Great expectations! Take a leaf out of Charles Dickens’s book this Christmas
Charles Dickens loved a party. He was a generous host, serving delight after delight to his guests who stayed long into the early hours.
More, please: The dining room at the Dickens Museum on London’s Doughty Street
Please sir, I want some more. More? You bet. Seconds, thirds, puddings, sweets, cheese, glass after glass.
By the age of 30, novels such as Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers had made him the most famous writer in the world. On his tour of America in 1842 he was introduced to cocktails and brought them back to London.
In his travelogue American Notes, he wrote: ‘Did I tell you that my landlord made me a drink (brandy, rum, and snow the principal ingredients) called a Rocky Mountain Sneezer? Or that the favourite drink before you get up is an Eye-opener? (rum, orange curacao, egg and sugar)’. We’ll all be in need one of those when the party season kicks in.
Milk punch, a gin-based concoction of milk boiled down and flavoured with lemon and nutmeg was one of his favourites. But he also served something called a Timber Doodle.
All the right ingredients: The cellar list from Gad’s Place, punch ladles and lemon squeezer on display
While a sherry cobbler crops up in Martin Chuzzlewit, ‘a very large tumbler, piled to the brim with little blocks of clear transparent ice, through which one or two thin slices of lemon, and a golden liquid of delicious appearance, appeared from the still depths below, to the loving eye of the spectator.’
‘This wonderful invention, sir,’ said Mark, tenderly patting the empty glass, ‘is called a cobbler. Sherry cobbler when you name it long; cobbler when you name it short.’
Go to the Dickens Museum on London’s Doughty Street, where the family lived from 1837-1839, and where a new exhibition, Food Glorious Food: Dinner with Dickens, has just opened and you’ll see the house decorated for Christmas. The dining table is laden with gaudy puddings.
Chin chin: A set of champagne coupes, £72 for six, from The Vintage List
Note the dainty wine glasses which make our pub servings look like flagons and the spoons laid curved side up rather than down, as was traditional for the time.
Three silver punch ladles and a bulky lemon squeezer are on display alongside his cellar list from Gad’s Hill Place, his home in Kent. Champagne, sherry, Sauternes, Chablis, claret: Dickens lived well.
He ordered food from Fortnum & Mason — the store still has a note from his butler for a Yorkshire pie and cooked ham — and wine from Justerini, now Justerini & Brooks.
At this time of year many of us will be planning our festive gatherings. Our tables might not look so different from the one at Doughty Street. Though we might favour bowls of Quality Street chocolates over dried fruits and nuts.
No, Dickens didn’t invent Christmas, but it is thanks, in part, to him that we embrace it with such gusto. The success of A Christmas Carol, which he wrote in 1843, rekindled interest in doing things properly.
Go green: Real trees, mistletoe and holly is better for the environment than plastic decorations
Dickens understood both deprivation and decadence, which is perhaps why he embraced the latter with such enthusiasm.
This year the Victorian look chimes with our consciences. Sprigs of holly, mistletoe and real trees are more environmentally friendly than their plastic counterparts.
If you fancy shaking a Dickensian cocktail, then you might like to update your glassware at the same time. The Vintage List has sets of six champagne coupes in three designs, £72, thevintagelist.co.uk.
For gold trimmings look to LSA International, which has a set of eight tumblers for £50, lsa-international.com.
Or Iittala’s classic bobbly glasses, which come in an array of frosty shades, £11.50 for one, skandium.com. William Yeoward’s crystal is expensive but you’ll enjoy it year round, williamyeowardcrystal.com.
Set the scene: Nicola Fassano’s tableware for The Conran Shop is from £16 for a plate
When it comes to table settings, more is more. Polish the silver. Pans off, tureens on. Candles lit.
Claridge’s Christmas table settings feature gold chargers, crackers tied with grey ribbons, vases of white roses and table lamps that nod to warmly lit libraries. VV Rouleaux is still the best place for seriously special ribbons, vvrouleaux.com.
Nicola Fassano’s tableware for The Conran Shop has a crisp, festive feel. Plates from £16, conranshop.co.uk. While K.H. Wurtz’s ceramics for Skandium are beautifully tactile. The father and son team supply the crockery for some of the world’s finest restaurants, Noma among them. Plates from £50, skandium.com.
Supper is served: Pen Vogler with a Dickens-inspired pudding from her recipe book
Mud Australia do gorgeous tableware and your turkey will look the business in their pebble bowl, which comes in a ferny green and rich red as well as white, from £99, uk.mudaustralia.com.
You could even re-create the sort of menu the Dickens family would have enjoyed.
Pen Vogler’s book Dinner With Dickens: Recipes inspired by the life and work of Charles Dickens, contains his recipe for punch and the family’s Twelfth Cake, a January 5th tradition.
■ Food Glorious Food is on until April 22, 2019, dickensmuseum.org
Pep up your festive celebrations by taking a leaf out of Dickens’s book,