How to create a delicious Regency dinner that Jane Austen may have eaten

Have you ever wanted to eat like Jane Austen?

One day I got called from the owners of a house where Jane Austen visited. They wanted me to create a Jane Austen menu. I’d like to share that menu with you. It is a list of dishes that Jane Austen would have liked and it is made with ingredients that she knew and loved.

Would they taste good? Will you want to try them? Read on to discover food and history and Jane Austen combined one Regency dinner you can easily make yourself.

Why do we know what Jane Austen ate?

Jane Austen’s friend Martha Lloyd performed the role of housekeeper while Jane Austen lived at Chawton House. It is through her household book that we have a good idea of what Jane Austen ate. It is a handwritten collection of recipes. That household book is, in Julienne Gehrer’s words:

“…an essential tool for managing the home”

I’m lucky enough to own a household book too, which looks similar to Martha Lloyd’s and is sitting next to me as I write this menu to you now.

Manuscript recipe book
A page from my manuscript cookbook from the 1830s

1st Course (no removes)

In the late Georgian period, both the host and the hostess helped to serve the food. The man would carve and his wife would serve the soup. Both were tasks in which it was desirable to be accomplished. My first course is simple. A first course in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century would be a full table of food. Including soup.

A ‘remove’ referred to a dish, often a soup, which would be replaced, when served, by another dish to fill the space. After the dish was replaced a hostess would have said ‘you see your dinner’ to indicate that the course was complete and no more dishes would arrive until the next course.

White Soup

A soup based on meat stock, cream and almonds. I’ve used ham and chicken stock for mine. This soup goes back to the courtly cookery of medieval England and France when its name was Soupe à la Reine. It is the kind of soup taken at supper at balls. In Pride and Prejudice Mr Bingley promises to hold his ball “as soon as Nicholls had made white soup enough”.

White Soup

Serves 6 or more

For the stock

  • A large chicken (around 2 kg or 4 1⁄2 lbs)
  • Piece of gammon, around 600 g ( 1 1⁄4 lbs)
  • 55 (1⁄3 cup) white rice
  • 2 anchovy fillets
  • 8 black peppercorns
  • Tied bunch of herbs (thyme, rosemary, parsley, bay leaf, tarragon etc)
  • 1 large onion, peeled and halved
  • Half a head of celery, chopped
  • 3-4 carrots, cut in half lengthways
  • 1 leek, cut in half
  • 21⁄2 l ( 10 1/2 cups) water

To finish

  • 85 g ( 3⁄4 cup) ground almonds
  • 60-120 ml ( 1⁄4-1⁄2 cup) cream, to taste
  • Salt

1. Lay the carrots flat side down on the bottom of a very large saucepan.
Rest the chick breast side down on the carrots. Tuck in the gammon.
Add in the rest of the stock ingredients. Cover with water.

2. Make a cartouche (baking parchment lid with a hole in the middle) to
over the stock. Bring to the boil and set to simmer for 2-3 hours.

3. Take out the chicken and reserve.

4. When the soup has cooled somewhat, strain it through a sieve lined with
clean muslin cotton fabric. Leave it to stand until it is quite cold, then put
it overnight in the fridge.

5. Next day: skim any fat off the cold soup.

6. Put the cold soup into a saucepan. Add the ground almonds and simmer
for 15-20 minutes. Season with salt. Cool a little and strain again.

7. Shred in some chicken and cook through well.

8. Add the cream and heat to just below boiling. Serve immediately.

An original recipe

“Put a knuckle of veal into six quarts of water, with a large fowl, and a pound
of lean bacon; half a pound of rice, two anchovies, a few peppercorns, a
bundle of sweet herbs, two or three onions, and three or four heads of celery
cut in slices. Stew them all together, till the soup be as strong as you would
have it, and strain it through a hair sieve into a clean earthen pt. Having let it
stand all night, the next day take off the scum, and pour it clear off into a
tossing pan. Put in half a pound of Jordan almonds beat fine, boil it a little and
run it through a lawn sieve. Then put in a pint of cream, and the yolk of an egg,
and send it up hot.” – John Farley

Pease Soup

Pease soup evolved from pease pottage of early English cooking and from nursery rhyme fame. “Pease pudding hot, pease pudding cold…”. While pease pottage began to be seen as too downmarket for the gentry and upper classes it was acceptable by polite society as a soup. It was relegated to the start of the dinner. Pease pottage itself may well have been still enjoyed by the servants below.

Pease soup formed part of the dinner at Steventon on the 30th of November 1798 when, owing to her mother’s ill health, Jane herself was in charge of the meal. When an unexpected guest arrived Jane later wrote “I was not ashamed of asking him to sit down to table, for we had some pease-soup”.

Summer Pease Soup

Serves 6

  • 1 cucumber, if in season
  • 2 Cos or Romaine or 4 Baby Gem lettuces
  • 2 medium white onions
  • 225g (1 cup) shelled fresh young peas*
  • 450g (1 cup) large fresh marrowfat peas**
  • 150g (2⁄3 cup) butter, chopped
  • 2 mint sprigs
  • 2 sprigs parsley
  • Salt and pepper

* if using frozen peas, defrost them before cooking

** If using tinned marrowfat peas, check the drained weight

1. If using cucumber, peel, cut into quarters and slice thinly.

2. Shred the lettuce finely, discarding any roots.

3. Peel the onions and slice thinly.

4. Put the lettuce (and cucumber) into a pan with half the butter.

5. Add the mint leaves, onions, young peas.

6. Season with salt and pepper. Chop and add the parsley.

7. Add the rest of the butter and 3-4 tablespoons of water.

8. Cover the pan with a lid and place over a low heat. Cook gently, shaking
the pan often, until the vegetables are soft.

Original Recipe

“Take five or six Cucumbers pared and sliced the white part of as many Coss
Lettice a sprig or two of Mint, two or three Onions, some pepper, a little salt a
full pint of young Peas a little Parsley half a pound of putter put them together
in a sauce pan to stew in their own liquor for an hour and a half or till they are
quite tender; then boil as many old Pease pulp them through a cullender and
mix then in a quart of the liquor or more as you like for thickness when the
herbs are stewer enough put them in and serve it up.”
– Martha Lloyd

Second Course

The table was covered with layers of table cloths. One was taken off between each course, in a sort of table cloth strip tease, until the table was down to polished wood for the final desert course. This often led to awkward pauses as everything was removed and the guests waited until the entire table was re-laid.

Haricot Lamb

Mutton was reared on Jane Austen’s father’s farm so it is not surprising to see it appear regularly on the menu at Steventon. A “Harriot of Mutton” was provided for the household in November 1798 when Jane’s mother was indisposed.

We served this stewed mutton dish in a delicate bonded sauce with seasonally appropriate asparagus.

Fish with Wine and Mushrooms

An advantage of Southampton, not far from many of the Austen residences, was the availability of fresh fish. This was not only appreciated by Jane Austen for her own table but fish was sent as presents to inland friends and relations. In February 1802 Jane sent “four pairs of small soals” to Kintbury Rectory in Berkshire, hoping that they would arrive “while still fresh”.

Vegetable Pie

The word vegetable was not used to denote something edible before the end of the eighteenth century. The first use in print was in 1767. Vegetables were either called pot herbs or (charmingly) garden things or stuff. Jane Austen does not use the word vegetable until 1817 in Sanditon. It is then spoken by the modernizing Mr Parker while his old-fashioned wife remains faithful to the older word.

The vegetable pie in Martha Lloyd’s book is a simple mix of leek, carrots, turnips and onions covered in shortcrust pastry baked and filled with a simple white sauce on serving.

We served a selection of pickles as while loved by both rich and poor pickles could serve to fill up gaps on the table at poorer houses. When not eaten they could be re-used and could reappear again at another meal to serve the same purpose.

Pickled Figs

As an aside figgy pudding contains no figs because the Cornish say fig when the English would say plum and the English say plum when they often mean dried fruit, raisins or currants.

Pica Lilla (Picalilli)

A sweet pickle of mixed vegetables using seasonal produce preserved with vinegar and sugar and flavoured with allspice, long pepper, ginger, garlic and mustard powder. It is coloured yellow with Turmeric. Called Pica Lilla in Jane Austen’s time (though the spelling did vary).

Dessert Course

The word dessert is taken from the French ‘desservir’. The tablecloth would be completely removed and the polished wood of the table shown.

I hold up my hands and say I have cheated. A Regency dessert was a much smaller affair of preserved fruits, fruit, nuts, perhaps simple syllabubs or creams. But the main desserts that I listed here would have appeared at the second course. We struggle with savoury and sweet together on the table and so I have modified this menu to account for modern tastes.

Lemon Cheesecakes

Georgian cheesecakes often did not contain cheese. This one is an egg custard flavoured with almonds, lemon zest and orange flower water.

“At Devizes, we had comfortable rooms and a good dinner, to which we sat down about five; amongst other things we had asparagus and a lobster, which made me wish for you, and some cheesecakes” Jane Austen in a letter to her sister Cassandra.

Lemon Cheesecakes

Makes about 12 cakes

  • Shortcrust pastry
  • 50 g (1 3⁄4 oz) unsalted butter
  • 100 g ( 1⁄2 cup) caster sugar
  • Zest of 1 large or 2 small lemons
  • 2 whole eggs, plus 1 egg yolk
  • Orange flower water
  • I tablespoon cream
  • 100g (1 cup) ground almonds

In Jane Austen’s time, cheesecakes often contained no cheese. The word cheese sometimes referred to texture rather than cheese itself.

1. Set the oven to 190° C (375° F/gas mark 5).

2. Cream the butter and sugar with most of the lemon zest until fluffy and pale.

3. Roll out the pastry, cut into circles and use to line tartlet tins.

4. Whisk the eggs with the orange flower water and cream until frothy.

5. Add this mixture bit by bit to the creamed butter and sugar. If the mixture starts to split add some of the ground almonds.

6. Finally, stir in the ground almonds to make a paste.

7. Spoon the mixture into the pastry cases, leaving a little space at the top for it to rise.

8. Bake for 10-15 minutes until firm and golden. Decorate the cakes with the remaining lemon zest.

Original Recipe

“Lemon Cheesecakes – Take 1⁄2 lb of almonds, blanche in cold water, let stand
all night, beat fine with orange flower water. Take 1⁄2 lb of fine sugar. Then take
the peel of two lemons, paired very thin, boil it in water till they are very
tender and not bitter; then beat it very fine in a mortar with the sugar, then
mix it with the almonds. Take eight eggs (leaving out half the whites); take 1⁄4 lb
of butter, melted, and let it be cold, then mix altogether. Bake it in a fine paste
in small patty pans, put some sugar to your paste.”
– Martha Lloyd

Ratafia Biscuit

These were described as ‘kickshaws’, which comes from ‘quelque chose’ meaning in French something, or in some English cook’s minds “little foreign messes”. It can refer to any kind of small edible oddment (e.g. Maids of Honour, Toasted Cheese or Ratafia biscuits). In this period the terms biscuits and cakes were often used interchangeably.

These biscuits are made from almonds, egg whites, sugar and almond extract. They are simple but taste of luxury.

Ratafia Cakes

Makes 36-40

  • 110 g (1 cup) ground almonds
  • 2 egg whites
  • 55 (1⁄3 cup) white rice
  • A few drops of almond extract
  • 175 g (3⁄4 cup) caster sugar
  • Baking parchment (or rice paper)

1. Set the oven to 180° C (350° F/gas mark 4). Sieve or pound the almonds
to get rid of any lumps.

2. In a second bowl, whisk the egg whites with the almond extract until
stiff. Add the sugar into the almonds. Fold in the whisked egg whites.

3. Cover a baking sheet with baking parchment (rice paper). Place small
teaspoonfuls of the mixture onto the baking sheet, spacing them well
apart (they spread).

4. Bake for 10-12 minutes or until the cakes are just fawn-coloured (a light brown). Cool the cakes on the sheet. To remove them from the baking paper easily wet a tea cloth and lay on a table and lift your ratafias, still on greaseproof paper, onto the tea cloth. The water underneath helps to ease the cakes from the sheet.

Enjoy or keep in an airtight jar to enjoy later.

The original recipe calls for bitter almonds. Bitter almonds often contain
prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide) which is why they are no longer used for
cooking!

Original Recipe

“Take 8 0z: of apricot kernels, if they cannot be had bitter Almonds will do as
well, blanch them & beat them very fine with a little Orange flower water, mix
them with the whites of 3 eggs well beaten & put to them two pounds of single
refin’d Sugar finely beaten & sifted, work all together and it will be like a paste,
then lay it in little round bits on tin pates flour’d, set them in an oven that is
not very hot & they will puff up & soon be baked”
– Martha Lloyd

The utter importance of Trifle

The word trifle derives from the Middle English word ‘trufle’ which in turn comes from the Old French ‘trufe’ meaning something of little importance. I hope you will agree that this is ENTIRELY the wrong word for a trifle. It is of uppermost importance if made well. For this menu, I made my own Naples biscuits (actually more like sponge finger cakes) which were wetted with sherry, covered in egg custard and topped with syllabub froth. The surprise ingredient, for an eighteenth-century kick, is mustard powder. (the smallest amount).

Regency food is worth trying

The above meal convinced the guests, many of whom were sceptical about whether Regency food would be worth eating. I suggest you use these recipes to sample food that fuelled Jane Austen to create the fictional world that we all love, it’s a simpler type of food than many of her characters may have eaten but utterly Regency delicious.