As part of our ongoing research into the region’s coaching inns, we’ve been investigating what kinds of food Georgian travellers would have expected to have been available at these roadside establishments. Knowing what people ate will help us when we come to design the eating and dining spaces of the coaching inn that we are hoping to build at the museum, as part of our Remaking Beamish Project.
A rural coaching inn on the Great North Road could expect the arrival at least two coaches a day, carrying roughly ten passengers each, plus the driver and a guard. Not all of these coaches would have stayed the night; some would have only stopped to change horses or waited long enough for their passengers to have a quick meal. Independent travellers would have also arrived throughout the day. Therefore, during the day, a coaching inn of the scale that we’re planning would be expected to provide catering to unknown quantity of guests, often within the time it took to collect mail and harness a fresh team of horses.
The solution to this need for fast food was for inns to deliver a round-the-clock service. Speed was of the essence, as an innkeeper who could not provide a ready meal would lose trade from rushing coach passengers and in an industry reliant on sticking to timetables, would gain a reputation for lethargy. Numerous contemporary accounts tell of the efficiency of English inns, including one from the Italian exile Count Peechi who in 1827 wrote that ‘At every inn breakfast, dinner or supper is always ready; a fire is burning in every room and water always boiling for tea or coffee’.
The necessity for quick provision meant that the food served was usually very simple. Common victuals on offer would have included ham and eggs, bread, cheese, cold potatoes, preserved fruit and pickles. Steaks would have also have been quickly fried on a pan over the fire and a kettle would have been constantly on the boil. Along with preserved and salted meat, fish would have been readily available. Arthur Young, in his A Sixth Month Tour of the North of England of 1771 describes how anchovies were used in sauces and other dishes to add flavour. Oysters were then considered to be a cheap and plentiful food, which could be pack in barrels of salt water and sent across the country. Potted fish was again very common, as it could be sealed using clarified butter into clay pots, preserving it and making it easily transportable. Interestingly, potted char (similar to a large salmon) was conveyed from the Lake District (where the fish was caught) via the coaching system. Less elaborate food, prepared for poorer travellers, such as the drovers, would include a good amount of oatmeal, onions and cheese.
Along with the constant supply of hot and cold fast food during the day, a more substantial evening meal would have been provided for overnight guests. Georgian innkeepers faced the same problems that a modern hotelier faces today; that of not knowing how many guests they may have to feed, having a sufficient supply of ingredients and wanting to limit wastage. Concerns over supply and waste were compounded by the lack of refrigeration, reliance on preserved food and the seasonality of local produce. To get around this problem coaching inns offered to the everyday traveller a set menu, known as the ‘ordinary’. More well off guests or independent travellers could request their meals to be brought to their rooms. However, many guests would book a place for the ‘ordinary’, which was at a set time. Up until the mid-19th century, formal meals were served in the ‘French style’, meaning that all of the dishes were presented at once. Guests would gather together to eat at a large table which would have previously been laid with food (all course would have been served in one go). Each dish would be well presented and may have included: steaks; hung meat; preserved fish; cheese, pickles and bread; pies; potted salmon and other fish; roasted fish and meat; beans; game cutlets; cabbage; peas; potatoes; various sauces; oat cakes; fruit and cream; moulded jelly puddings and steamed puddings. Diners would serve themselves from these central platters and pass dishes across the table to one another.
Drink would have been just as important as food at a Georgian coaching inn. Kettle of tea would have been constantly on the boil on the inn’s hearths, ready to warm up weather beaten travellers and coffee or hot chocolate may have been served in a special coffee room or parlour. Beer would be available in the less refined tap rooms. Normally this beer was a simple ale brewed in the inn’s own brew house. Along with beer, wine and strong spirits would have been heavily drunk. Previously popular French Burgundy and brandy were in short supply due to the disruption to imports caused by the Napoleonic Wars, but Jamaican rum and Rhenish wine would have been a welcome alternative.
Look out for a further post on the unusual equipment used in Georgian kitchens.