• Andrew Dennison

Dickensian Covent Garden

Covent Garden was Londons famous flower, fruit and vegetable market from 1656 until !974.

It was a vivid description of the market in George Colmans ' Broad Grins ' that caused the young Charles Dickens to venture here upon first arriving at London in 1822.

This sowed the seeds in a fertile imagination that would flourish over the next 40 or so years into the most famous and popular literature of the Victorian age.

Covent Garden featured in no less than 9 of Dickens's novels, Tom Pinch wanders around the market in Martin Chuzzlewit, Steerforth stays in a hotel here in David Copperfield, and David buys Dora flowers, and takes lodgings nearby. Arthur Clenham in Little Dorrit likewise has accommodation in Covent Garden, and Pip in Great Expectations dines in a Covent Garden Hotel. In fact the only novel without a single reference to Covent Garden is a Christmas Carol.

The Covent Garden area is also home to what is reputedly Londons oldest restaurant, Rules.

Founded in 1798 by Thomas Rule, it was an instant success. Its interior is still furnished in grand Victorian style, with 19th century prints and paintings on the walls, and dark wood tables and chairs.

Only 3 families have owned Rules in its 200 year history, Thomas Rule until 1918, the Bell family until 1984, and from then up to the present day, businessman John Mayhew. He bought it because he thought London deserved a speciality English restaurant. At Rules today, they serve classic game cookery, oysters, pies, and puddings. Upon entering you feel at once in both the city and the countryside, with nostalgic British comfort food at its best.

Charles Dickens used to dine here regularly, as did most of the Victorian elite. In fact a special table was reserved for him in an alcove toward the back of the first floor, this is now a private dining room.

Dickens's fellow author and friend William Makepeace Thackeray was also a regular at Rules, and later on, so was the future Edward VII, using it as a discrete venue to dine with his mistress, the actress Lillie Langtry.

Rules restaurant started life as an oyster bar. In the early 19th century, oysters were plentiful and cheap. By the middle of the century, oysters were fished on a massive scale, by 1864 over 700 million oysters were consumed in London alone. Beef and oyster pie was a classic Victorian dish.

In Charles Dickens's Pickwick Papers, cockney Sam Weller observes that " poverty and oysters always seem to go together " a notion that Charles Dickens would have derived as a child in Rochester and Chatham.

Food is a key theme in the work of Dickens, from the pork pie that Pip stole for Magwitch in Great Expectations, to the highly geological homemade cake which features in Martin Chuzzelwit.

There are many scenes in Dickens's novels of the young who are hungry for food and security, and are let down by the well fed adults. Charles knew the agony of childhood hunger and loneliness, he loved convivial meals, and his wife Catherine gave a lot of thought to them, as she had a little book published called ' What shall we have for dinner '.

In their London home she oversaw all the cooking, that would have been prepared on a cast iron cooking range in a small kitchen. The family hosted many dinner parties for their many distinguished literary guests.

In the ' Old Curiosity Shop ' Nell, her grandfather and their eccentric fellow travellers are revived at ' the Jolly Sandboys 'with an equally eccentric stew of tripe, cow heel, steak, peas, cauliflower, new potatoes and sparrowgrass ( asparagus ). Margaret Dodds dish of oxtail rather than cow heel, served with peas and root vegetables, is also good for a hungry crowd.

Flower sellers in Covent Garden.

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