Britain three main meals. How did they come about and why. It is the sort of thing I love and I am highlighting it in case anyone else might be interested. I find the history of food and why traditions came about fascinating. You can pickup little insights into how people behaved and why. It is the little factoids that can really add depth and character when you are creating a historical world.
The episode was on lunch and she went to one of the last remaining chop houses in London –Simpsons Tavern. Simpson’s dates from 1757 on that site but has origins going back to 1723 and ladies were not permitted to dine there until 1916. Samuel Pepys and Charles Dickens both have dined here. It is now on my Places to Visit when next in London. And I suddenly thought – ah I now know what a chop house is , why they existed and why they served such traditional British fare. It pleased me no end. A chop house was where the Victorian upper middle class gentleman ate his lunch when he was working. The chop comes from the sort of meat they served – mainly mutton chops. But they did do nose to tail cooking. The vegetable were mainly root. And the puddings things like bread and butter, treacle tart or stewed cheese (a sort of Welsh rarebit).
Next week’s episode is on the history of dinner and its movement from a mid morning meal to a late night repast but I suspect we will also have information on tea which is a relatively new invention. If you have missed the programme, it is on iplayer. I hope it goes over to US on BBC America. Clarissa Dickson Wright also has written a book A History of English Food which is an excellent and informative read but she is also a presenter who really breathes life into her subject.
Michelle Styles writes warm, witty and intimate historical romance in a wide variety of time periods. Her latest Hattie Wilkinson Meets Her Match does have some food in it but not alas a chop house. You can learn more about Michelle and her books on www.michellestyles.co.uk