Queen Victoria's dinners: 60 seconds with food historian Annie Gray

We tend to have two images of Queen Victoria: the petite and slender youngster who came to the throne a month after her 18th birthday, and the black-clad 'widow of Windsor', almost as broad as she was tall. At our York History Weekend this November, food historian Annie Gray will be going behind these myths to reveal a woman who loved food, yet had a complicated relationship with it. She will consider how Victoria dined, what she ate and who cooked it, providing a new perspective on one of Britain's best-known monarchs...

Annie Gray.
Annie Gray.
 
Ahead of her talk, ‘Queen Victoria: a Culinary Icon?’, we caught up with Annie to find out more…
 
Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?
 
A: New, at times personal, insights into the very well-known figure of Queen Victoria, lurid descriptions of Victorian food, and a fast trot through Victoria’s life and times. Plus an appreciation of the potential for food history to shine a light into the darkest reaches of our past.
 
Q: Why are you so fascinated by this topic?
 
A: I love to cook and eat, and I also love history, so for me the whole area is a joy. I think that Victorian food has had a rather rough press, and I set out to write a book about that, with Victoria as a central figure. 
 

Annie Gray will be discussing Queen Victoria's complicated relationship with food at BBC History Magazine's York History Weekend this November. (Getty Images)
 
I’d done bits and pieces of research into the queen and her kitchens before, both to portray her (I used to work as a costumed interpreter), and as part of a report for English Heritage. So I knew she had a complex relationship with food. However, it was only when I started researching, and realised just how central food was to Victoria's life, that my book, The Greedy Queen, really took shape as a sort of culinary biography.
 
Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this area of history.
 
A: A lot of the recipes from the past are really, really good. Britain had a very strong culinary identity, which we’ve only just started to revalue. 
 
Another surprising fact is that the Buckingham Palace kitchens were rimmed with excrement in the 1840s due to sewer running underneath them. This definitely shocked me – I had to leave some of the worst descriptions out in case people were eating while they were reading!
 
Q: What is the hardest question you’ve ever been asked about your area of expertise?
 
A: I am a panellist on a BBC Radio 4 show called The Kitchen Cabinet. Some of the topics we’ve covered for that have really stretched me, as I blitz the research the day before. The audience can ask anything, and we’ve had some very spirited debates as to why I think things were (sometimes) done better in the past. 
 

Illustrations of some of the recipes featured in 'Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management', first published in 1861."Victorian food has had a rather rough press," says food historian Annie Gray. (Getty Images)
 
Q: If you could go back in time to witness one moment in history, what would you choose and why?
 
A: I’d like to witness one average (within the context of upper class dining) meal, served à la Française, from start to finish, so I can really get to grips with the way the English ate their dinner in around 1780.
 
Q: What historical mystery would you most like to solve?
 
A: I wouldn’t – that’s the joy of history. Mind you, I wouldn’t mind knowing if the Victorian cook Charles Francatelli ever actually got his Yorkshire Christmas pie to look like the picture.
 
Q: What job do you think you would be doing now if you weren’t a food historian and author?
 
A: I have been sacked from most of my ‘proper’ jobs, so I’d still need to be self-employed. Landscape gardening has a certain appeal (though my current standard of gardening is definitely enthusiastic rather than skilful). When I was little I wanted to drive a combine harvester. 
 
Annie Gray is a historian, cook, broadcaster and writer specialising in the history of food and dining in Britain from around 1600 to the present day. Annie will be speaking about Queen Victoria’s eating habits at BBC History Magazine’s York History Weekend on Saturday 25 November. 
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