Nothing says British like a slice of roast beef and a good old-fashioned Yorkshire pudding. Or does it? By the late 18th century, beef had a competitor – the humble cabbage. Though the leafy plant was native to Britain and had long been part of the British diet, it was a particularly foreign recipe that gained traction in the latter 1700s: sauerkraut, cabbage fermented in brine, a dish eaten widely across Europe (and a favourite of Germans in particular).
It was, however, a bewilderment to many British palates (and noses) throughout the 18th and 19th centuries – and soon became associated with foreignness. It was often used as a symbol to single out Germans by cartoonist James Gillray in his caricatures. His 1803 print, ‘Germans Eating Sour-Krout’ (main image) highlights a grotesque British view of continental cuisine in general – and Germans in particular.
It’s but one example of the continental influences that crept into British cuisine during the period. Northern Europeans (including Germans) were in London by their thousands by the 18th century – and their effect on British cuisine could be felt. Traders, diplomats and artists had long made their living on British shores, including a handful of gingerbread or ‘sugar’ bakers who set up shop in London and introduced the British to a now much-loved German classic.
Other influences came from the royals themselves. From the Glorious Revolution of 1688–9 to the cusp of the First World War, Britain’s monarchs exclusively married German, Danish, or Dutch princes and princesses. Food was one of the ways the British public discussed and understood these transnational betrothals. For example, when the daughter of George IV married a German prince in 1816, the tabloids turned to German food for an appropriate euphemism, comparing the engagement to a poke about in a German sausage shop, with the bride’s grandfather George III only too eager to make a purchase on behalf of his dear granddaughter. (The sausage in that case was Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, the future Belgian inaugural king).
The decision of Britain’s royals to seek a northern European partner was as much about the need for an eligible Protestant to take up residence in the British royal palace, as it was directly linked to the German origins of the Georgian ruling family. The result was a series of well-worn migration channels between Britain and northern Europe and a shifting culture at the upper echelons of British society, which extended to the dinner table before trickling down the social hierarchy.
Queen Charlotte’s influence
The table of Queen Charlotte and her husband King George III is perhaps the best window we have into that cultural shift. Charlotte was distinctly European. Born in Mecklenburg-Strelitz, north of Berlin, the 17-year-old arrived in Britain to marry the king in 1761. She was young enough to be influenced by British culture, but old enough to know what she liked. She seemed happy enough to be served a range of British classics for dinner, but insisted on a typically Continental cup of coffee in the morning, despite her husband’s penchant for a more British cup of tea. Charlotte and George were married for nearly six decades, had children, and endured severe and prolonged bouts of the king’s mental illness.
Portrait of Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)
Charlotte’s public image was often satirised in the British press. Another of Gillray’s cartoons, showing the king and queen at supper, presents Charlotte in an unflattering light: gorging herself on a huge bowl of sauerkraut. The dishevelled Charlotte proudly wears a cabbage leaf in her tiara, symbolic of her German-ness. These botanic emblems were useful for cartoonists, who may have turned to a shamrock to show an Irishman, a thistle for a Scotsman, or a leek for the Welsh. In this case, the cabbage symbolised both Charlotte’s status as an outsider and the royal couple’s reputation for being cheap; they are portrayed to be eating modestly and of some of the least expensive foods available to an 18th-century royal.
A 1792 James Gillray cartoon presents Queen Charlotte gorging herself on a huge bowl of sauerkraut. (Image by Alamy)
Presumably, Gillray had never been invited to tea in the royal household, as the reality was far removed from what he had imagined. Cabbage appeared regularly on the royal table, but rarely was it described as sauerkraut. Daily menus of what the royal couple were served in the 1790s show that their plates were distinctly hybrid compilations of British staples (roast beef and pigeon pie), fashionable French fare (petit patties au ris de veau, gateau mille-feuilles, or sweetbreads and pastries), and northern European favourites. In the latter category were a wide range of Germanic dishes: Dutch pancakes; Hanover Ham; and ‘Metworst’ sausages.
Some of the food physically came from Germany. George III was both king of Britain and elector of the German territory of Hanover and we know that he was sent a ray (be it a sting ray or a flat bodied skate, we don’t know) as a gift from Hanover in 1790, and some partridges a few years later. A few well-timed gifts may have helped the people of Hanover to keep themselves in the mind of their absentee leader, and to remind him that not all was roast beef.
A global household
With two cultures coming together under the palace roof, the royal household was far more international than a typical British abode of the day. The food the king and queen ate – be it British, French, or German – was all produced under the supervision of a German head chef. The pastries – even the French-sounding mille-feuilles or beignets (doughnuts) were carefully prepared by the royal family’s own in-house German confectioner, and the ‘Yeoman of the Mouth’ – the man responsible for ensuring the royals were fed – was also German. These German members of staff worked alongside dozens of British-born servants to produce a gilded world befitting the global couple.
Food for the soul also had a German flavour in the royal household. In her diary, Charlotte often recorded providing German-language religious instruction to her children on Sundays after church. It was a chance not only for her to slip back into her native tongue, but also to ensure that German culture made its way into the subsequent generations.
The evolution of British tastes
Some of the new tastes introduced by outsiders such as Queen Charlotte didn’t really catch on – sauerkraut, for instance. Others, such as Brunswick Ham or German sausages, did and remain popular today. Importantly, despite the clear continental flavour of culture at court, roast beef never went anywhere. It continued to find its way onto the tables of the palace, both for the king and queen as well as for the many servants who received dinner as part of their wages.
So too did other British dishes, from the humble plum pudding to the succulent leg of lamb – if it was British, tasty, and economical, it stood the test of time. Some British people may have grumbled about the new foreign foods and the departure from traditional standards that they represented, but it would seem that for most, it was simply an opportunity for a little something new from time-to-time. Britishness endured and was a little richer for the diversity it embraced at the table.
Adam Crymble, Rachel Rich, and Lisa Smith are historians of migration, food, and culture respectively, studying the connection between Britishness and food during the first age of nationalism. Their work is supported by the British Academy