The British Library has today published a new edition of the 1815 Epicure’s Almanack, the first ever ‘good food guide’ to London. Listing some 650 eating houses, taverns, coffee houses, and inns, the original Almanack was the work of Ralph Rylance, an aspiring poet and dramatist. This new edition, edited by Janet Ing Freeman, presents his original text together with commentary on many of the establishments and on the wider subject of eating and drinking in London at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Fewer than 30 copies of the original book are recorded in libraries today. It was never continued nor reprinted, and lack of public enthusiasm for the guide meant that several hundred unsold copies were destroyed two years after publication. Nonetheless, scholars continue to refer to it for descriptions such as that of London’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindostanee Coffee House in Marylebone, where all the dishes were ‘dressed with curry-powder and the best spices of Arabia’, and a room was set apart for ‘smoking from hookahs with oriental herbs’.
Rylance reviewed the eateries and their menus single-handedly and on foot. His book provides an excellent contemporary view of an important aspect of Regency London life, and gives a glimpse of a bygone city, in which the oysterman at the Cock Tavern in Fleet Street busily opens shells ‘with the dexterity of a squirrel’ and more elegant eating houses display their wares in the window, including the ‘fine, lively, amiable turtle’ shortly to appear on the menu.
Some of the places Rylance describes are still in business today, nearly two hundred years later, including the Spaniards on Hampstead Heath, the Windmill on Clapham Common, and the Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Street, where in 1815 dinners were ‘served up smoking’.
As Janet Ing Freeman says: “Throughout Rylance's book London itself remains central: it's not just about fine dining, but discovering in any neighbourhood a place where – as the author puts it – you might ‘dine well and to the best advantage’, whatever your budget.”
“The Epicure’s Almanack may not have been a success in its own day, but it is now a fascinating resource both for the researcher and the general reader”, says David Way, Publisher, British Library.
Resources such as the British Library’s digitised British Newspapers 1600-1900 have allowed the editor to recount the history of many of the establishments described, and more than forty details from contemporary maps in the Library’s collection make it possible for the reader to follow in Ralph Rylance’s footsteps as he explores the streets of London.
Janet Ing Freeman is an Honorary Visiting Professor at University College London. Her previous books include (jointly with Arthur Freeman) John Payne Collier: Scholarship and Forgery in the Nineteenth Century.
The book is available from the British Library Shop (tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7735 / e-mail: email@example.com) and online at www.bl.uk/shop as well as other bookshops throughout the UK.
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