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Food In The Hobbit

An Unexpected Party By John Howe

An Unexpected Party - Image Copyright Artist John Howe

“Gandalf Tea Wednesday. Or at least this is what Bilbo should have written down … Some called for ale, and some for porter, and one for coffee, and all of them for cakes . . . A big jug of coffee had just been set in the hearth, the seed-cakes were gone, and the dwarves were starting on a round of buttered scones . . . ‘And raspberry jam and apple-tart,’ said Bifur. ‘And mince-pies and cheese,’ said Bofur. ‘And pork-pie and salad,’ said Bombur. ‘And more cakes — and ale — and coffee, if you don’t mind,’ called the other dwarves through the door. ‘Put on a few eggs, there’s a good fellow!’ Gandalf called after him, as the hobbit stumped off to the pantries. ‘And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles!’” An Unexepcted Party, The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien.

Understanding Hobbit Food And Recipes

Placing The Period Of The Shire In Middle-Earth

So how does a Food Historian go about placing the culinary period and location of The Shire in Tolkien’s fictional book, The Hobbit …

Tolkien’s obvious enjoyment of food and drink at communal meals with friends, family and colleagues at Oxford, is very much translated into his works. Many of the scenes featuring food are intended to lift the mood, and do so successfully; yet Tolkien also uses them to indicate many other things: the history of the place, the level of development reached, the status of a person (and the dwelling) and any relationship dynamics which are important to highlight; this is only to mention just a few of Tolkien’s uses in describing scenes featuring food and drink. This is in fact everything a Food Historian really needs to reach conclusions about the food served.

For instance, Tolkien tells us that Hobbits are fond of six meals a day, including two dinners, if they can get it, while in the Prologue to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ he points out, they “eat, and drink, often and heartily … [while] growing food and eating it occupied most of their time.”

And pin-pointing the food history ‘period’ of The Shire in the Hobbit gets even easier because of the tone and word choice of the descriptions and names Tolkien uses, ‘Porter and Ale’, ‘Pork Pie’, ‘Buttered Scones’ etc. and not just of the food and drink, but the whole atmosphere within the scene. From these elements (which are all there in the book) a British Food Historian could tell you exactly what was served … but luckily we also we have Professor Tolkien’s own words to help guide us …

Tolkien’s Letter’s

“But, of course, if we drop the ‘fiction’ of long ago, ‘The Shire’ is based on rural England and not any other country in the world, (Tolkien’s Letters, 250 #190) … [The Shire] is in fact more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee, (Tolkien’s Letters, 230 #178) … There is no special reference to England in the ‘Shire’ — except of course that as an Englishman brought up in an ‘almost rural’ village of Warwickshire on the edge of the prosperous bourgeoisie of Birmingham (about the time of the Diamond Jubilee!) I take my models like anyone else — from such ‘life’ as I know, (Letters, 235 #181)”.

In effect then The Shire was an idealized version of the rural England of Tolkien’s childhood and we can pinpoint this still further: Warwickshire village life (near Birmingham) in 1897 Victorian England.

Understanding The Context Of The Period

This certainly fits with the descriptions and images of The Shire in both the Hobbit and the prologue to the LOTR, ‘Concerning Hobbits’. Yet to truly understand Bilbo and his home it helps if we think of another great figure from literature, ‘Mr. Bennet’, a country gentleman of moderate fortune in Jane Austen’s, ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Mr. Bennet is living in rural Hertfordshire, (just north of London) and he, like Bilbo, is a bit quirky, “so odd a mixture of quick parts … and peculiarities”.

And although ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is set in the early 1800’s, it is this ‘hang-over’ from a pre-industrialised rural community that Tolkien still remembers from his childhood. In other words … what Mr. Bennet has stocked in his larder and pantry, we can be sure Bilbo had stocked in his (Mr Bennet’s numerous children making up for a bachelor Hobbit’s appetite).

Now we know where and when, we can couple that with what was served, and we can faithfully recreate that same Tea Party that Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves so enjoyed. Well maybe not Bilbo … at first.

Final note: anachronistic or not to the rest of the fictional world described in the LOTR, The Shire is at a level of sophistication and development that mirrors rural Victorian England, not only is it plainly aparent from the descriptions in the books, but Tolkien himself has firmly told us this; and so the food and ingredients used must reflect this ‘period’ and this ‘place’ and no other. Food previous to this ‘period’ may be included, but why should they be? Apart from simple, unchanging recipes like bread, culinary dishes of ‘history’ to the Hobbits would be for them like Tudor dishes are to us, somewhat old-fashioned.

What Is High-Tea And Low-Tea?

To be understood before setting the scene in the chapter ‘An Unexpected Party’

A lot of people (if not most) have the wrong idea about what a Victorian (1800s) ‘high-tea’ is, when people say high-tea, they actually mean low-tea … it has been wrongly termed for nearly 70 years because to us ‘high’ sounds more upper class than ‘low’ … Yet high-tea was a working man’s hearty tea and supper after a long, hard day of manual labour. It was the combination of afternoon tea and the evening meal, of various dishes and cold cuts of meat and cheese, eaten on a high table, (usually the only table in the house).

Afternoon tea on the other hand would often be served for guests sitting around smaller, lower tables in the parlour with dainty desserts and fine china on them, and was always referred to as low-tea. This was the tea preferred by the upper classes, who had a much later evening meal in the separate dining room on the higher tables.

What Bilbo started out hastily arranging when the bell rang was low-tea, for an important wizard, although to his dismay it ended up being a high-tea, for common ‘coal miners’ – this then is the underlying humour of the entire chapter, ‘An Unexpected Party’. Tolkien would have understood these strict conventions from his Victorian childhood, and he obviously (and thoroughly) enjoyed standing them on their head.

An Unexpected Party

Food And Recipes Served By Bilbo In The Hobbit

PORK-PIE: | Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Recipe | Traditional Pork Pie Recipe | As a child and living so close Tolkien might perhaps have been a fan of the properly made and commercially sold Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. There really is no other pork pie quite it’s equal. Melton, in Mowbray, Leicestershire, is the area located from where these famous Victorian pies were first sold (from the 1830′s). Made with a hot water crust pastry and proper pork ‘jelly’ this would have been a firm favourite taken at tea. Today, when people say pork pie, this is the standard pie they think of. We would make a large, round, hand-raised pie for this, following the recipe given.

Melton Mowbray Pork Pie

A Traditional Melton Mowbray Pork Pie

SEED-CAKES: | Seed Cake Recipe | “Seed-cake if you have any, … Lots! Bilbo found himself answering”. This may be one of the cakes Tolkien remembers fondly from his childhood days. It was very popular in Victorian England because it lasted many days kept wrapped and could be relied upon to serve several guests and large families, while the ingredients in the recipe were not expensive and were plentiful. We have directions from the book to make them ‘beautiful and round’ and we also know Bilbo had baked two that very afternoon. One of the most famous Victorian recipe books of this period was Mrs Beeton’s and this is where we shall get the recipe for seed-cake.

BUTTERED SCONES: | Buttered Scone Recipe | What more English tea-time treat could you get than a buttered scone? These would have been kept wrapped in a box or tin in the pantry, they are simple to make and so very tasty freshly made, but if dried out, from being kept too long, they were also wonderful toasted in front of the fire. These would have been fresh, baked tall and served uncut, ready for the person eating them to cut them in half and spread on a little butter, and perhaps some jam and even some clotted cream. The best advice to give is to make sure they rise, making them tall, rather than squat, (note: these would not be fruit scones, or drop scones, these are the Victorian buttered scones, always served prompt at 4 pm for tea). The inclusion of this food item served at ‘Tea’, if nothing else, tells you what period ‘The Shire’ is set in.

RASPBERRY JAM: | Raspberry Jam Recipe | Called for by Bifur. Raspberries make a wonderful jam, both on bread and on scones. This is a traditional Raspberry Jam recipe of the 1800s, and it is still made and recommended today.

more recipes follow …

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