Robinson Crusoe Quote

"He preferred, however, "gourmandization," was an idolater of a certain decent, commodious fish, called a turtle, and worshipped the culinary image wherever he nozed it put up."
---The Contradiction (1796)

Friday, 6 April 2012

The Best Turtle-house in Town

The 18th century epicure is an elusive character, slippery to pin down and all too cryptic when he rests his fork and knife for a brief moment and tells us of his gastronomical adventures.  And all too often, I find only brief, posthumous traces of him, as this satirical will illustrates:  
Memoirs of the dying, or, a collection of wills, executed by several
of the most eminent characters, of both sexes, now living, in Great Britain
Who was B---- G----ne?  Perhaps a thinly veiled reference to particularly gluttonous City alderman, or maybe an East India Company official hooked on the good life.  (The famous London Tavern was their unofficial hangout throughout the second half of the 18th century.)  Maybe he was based on nobody at all, a mere invention for the public's amusement.  But whoever he was, he must have been very well-to-do, because only the upper crust –– both in title and in wealth –– could afford to dine "at the best Turtle-house in town" on a semi-regular basis.  And only the most zealous connoisseur would select a turtle house as his legacy to posterity.
Out of many breeds, "green turtle" was the most highly valued
Indeed, "this pleasant and salubrious meat," in one contemporary's terms, was not so easy to come by. The astronomical prices paid for it –– it could get as high as 4 shillings, 6 pence a pound (shell included) –– likened it to imported luxuries like truffles or caviar today.  I guess the price starts to make a little more sense when one considers the hardships of the reptilian middle passage.  One contemporary lamented:

"The green turtle Indeed has become a branch of commerce, and ships are provided with conveniences for supplying them with water and provision ... this cannot, however, always be effected; for though they scarce require any provision upon the voyage, yet the workings of the ship occasions them to be beat against the sides of the boat that contains them, by which they become very lean and battered; so that, in order to eat this animal in the highest perfection; instead of bringing the turtle to the epicure, the epicure ought to be transported to the turtle."
   - A new, complete and universal body, or System of natural history, being a grand, accurate and extensive display of animated nature (1785) 

Given the fact that 18th century Jamaica was not considered the healthiest climate for the fragile and delicate English constitution, many decided not to take the trip.  But this did not slow the public's insatiable craving for luscious green turtle fat.  But where did fashionable men get their hands on it?  Where was the best turtle house in town?  The question is still unresolved, but I've noted a few potential candidates;

1. Wood's Hotel, Tavern and Coffee House, Covent Garden:  The New London Magazine noted "if any preference to it can be given in preparing any particular viands, it is that of turtle and game" (Volume 4, Issue 6, 1788).

An Ad from the Morning Herald, 1793

2. The Queens Arms Tavern, St. Paul's Churchyard: A long time hang-out of City politicians, one source observed "great numbers of these animals are dressed at the Queen's-arms-tavern... where we remember to have seen them in two extremes ... three Turtles, two of which together did not weigh three ounces, and the other exceeded nine hundred pounds in weight." (A new, complete and universal body, or System, of natural history, 1787)

3. The London Tavern, Bishopsgate Street: One of the chicest places in town; on August 24, 1787 The World and Fashionable Advertiser published a bill of fare reputedly from an alderman's dinner that featured no less than 10 dishes of it.  Check out the first course below: