Can you taste London? This is a bit of an odd question, I admit. I ask it as surely an investigation into the experience of walking – now or in the past – should not and cannot ignore the human senses. Obviously, sight is a big one here. When we walk we look in front of ourselves to make sure that we go in the right direction and don’t bump into anything or anyone. Sound is also crucial. We listen out for danger and take some amount of comfort (or annoyance) at the surrounding hubbub of noise as we transverse the streets. Smell has a certain amount of importance as well, although less obvious. One is less likely to linger on a street with a bad smell than they might on one which smells of something pleasant (for example). Taste is a bit more difficult to codify into the experience of walking through an urban area, which brings us back to my initial question: can you taste London?
In the introduction to Food: The History of Taste (2007) Paul Freedman argues that ‘society’s soul’ is revealed in its cooking habits (p. 8) and he reminds us that certain tastes (and certain foods and drinks) were and often remain associated with status and class (p. 16). This is perhaps truer for the eighteenth-century than it is today in that taste was more codified by etiquette and expectation than the potential for ‘adventurous’ tasting that exists in a global market.
Meanwhile, Mark M. Smith suggests that during Britain’s age of imperial expansion in the eighteenth-century, the discovery of new foods and tastes did not, initially, always lead to a diversification of the diet. Smith argues that:
‘the initial English reaction was to emphasise the Englishness of their national cuisine. In effect, the English wrote nationalism into consumption, foodways, and taste.’
Thus food and taste, according to Smith, was tied into an idea of national identity.
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat in A History of Food (2009) takes the idea of nationalism further. He argues that traditional recipes or festive rituals ‘may relate to regional, national and religious characteristics’, and that ‘they also arise from a group’s general liking for basic foods or certain aromatics’ (p. 3). This argument must surely also hold sway for non-festive rituals – the eating of food or the drinking of drinks in specific places, with particular people or groups of people, or at certain times of the day.
Without making too much of a comparison between London now, and London of the eighteenth-century, it would be fair to claim that a walk of any length around the urban space brought people into contact with food and drink; with a variety of tastes from the exotic to the plain. We must assume then, that undertaking a walk in London, at the very least, includes pauses in which taste becomes an important part of the experience.
Taste in A Sunday Ramble
Although the companions drink and eat (and witness drinking and eating) often along with their perambulation, A Sunday Ramble rarely refers specifically to how anything tasted. It would appear that drinks and food are there to be noted by the narrator, but not pondered upon. Food and drink rarely even plays an important part in the narrative, beyond its reference as something consumed whilst the companions observe the place and/or characters in the vicinity. Mostly, it is a piece of background activity or window-dressing. Yet, the mere fact that the companions are sampling food and drink in particular locations and with particular classes and groups of people, suggests that taste could be considered an important element of a walk in eighteenth-century London.
As an example of the limited role that taste appears to have in A Sunday Ramble we can look at chapter 5, where, after taking in the views of Highgate Hill, the Captain admits that he is hungry so the companions go in search of refreshment. We are told that dinner was just being served when they arrived and that the meal was ‘hearty’. This is the nearest we get to an opinion on taste. The narrator notes that the companions ‘tolerably well appeased our appetites’ and then goes onto discussing the characters around them. Only after these descriptions are we told that the companions were drinking a bottle whilst they discussed their surroundings. In terms of description in A Sunday Ramble, this little-narrated piece contains more than some on the subject of food and drink, but it offers nothing in terms of the experience of the meal itself.
In chapter 2 the narrator notes that the ‘waters’ served at Bagnigge-Wells were ‘by no means disagreeable to the palate’ (p. 18) and suggests to the reader that the ‘virtues and effects’ are described by ‘Dr Bevis’ in a little pamphlet.
It is in this citation to John Bevis’ An experimental enquiry concerning the contents, qualities, and medicinal virtues, of the two mineral waters lately discovered at Bagnigge Wells, that the historian of taste will find their evidence. The opening paragraph even mentions walking and sets Bagnigge Wells into its location:
These wells are a little way out of London, in the high road from Coppice Row, or Sir John Oldcastle’s, which, about a quarter of a mile further, at Battle-Bridge turnpike, comes into the great new road from Paddington to Islington, affording an early access to the springs for coaches from all parts: and the foot path from Tottenham Court Road, by Southampton-Row, Red-Lion-street and the Foundling Hospital, to Islington, Clerkenwell, and Old Street, running close by the wells, is no less convenient for such as prefer walking exercise. (Bevis, 1767, pp. 1-2).
John Bevis (1695-1771) was a physician and astronomer with a particular interest in optics (which he used for observing the skies). In 1765 he was elected to the Royal Society and served as its foreign secretary from 1766 to 1771. Before all of this (around 1759), Bevis had undertaken a lengthy chemical investigation of the mineral waters at Bagnigge Wells. The resultant pamphlet came to just under 70 pages, ran to at least three editions (1757, 1760, and 1767) in his lifetime, with more published up to the early nineteenth century, and was split into two parts.
The first type of water that Bevis describes is a ‘purging water’ which is 20ft deep, never turns foul, and ‘discharges more air bubbles at the surface, than most waters do at the spring head’ (p.5). Bevis describes its taste as not disagreeable ‘in the mouth’ and upon ‘being swallowed, leaves a distinguishable brackish bitterness on the palate’ (p. 5). The second water is described as ‘Bagnigge Chalybeat Water’, which is also 20ft deep and emerges from no less than four springs. This water has a ‘sulphury smell’, Bevis tells us, and its taste is ‘highly ferrugineous (meaning rusty), with an agreeable and sprightly sub-acid tartness’ (p. 33).
As A Sunday Ramble is a tale often focused on morality, it would be expected that there is some amount of discussion and sampling of alcoholic beverages. This is indeed the case, but on most occasions, very little of interest is said about the drinks or their effects.
In the earlier editions of A Sunday Ramble in a bar near St Paul’s the companions note that the wine is good and the narrator explains that many of the bars have ‘the worst liquors, and not the best provisions’ claiming that ‘this house, […] is an exception from the general rule’ (ch. 4, p. 40, 1775-1780 editions). In all editions, a gill of Port is enjoyed at the ‘thatched-house’, the Captain declares it to be ‘as good as any he had ever tasted’ (ch. 2, p. 27), which is a recommendation postulated along with a certification by the narrator that the Captain had worked in the Port trade business for many years (a detail added in the 1794 edition). The claim here is that Port is a gentlemanly drink of fine sophistication, unlike gin, which is mentioned in chapter 5, whilst the companions make their way to Highgate. En route they encounter a variety of ‘field mendicant’s who would not let them pass without ‘telling their dismal stories’ and begging for money to ‘preserve them from the sharp attacks of hunger’, which, the Captain notes, was actually often spent on gin (p. 47). The final chapter ends the tale of the ramble with ‘a comfortable glass of cherry brandy’ (ch. 9, p. 111), again, another respectable drink.
Of food, the companions had much during their perambulation. When eating dinner, the companions share a bottle over the conversation and afterwards note that many others were doing the same for 1s each, which provided a ‘genteel dinner, consisting of two or three dishes of very excellent provisions’ (ch. 5, p. 50). Of chocolate (ch. 3, p. 36) the narrator and Captain are joined by an old gentleman who is a friend of the Captain. After complaining that newspapers are less trustworthy now than they were thirty years ago, the gentleman ‘drunk his dish of chocolate’ before leaving.
In Holloway (ch. 6, p. 62) the companions noted that the area was well-known for ‘the consumption of cakes and ales’ and in particular ‘the weekly sale of cheescakes’ which ‘no means equal in goodness those made by the pastry-cooks in town’. Returning to Bagnigge’s Wells the Captain had a bowl of negus ‘which he asserted was very good in this place’ and would be refreshing for their ‘future excursion’ (ch. 6, p. 72). Negus is a hot drink of port, sugar, lemon, and spice, which may have been invented earlier in the century.
Whilst the companions sample various foods and drinks during their journey (as discussed in our previous post entitled Sunday ramblers travel on their stomach), the only non-alcoholic drink that the narrator comments on is tea, and particularly the vices and scandals that are often blamed on tea. The narrator explains that:
Tea has had its share of blame as promoting scandal, but for what reason I know not; there is certainly nothing in the nature of that much famed Indian weed productive of scandal, any more than wine or other beverages, unless it be asserted that “as almost every person in the kingdom drinks tea, therefore almost every person talks scandal;” a position that is false in every respect. However this may be, it is not my business to defend tea in this place. (ch. 6, p. 71)
The sentence is part of a concluding remark about ‘the unhappy proneness to scandal’ of both sexes and people of various rank with which the two companions had witnessed and described during their perambulation of London on a Sunday.
Historians have become increasingly interested in trying to understand the experience of living in a past world in terms of our senses. How did it feel to live in the eighteenth-century? What were the daily smells that their noses experienced? What did food and drink taste like? How does that change the experience of living in a particular time (and of course what variations were there between classes of people, genders, age, and location)?
A Sunday Ramble contains little in the way of discussion of taste despite the fact that the companions sample a variety of dishes and drinks along their route. What it does do, however, is situate certain types of food and drink with particular places. A Sunday Ramble, therefore, helps us to identify certain tastes with a location and with a certain type of person.
John Bevis, An experimental enquiry concerning the contents, qualities, and medicinal virtues, of the two mineral waters lately discovered at Bagnigge Wells (London, 1767).
Paul Freedman, Food: The History of Taste (California, 2007)
Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat, A History of Food, trans. Anthea Bell (Paris, 2009).
Mark M. Smith, Sensory History (Oxford, 2007)