Skip to 0 minutes and 10 seconds I’m Dr. Annie Gray. I’m a food historian specialising in the 18th and 19th centuries. And I’m here at Kensington Palace, the place where Victoria, as a child, was born, grew up, and indeed learned that she’d become queen. When Victoria turned 17, there was a birthday party, a ball, held at Saint James’s Palace, so what is now Buckingham Palace effectively. Before that ball, she dined here, her 17th birthday dinner, and she dined with her cousins Albert and Ernest. Now, she knew that she was supposed to be getting together with Albert when she grew up, and Albert knew that he was destined to marry her. But nothing was quite said between them.
Skip to 0 minutes and 48 seconds But this dinner, this whole visit for her, was very, very important, very emotional as well, because it was the first time that she met Albert knowing that she was supposed to marry him but she could still worm her way out of it if she wanted to. For him, she was a huge catch. For her, he was just some German prince. And certainly, during the whole course of his visit here at Kensington, Victoria noted in her journals that Albert was constantly beset with stomach problems, that he fell asleep during dinner, that he could not stay awake during balls.
Skip to 1 minute and 16 seconds He had to be invalided out of the ball at Saint James’s Palace on the day of her 17th birthday party while she danced the night away. But he was the choice of her family, her beloved uncle Leopold, her hated mother, and possibly of herself. So this was an occasion where she really had to work out what her feelings were. The birthday dinner itself is a really interesting thing. We know nothing about it. All Victoria says in her journal is
Skip to 1 minute and 41 seconds that “At a little after 7:00, we dined.” And she then gives a list of the people present. We can, however, surmise things about the food. So for example, we can guess that the service style will have been a la Francaise, because that is what people did at that point. We have an inventory of the Duke of Kent’s kitchen. So we can see a list of the equipment in the kitchen, things like jelly moulds and dariole moulds. We know as well that the Duke of Kent’s kitchen had ice cream making equipment and that there was an ice house here in Kensington Gardens.
Skip to 2 minutes and 8 seconds So we can be absolutely certain that ice cream or water ices or sorbets would have been served as part of the dessert course. So there are lots of things that we can tell from a general view of Georgian dining. And then we can look at the specifics of what was in the kitchen, what equipment there was, and the kind of foods that would have been available just really for that dinner. Service style had been in a constant state of change, really, throughout history. But during the Georgian period, a style developed called a la Francaise, where effectively you had three courses.
Skip to 2 minutes and 36 seconds Your first course was soup, fish, and entrees, or made dishes, as they were called, which were usually foreign named and quite posh, designed to show off the skill of your cook. They would then be taken away and your second course would come in, always roast meats, game if it was in season, and then sweet versions of those savoury entrees which were called second course sweet entremets. And they’d be things like puddings, sometimes cakes, fruit pies, the kind of things that today we would regard as sweets. All of those would be taken away. You might have cheese. And then would come dessert.
Skip to 3 minutes and 8 seconds And dessert in the Georgian period and the Victorian period and indeed the Edwardian period was always hothouse fruits, ice creams, and occasionally some form of little meringues or little biscuits. They would often stay on the table. The ladies and gentlemen would separate at the end of dinner, mainly so that everyone could go off and have a wee. And the gentlemen would stay behind in the dining room. They’d often dunk their biscuits into their port or their punch or their coffee at the end of the meal, and then they would rejoin the ladies in the drawing room for tea. That pattern was very much one of the 1780s. And it slowly started to change throughout the Victorian period.
Skip to 3 minutes and 43 seconds What comes in is a style called a la russe, which is a much more linear way of serving. Something like you would expect to find in a high end restaurant today. So you’re brought your plate. You eat what’s on it. Your plate goes away. In comes the second course. And you might have nine or 10 courses. We know that Queen Victoria resisted a la russe really ferociously. She never really truly adopted it. By the 1890s, she was eating in that linear style. But throughout most of her reign, she retained what was really an a la Francaise style of dining.
Skip to 4 minutes and 10 seconds So we can be fairly certain that in the 1830s, when she’s dining here at Kensington, what she’s doing is eating in an a la Francaise way.
17th birthday dinner
In 1836 Victoria turned 17, and a dinner and ball were held in her honour. In this video, listen to Food Historian Dr Annie Gray, who specialises in the 18th and 19th centuries, explore what we know about the birthday dinner held at Kensington Palace, and why this first meeting between Victoria and Albert wasn’t quite as hoped for.
© University of Reading and Historic Royal Palaces.