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A taste for the exotic: Food and drink in Georgian time

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: June 04, 2014

By Pete Collinge

  • Georgian Ashbourne - Bradley's Shop in St John Street, 1860

  • Georgian Ashbourne - Butcher's Row in Victoria Square

  • Georgian Ashbourne - Church Street, 1839

  • Georgian Ashbourne - Hobson's shop, Market Place

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TODAY, tea, coffee, sugar and chocolate are such everyday items that we rarely stop to think they were once exotic luxuries from far-off lands.

Even so, there was no shortage of places where such products could be bought in Georgian Ashbourne.

Pigot's trade directory of 1822–23 shows that Ashbourne had 15 grocery shops, one tea dealer and a wine merchant.

These included Elizabeth Eglington's grocery shop in what is now the Ashbourne News Telegraph office, Charles and Elizabeth Cowlishaw's shop which occupied part of the Ex-Servicemen's Club and John and Ann Mountford's shop at the bottom of the Channel.

One grocery shop in particular, however, stood out from the rest, having customers that included the FitzHerberts of Tissington and the Gells of Hopton.

This shop belonged to Joseph Bradley and was located in St John Street.

In 1782 he was selling six types of tobacco, snuff, six types of tea, coffee, cocoa, sugar, raisins, currants, hops, candles, soap, flax and spices, alongside medicines, oils, paints, brushes, writing paper and nails.

For those with deeper pockets and who could afford the cost of getting to Derby, Richard and Jane Smith's Italian Warehouse in St Peter's Bridge sold foreign fruit, Portuguese prunes, potted char and lampreys, tea, coffee and chocolate.

In 1816, Jane informed the readers of the Derby Mercury that she had returned from London where she had selected a choice assortment of produce.

There followed an extensive list of items that included more than 100 different kinds of sauces, Westphalian and Yorkshire hams, tongues, anchovies for sandwiches, truffles, morels, Bengal curry powder, isinglass, Italian macaroni and vermicelli, cayenne pepper, spices, mustard, desert fruits, Italian parmesan, Swiss gruyere and stilton cheese.

For the ultimate luxury in food and drink provision, you did not even need to leave the comfort of your own home.

The household accounts of Alice Beresford of Church Street reveal that you could go in person to buy your food and drink or you could send your servants or, better still, order it through the post.

During the 1770s and 1780s, Alice received venison from Chatsworth and Okeover and wine from Leicester.

Oysters came from London, kept fresh in barrels of sea water.

Chickens came from Lichfield, lamb from Uttoxeter and tea from Derby.

In Ashbourne she bought coffee, rice, sago and fruit from Elizabeth Blore.

Visitors to the Beresford's house could be sure of being well fed.

What you had on your table and offered to your guests said a lot about you. French plums, turbot, lobster and cheese all appear in her accounts alongside one of the ultimate status symbols of the age, white bread.

To drink, the Beresfords could offer their guests perry made from fermented pears, cowslip or raspberry wine or perhaps a glass of ale from the 350 gallons that they stored in the cellar.

All this choice, however, was not without problems. Supplies of food and drink from both home and abroad could be interrupted.

Ships carrying tea from China or sugar from the West Indies could be lost at sea.

At home, harvests could fail.

The theft of foodstuffs was common. So much so that in Ashbourne a group of grocers, fed up with having their goods stolen, formed a society to tackle the problem.

In particular, the grocers laid the blame on "boatmen, carriers and others" who they believed were making the thefts worse by replacing what was stolen with water and sand.

Between them the grocers established a fund of £320 to prosecute those they suspected of theft.

William Barnes, John Barnes, Charles Cowlishaw and Elizabeth Eglington contributed £40 each, John Mountford and Robert Blore £20 each and Joseph Bradley, as befitting his role as the most prosperous of the town's grocers, contributed £120.

It is a measure of their concern that they raised so much between so few members.

The unscrupulous did not hesitate to add extra ingredients to make supplies go further.

None of them are to be recommended.

A shortage of flour for bread? No problem! Just add ground up oyster shells.

The bread won't rise? Just add alum, an ingredient used in the tanning and textile trades.

And what about pickles that lack colour? A favourite Georgian ingredient was oil of vitriol or dilute sulphuric acid. The acid reacted with the copper used to make the pans and turned the pickles a vivid green.

And if you died as a result of eating such foods, then your family could always go to Elizabeth Eglington, who also offered "gravestones cut and executed in the neatest manner".

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