Throughout English history, there were traditionally two meals a day: breakfast and dinner. Dinner was the biggest and most sustaining meal. In medieval and Tudor times, it could be taken as early as 11am, or as late as midnight. By the time the Regency preiod began in 1810, it was a meal for early evening.
With so many hours between breakfast and dinner, people got hungry and a light snack was needed mid way through the day to keep them going.
From the fourteenth century, people had eaten “nuncheon” or “nunch”. This was the name given to a light meal, usually of cold foods such as bread, cold meats, cheeses, and fruit. It was accompanied by wine, tea or coffee, and was largely seen as a meal for ladies. Men only joined them if they happened to be at home, or out with them, at the time of the meal.
More often, men were away from home, and from their ladies, during the day, so their midday meal would be taken in a tavern, or a coffee house, or at their club. For them, the meal might consist of wildfowl and beer, or a sandwich, a pasty, or a cold collation similar to what the ladies ate.
The words “luncheon” and “lunch” were first used in the sixteenth century, and described a much simpler meal of bread and cheese. This was typical fare for the lower classes who not only could not afford the array of foods on offer to the Quality, but didn’t have the time for a leisurely meal in the middle of a working day.
When it came to drinks, people never drank plain water, as it was not safe to do so. If it was boiled for tea or coffee, or fermented into wine or beer, it was fine. Other drinks included lemonade or orgeat – a sweet drink made from almonds and barley mixed with orange flower water or rose water. There was also lemon barley water.
Coffee was not the smooth drink we know today. It was dark and thick, almost sludge-like, and very bitter. Tea was drunk from small bowls, or dishes, rather than from cups. It was expensive and precious, and kept locked in caddies. A servant who touched the tea leaves without permission could be dismissed and even charged with a serious theft. Often tea was served with slices of lemon, or sometimes a dash of milk, although generally milk was not drunk, and considered fit only for infants and invalids.
Tea was also served to morning callers, when it was accompanied by thin biscuits, fairy cakes and other sweet treats. In “The Bankrupt Viscount”, Ella comes home to find her brother making himself at home, drinking tea. This would have been the height of bad manners, and serves to show both his contempt for her and his opinion that he should have charge of the running of her properties.
Nuncheon would be taken at about 1pm. This was still thought of as morning – there was no such period as afternoon in the Regency period. Morning started at dawn and finished when people sat down to their dinner, when it became evening. This is why afternoon shows at the theatre are called “matinees”, from the French, “matin”, which means morning.
During the summer, nuncheon could be packed into baskets and taken for a picnic. It could also be eaten en famille, or with friends as a social occasion.