Food in the Victorian era advanced as a result of technology. In 1830, about 90 percent of all food consumed in Britain was grown in Britain. By 1900, the United Kingdom could enjoy food that came from around the globe.
Food preservation became more reliable and more widespread in the Victorian era. In the late 18th century, Emperor Napoleon, concerned about feeding his armies, had offered a prize to anyone who could develop a way of preserving food. The tin can was invented by Nicholas Appert, who realized that if food were sealed tightly enough and then heated, it wouldn’t spoil.
In 1810 Englishman Peter Durand found a way to seal food into unbreakable tin containers. Bryan Dorkin and John Hall, perfecting this technique, set up the first commercial canning factory in England in 1813.By 1839, tin-coated steel cans were widely in use.
Strangely, the can opener wasn’t patented until 1858. It was surely a vast improvement over a hammer and chisel, which was the way people had to open cans before its invention.
Eliza Acton published The English Bread Book in 1852, analyzing all the then-current research on wholesome food and warning against adulteration; she had visited some bakeries where alum was added to bread in almost equal quantities to flour. Acton’s book, Modern Cookery, contained an abundance of recipes using wholesome ingredients. She was the first cookbook writer to list the ingredients needed for the dish in an orderly way, which anyone who’s gotten half-way through an instructions-only recipe and come across an unexpected item will surely appreciate.
The closed range came down in price and became a kitchen staple in the 1850s and 1860s. Originally, an “open range” was an iron box with a flat top that sat beside the open fire in the fireplace (hence the “open” designation) so that a cook could bake something inside the box while cooking something on the flat top, and spit-roasting a joint over the open fire beside it. The closed range drew the heat from the fire through various flues, so the oven part would heat evenly. These new closed ranges were excellent, especially when they had hot-water boilers beside them to produce hot water for bathing, cleaning and laundry.
An Englishman named Grimwade takes out a patent for drying milk in 1855. Dried milk became a basis for infant and baby foods. Glass baby bottles with rubber nipples also became available.
By the middle of the century, condiments and preserves, pickles and sauces were increasingly purchased from dry-goods grocers rather than being made at home. Worcestershire sauce, curry powders, marmelades, instant soup packets and Bird’s custard powder might all be found in the middle-class pantry by 1870.
Frenchman Hippolyte Mege-Mouries took out a patent in England for his butter substitute, oleomargarine, in 1869.
And continuing in the developments in the area of refrigeration begun by Bostonian Frederic Tudor in the early 1800s, in 1876, the S S Strathleven arrived in London, its refrigerated hold packed with fresh meat from Australia and New Zealand.
And of course, where would Britain be without tea? In 1833, the East India Company lost its monopoly over the China tea trade, and the next year a substantial drop in the tea duty went into effect. This made tea the beverage of choice in England. By 1857, the British people were consuming an average of 2 ½ pounds of tea a year, which averages out to one or two cups of tea a day.
The Victorian Cookbook, by Michelle Berriedale-Johnson, c. 1989
Food and Cooking in Victorian England: A History, by Andrea Broomfield, c. 2007
*Also, if you’re interested in a recipe for Spotted Dog, check out Lobscouse and Spotted Dog by Anne Chotzinoff Grossman and Lisa Grossman Thomas, c. 1997 (it’s not Victorian, because it’s a gastronomic companion to the Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian, but it’s got some great recipes).