Chicken stew and Burgundy

Wining, dining and identity in the United Provinces in the 18th century


Anne Wegener-Sleeswijk 

Choosing a wine for a meal has always been a delicate matter. Without any doubt, wine is, and used to be one of the drinks that carries the greatest social meaning. It has never been simply a beverage, intended only for quenching thirst. How did 18th century people perceive each other’s drinking ways? And what did wine drinking mean to consumers? In this paper, I study the evolution of habits for pairing food and wine in the United Provinces in the 18th century and more in particular how these choices participated in construction of individual and collective identities.

Beer, tea, coffee and Dutch gin were the major beverages in Holland in the 18th century. These drinks accompanied meals, but were also drank separately. Wine was a luxury product, but many people nonetheless had wine at least from time to time. At almost all levels of society, wine marked celebrations and the major life events.

Habits in wine drinking profoundly changed over the eighteenth century. Preferences shifted from white, to red wine. Growing criticism of drunkenness and a new standard of behavior limited excessive drinking. Wine also became an increasingly diversified luxury product and as a consequence, expensive wine was often used by the elite as a social signifier. At the same time and in spite of economic decline, wine drinking became fashionable among large pans of the Dutch population, which led to widespread falsification and the birth of a Dutch “wine brewing” industry.

Popular songs, engravings, cookery books and treaties on courtesy show that people considered particular wines to be fit for consumption at specific occasions or to be served with singular food. Lean small white wines such as Poitou would for instance be associated with the public sphere (inns, fairs, brothels) and paired with cold dishes, fish and oysters. Médoc on the contrary, was served at intimate bourgeois dinner parties and belonged to the realm of higher class leisure such as “kolf” parties and enlightened literary meetings. It was matched with exquisite French meat dishes and smoking.

As cooks, inn-keepers, wine importers and “French bakers”, Huguenots were instrumental in the spread of French food fashion, wine drinking and in the refinement of Dutch culinary culture and table manners. However, this increasing subtlety was not universally appreciated, but rejected by part of the (mainly Orangist) population as a perversion of traditional frugal Dutch ways. Moreover, the contribution of luxury consumption to the public interest was very controversial. As such, wine carried considerable political significance.