Episode 1: Taste

Still Life with Apples, Grapes, Melons, Bread, Jug and Bottle (wikipedia)

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.

A watercolour of Bagnigge Wells by Samuel Hieronymus Grimm (wikipedia)

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.

Tavern scene (Wikiwand)

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)

Episode 1: Preparing the food and drink in A Sunday Ramble

‘Woman selling Salop’, 1805 (Credit Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)
‘Woman selling Salop’, 1805 (Credit: © Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library)

Among the different food and beverages our ramblers partake of are some that are not common now. For example, salep is a drink made from orchis tubers, milk and sugar. In the eighteenth century, sassafras, the bark or blossoms of a tree native to North America, was a frequent addition to the recipe. Salep salesmen sold the beverage from shops around London as well as on the streets, such as one on Fleet Street that regularly advertised in London’s various newspapers. As early as 1735, the London Daily Post and General Advertiser had a news piece about ‘a Man who maintain’d his Family by selling a Liquor called Saloop’ (issue 348). More interestingly, saloop was connected to radical politics by a 1793 issue of London’s Morning Post (issue 6198):

The Lord mayor rose to state some important facts. He had always been a friend to freedom of debate, but an enemy to the abuse of it. When any information had been laid before him, he had gone to the person whom it concerned, expostulated with him on his conduct, and advised him to desist from his present practices ­ Meetings of a dangerous nature had existed in the City, had alarmed the Citizens, and several applications had been made to him for suppressing them ­ He had been present at a club, when the President had declared himself a Republican, but expressed his apprehension that were not yet sufficiently forward. Pamphlets had been circulated containing principles destructive of our happy Constitution. Great pains had been taken to spread them among the common people, and Mr. Paine’s Works had been sold in a Saloop Shop.

Our narrator relays his seeing a Saloop-man denied payment, ‘his dulcinea’, Sahlepseveral young women, and a drunkard get into an altercation.

‘Thus a general encounter commenced; the saloop-man laid about the aggressor, his companion about the saloop-man, and the girl about him: during which time, the other girls appeared very busy in separating the combatants; when, I suppose, they took the opportunity of rifling their pockets’. (pp. 3-4)

Our ramblers continue on and come across a group drinking syllabub, and this time, they join them, ‘that it might perhaps be productive of an adventure’ (p. 6). The Oxford English Dictionary describes syllabub as a drink made with milk or cream, curdled by the admixture of wine, cider, or other acid, and often sweetened and flavoured. Syllabub was a drink known to Londoners as early as March 1739, when the London newspaper, The Country Journal or The Craftsman (issue 660), stated that, ‘We all know that a Whipt-Syllabub is a very good Thing’. In 1797, a play called Whipt Syllabub played in the Green Room on Drury Lane.

The making of syllabub sounded an interesting enough exercise to be repeated in the twenty-first century and willing participants from Senate House Library, the Institute of Historical Research, and the School of Advanced Study took part in recreating the treat.

Our ramblers have a cold meal at eleven o’clock, an early lunch by our modern standards. This lunch, a ‘pint of Lisbon’ and dumplings, cold meat and bread and cheese, fills them for a couple hours until their dinner at one o’clock at Highgate. Lisbon refers to wine from Lisbon, Portugal, while the dumplings most likely refer to barm dumplings, made using the foam produced in beer making.

To make Barm Dumplins: Make a light Dough, as for Bread, with Barm, Flour, an Egg and Water; Then boil a Panful of Water, and put the Dough in it, making it into little round Balls as big as an Egg; then flat them with your Hand, and put them in the boiling water: Ten Minutes boils them : Take care they don’t fall to the Bottom. Send them to the Table with beat Butter in a Cup. Put salt on them. (Elizabeth Cleland, A New and Easy Method of Cookery (1755), facsimile ed. (Totnes, 2005), p. 123)

At five o’clock, our ramblers stop a second time at Bagnigge Wells, a spa quite close to the Foundling Hospital and the subject of a future post. The Captain, feeling tired, partakes of a bowl of Negus there. This was a drink made from wine, usually port or sherry, mixed with hot water, sweetened with sugar.

Many of the items our ramblers consumed on their journey reflect London’s role as a major hub of trade, from the sassafras from North America to the sugar from the Caribbean to Portuguese wine, as mentioned in the previous blog. These ingredients either altered more traditional meals, like having ‘Lisbon’ with barm dumplings, or led to the development of new and popular recipes, like syllabub. And eighteenth-century syllabub was again popular, even if only for an afternoon in Senate House.

Episode 1: Sunday ramblers travel on their stomachs

Food and drink play a large role in A Sunday Ramble, mentioned seventeen times in the text, with our ramblers themselves eating three times and drinking twelve. Their meals include breakfast at the Bank Coffeehouse; ‘an excellent cold collation’ at an establishment near St Paul’s, and dinner on Highgate Hill. The ample descriptions of food and drink indicated more than just London’s emergence as a centre for conspicuous consumption, although with three meals, two bottles of wine, a glass of wine, salep, syllabub, a bowl of negus, a pint of port, a glass of port, tea, coffee twice, ‘a comfortable glass of cherry brandy’ and ‘a bumper of red port’, consumption was clearly the order of the day.

Borough Market, 2015 (photo by Reiner Schulz)

London had over thirty markets in the late eighteenth century, some retail and some wholesale, a demonstration of the growth in trade for London at that time. Food came from all over the British Isles and beyond, and London as a whole had different habits in consumption than the rest of Britain. For example, tea and coffee were more popular in London, as were sugar and treacle. Londoners consumed more fats in general than those who lived elsewhere in Great Britain, leading one to question the role of nutrition and diet in the fact that Londoners were shorter than the British average.[1] However, food prices increased greatly during the late eighteenth century with wars having an impact on the food supply. In short, Londoners had different eating habits, a wider range of commodities but an increase in prices as the century closed. The higher costs are not evident in A Sunday Ramble but the consumption of sugar, found in the syllabub, salep, and negus, is apparent. Our narrator and the Captain were simply consuming as Londoners did in the eighteenth century.

The Royal Exchange, from Views of the principal buildings in London; with an account of the curiosities they contain (1800?)

The first of the three meals eaten by our ramblers was breakfast, and the ‘place we judged most convenient for our morning repast, was the Bank Coffeehouse near the Royal Exchange’.

‘When we arrived, we found the room tolerably full of various kinds of people. The sober citizen, the stock-jobber, and the politician, were promiscuously seat together; sipping their coffee, reading the papers, and displaying their several talents, (or want of talents) in curious arguments on their favourite topics.’ (p. 28)

While there is no description of the actual food they ate, there is a mention of a man at a neighbouring table who finished off his ‘dish of chocolate’. In the eighteenth century breakfast was usually a small meal, sometimes bread and butter with a hot beverage like coffee, tea or chocolate. Bread in the morning was recommended by Nicholas Robinson in his A treatise on the virtues and efficacy of a crust of bread: eat early in a morning fasting, to which are added some particular remarks concerning the great cures accomplished by the saliva or fasting spittle. (London, 1756)

Over breakfast, conversation covered a range of subjects: ‘Some were enquiring the price of stocks, other the state of trade; while others, more ridiculous than either, were planning schemes for paying the national debt without any taxes at all, and contriving methods to humble the French and oblige them to submit to the decrees of a minister’ (p. 28). Finally, ‘we found our appetites sufficiently satisfied; and not perceiving any other characters worthy of notice, we thought proper to quit this place: which we immediately did, on paying for our breakfasts, and receiving an agreeable smile from the captivating eyes of a very beautiful bar-maid’ (p. 37).

Just a couple of hours later, our ramblers once again are hungry.

‘As we came out of the church, my friend acquainted me that there was a place close by St. Paul’s in the city, which it would by no means be improper to visit; as it was famous for an ancient custom that used to prevail in town to treat customers on a Sunday morning with dumplings, cold meat and bread and cheese, for their morning guests; and this practice occasions many to visit the house on a Sunday, who never make their appearance there at any other time; but as the landlord knows this sort of people tolerable well he takes care they shall not have an over good bargain of it, furnishing them with only the latter article for their reflection, but with this they are sure to get good liquor, and the most obliging usage from Mr. Kelly, who is a most loyal soul, and the Captain’s and my best friend in town. (pp39-40)

With their cold lunch of meat, bread and dumplings, our ramblers are approached by a young man who asks, ‘Well, gentlemen, what are your thoughts of the war? Do you think our government will interfere much longer with the French; this is an unfortunate war; we shall have no trade while it lasts; will it last long think you?’ (p. 40). Political topics dominate the rest of the meal until the ramblers continue their journey.

A Sunday ordinary at Highgate, from The tricks of London laid open (1785)
A Sunday ordinary at Highgate, from The tricks of London laid open (1785)

Not long after their cold meal, the ramblers decide to dine. ‘THE day being remarkably fine, we agreed to take a walk as far as Highgate, to dinner; where my friend told me we should meet with a good ordinary, and plenty of genteel company’ (p. 47). As with breakfast, there is no description of what is served at dinner, just that is ‘made a very hearty meal’ (p. 48). Listening to gossip about an Italian musician and a reporter from the House of Commons as they sit at a table of nearly twenty persons with a landlord and landlady, our ramblers finish a bottle of wine and spend an hour in ‘very agreeable conversation on different subjects’ before continuing their walk (p. 50).

The mentions of sassafras, chocolate, and sugar in A Sunday Ramble demonstrate London’s role as an importer and centre for the consumption of goods from around the world. Just as our narrator and the Captain talk about ‘the mad man Tom Paine’, as well as tell a story of ‘one of the principal merchants of this metropolis’ while at the Bank Coffeehouse, London was a key hub in the movement of not just ideas but also of goods. While worrying about the ‘unfortunate war’ with the French over ‘a pint of Lisbon’ near St Paul’s, our narrator and the Captain display their knowledge of the world’s happenings while partaking of the world’s products.

The variations in editions are discussed in several other posts, and there are some small changes in what our ramblers consume between the phase one and phase two editions, with additional opportunities for drink phase two. For example, simply including the leg of the journey that carries our ramblers to Bermondsey means that the ‘bumper of read port’ is added to the consumption total for the day. Phase two editions include a visit to the Thatched House, where they imbibe a gill of red port they did not drink in the phase one editions. Our ramblers also drink negus at Bagnigge Wells in 1794, during which they have a conversation with Bob Short, ‘the author of many short trifles, mostly useful for young folks or country families’. (p. 72) In phase one editions, our ramblers arrive at a very crowded Bagnigge Wells, ‘and though we were disposed to have drank a glass of wine, could perceive no place where we might conveniently fit’. The phase one ramblers move on to their next leg without that particular drink made of port, sugar, lemon and flavouring. Phase one ‘dumplins’ become ‘dumplings’ in phase two, but the meal remains at the same time and is composed of the same foods. Adding drinks, such as the ‘comfortable glass of cherry brandy’ at the end of the phase two journey, allows for the inclusion of more conversation and gossip. Therefore, as our ramblers drink more, we learn more.

“Mr. Vernon in the character of Macheath. If thus a man can duel, Much bolder with Brandy.” (from The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1777-02-01)

[1] Floud, Roderick, Annabel Gregory and Kenneth Wachte, Height, Health and History: Nutritional Status in the United Kingdom, 1750-1980 (Cambridge, 1990), p. 126.