Savoury truths

Food - Bee Wilson discovers that men aren't sweeties

Why are gentlemen supposed to have such salty palates? I was wondering this the other day while eating a savoury at dinner in a gentleman's club (the posh kind, on Pall Mall, not the other kind). We were dining rather late, and the full range of the usual savoury morsels offered by this particular establishment (scrambled eggs, Welsh rabbit and so on) was not available to us. The only savoury left on the menu was anchovy toast, so we ordered it. Not being a gentleman myself, I was expecting some elegant canape, made with butter and lemon juice, and was therefore startled to receive a circle of toast covered in an entire tin of unembellished anchovies, so salty they anaesthetised the roof of my mouth, and so pungent you could smell the salt as it evaporated in the air along with the scent of claret fumes and wood polish. A real gentleman, I was told, would have salted the toast still further without tasting it, a sign of his true mettle (or ravaged taste buds).

The English custom of serving savouries is a singular one - or was, because it seems barely to exist any longer outside clubs and colleges. The savoury is, unsurprisingly, a Victorian habit. Snacks of anchovies and cheese had already been eaten in the 18th century, but in those days they were served as appetisers at the start of the meal, much as we might now serve anchoIade, cheese straws or goat's cheese souffles. But in the mid-19th century, savouries were introduced at the end of formal dinners as a way of cleansing the palate after the sweet course and before the dessert and port. It seems rather peculiar that, after polishing off fish, meat and a rich trifly pudding, anyone should think that hot cheese, kippers or bacon would be just the ticket. But then, Victorians might find the current manly devotion to a post-dinner kebab just as puzzling.

Victorian savouries tended to be a masculine preference. According to Elizabeth Ayrton: "Ladies very often missed the savoury, their delicate appetites already sated on the seven or so courses which might have preceded it. Gentlemen, on the other hand, sometimes missed the sweet, and this was considered rather discerning and manly." A Victorian manuscript recipe for Scotch woodcock (anchovy toast covered in thick cream sauce) remarks: "This is much approved by men." Gentleman's relish, that strong grey paste, also evokes this notion, that men's tastes veer towards the saline. Young men at Peterhouse who've read too much Evelyn Waugh often have a jar of it in their rooms, ready to make impromptu anchovy toast at any time of day or night.

On the other hand, Queen Victoria is known to have eaten savouries made from boiled marrowbone, salt, pepper, chopped parsley, lemon juice, squares of hot crisp toast and "a mere suspicion" of shallot. They sound good. Mrs Beeton gives a recipe for toasted cheese, which, interestingly, she calls "Scotch rarebit" instead of the more usual "Welsh". Other Victorian savouries included rich little platefuls of mushrooms in cream with "mock caviare" made from anchovies, parsley and either chives or shallots, pounded with oil and lemon in a mortar.

Savouries of the interwar period seem often to have been somewhat more eccentric, with strange combinations cropping up such as dandelion leaves and Worcester sauce (a Cheshire recipe of 1929), mint and sultana sandwiches (eaten on the Isle of Wight in 1931) or herring roe with curry powder (from a Yorkshirewoman's scrapbook of the same year). Many recipes revolved around boiled onions and/or cayenne pepper. In 1934, the prolific Ambrose Heath published Good Savouries, dedicated in a Mitfordish way to someone called "Poo". He defends his subject thus: "Unorthodox gastronomically, I suppose, and abhorred by the serious wine-lover, the small savoury nevertheless often makes an admirable ending to a meal, like some unexpected witticism or amusing epigram at the close of a pleasant conversation." As well as all the familiar kidney toasts, angels on horseback (oysters wrapped in bacon), devils on horseback (prunes wrapped in bacon) and so on, Heath includes more recherche dishes, such as Canapes Charlemagne, Cadogan toasts and these Croutes Derby: "Make a nice puree of ham, and spread it on your croutes. Surmount each by half a pickled walnut." A "nice puree of ham" isn't something you come across much any more.

Here are recipes as well for tomato ice, a sort of savoury sorbet, and a concoction made from toast, thin slices of tongue and piped rosettes of butter. Most exotic of all is "Camembert in aspic", a whole camembert set in jelly, to be "cut in slices like a cake". There is a point at which the savoury ceases to be manly and becomes, how shall I put it, just a little effeminate.

This article first appeared in the 28 May 2001 issue of the New Statesman, And men shall speak unto men