Condiments, that is. With a castar, a castor, or a caster. All spellings were current and acceptable during the decade of the Regency. However, today the name of this useful item of table furniture is most commonly spelled "caster." Though it had originated on the tables of royalty and the nobility in the late sixteenth century, the caster eventually became an item commonly used in most well-to-do households by the late eighteenth century.
By the Regency, the caster had joined forces with other condiments containers and together they held high court on most formal dining tables from the vantage point of the epergne.
The caster is a container with a lid pierced with many holes, intended for the convenient sprinkling powdered condiments onto food. The roots of its name are in the verb, "to cast," which means "to throw." Essentially, that is exactly what one did with a caster, they cast their powdered condiments onto their food to season it to taste. Casters are similar in concept to our salt and pepper shakers of modern times. But during the Regency, and for centuries before, the caster was used to cast not only salt and pepper, but also powdered mustard and other spices, as well as sugar, onto food.
Today, most people believe that centuries ago food was heavily spiced to mask the odor and flavor of victuals which were in various states of spoilage because they could not be refrigerated or otherwise preserved. Recent scholarship has shown this was not the primary use of spices. There were many ways to preserve food and people did not subsist on a diet of rotting meat or vegetables unless they were in very dire straits. Rather, the use of spices was a pointed act of conspicuous consumption. Spices were very costly, and thus, it was perceived that a household which could afford to have many of them available at table was very wealthy, and therefore, powerful. Well into the eighteenth century, in both England and across the Continent, many chefs went to great effort to incorporate as many exotic spices as possible into the recipes for the dishes they created for their patrons. This was done to demonstrate not only their own creativity, but also as a subtle exposition of their patron’s wealth and power.
By the early nineteenth century, the cost of spices was more reasonable, and they no longer served primarily as a show of wealth and power. Thus, most dishes were prepared with fewer spices so that those who consumed them could enjoy the unique flavors which the spices brought out in the food itself. But many still liked to add seasonings to their food after it reached the table. Pepper was a staple on most tables, though typically it was not the black pepper we commonly use today. During most of the eighteenth century and through the years of the Regency, white pepper was the pepper of choice. White pepper is made from the same peppercorns as black pepper, but with an added step in the process which removes the black skin, leaving only the pale inner seed. Salt was also readily available on the Regency table, yet it was more commonly served in a small open vessel called a salt cellar or salt box than it was in a caster.
Mustard was also very popular for seasoning food at table during the Regency, and was enjoyed in two different forms. The mustard seed itself was powdered and sprinkled directly onto food. Or, the mustard seeds were crushed or ground and mixed with other ingredients to make what was usually called "mustard cream." Powdered mustard was served in a caster, while mustard cream was typically served in small open pots.
Pulverized sugar was served in casters in the early nineteenth century. Granulated sugar as we know it today was not available during the decade of the Regency. Sugar bowls or basins were commonly made for most tea sets, but they were intended to hold lumps of sugar which had been broken off a sugar loaf with sugar nippers just for the occasion. However, if one wanted to sweeten fruit during the dessert course, one would reach for the sugar caster. It contained sugar which had been pulverized by pounding lumps of sugar until the result was similar to our granulated sugar. This pounding of the sugar might be done at home, by those who could only afford to buy loaf sugar. But most shops which sold sugar loaves also sold what they called "powdered sugar," which was, naturally, more expensive. This Regency-era "powdered sugar" was not as finely powdered as the confectioner’s sugar we can purchase today, but it was a bit finer than our regular granulated sugar. "Caster sugar" can still be found in England today, and it is similar to what in America is known as superfine or bar sugar. Regency caster sugar was a favorite for sprinkling on fruit, sweet biscuits, or anything else which could be improved by a bit of sweetening.
Casters were basically cylindrical in shape, taller than they were around, their lids were often dome-shaped and pierced in intricate patterns. They were usually made of precious materials and were often quite decorative, particularly when intended to grace the formal dining table. Through the eighteenth century casters had been primarily made of silver, or occasionally of gold. In most cases, only royalty or the extremely wealthy could afford casters made of gold. The aristocracy typically had their family crest engraved on the body of silver casters. Those not of the aristocracy preferred to have their personal cypher or monogram engraved on their silver or more rarely, gold casters.
By the Regency casters were still commonly used and many were still made of silver, as was traditional. A very few were still made of gold, but some were made of more than one material. Regency cut glass was some of the finest glass ever produced in England and its glittering facets were happily married with silver. Casters with a cut glass body and a pierced, domed silver lid were introduced in the early nineteenth century and were very popular during the Regency. Casters might also be made in the less expensive Sheffield plate, which gave the impression of silver, but at a much lower cost.
When the caster was employed solely in the kitchen, it was very often called a dredger. Dredgers were usually much larger than table casters, and were square as often as they were cylindrical. They did have pierced lids, but with more and larger holes. They were seldom decorative and were generally made of pewter or other white metals. Dredgers were used to sprinkle mixtures of flour and sugar or flour and spices onto food while it was being prepared. There are many instructions in eighteenth and nineteenth century English cookbooks which call for meat or vegetables to be dredged with a specified combination of spices and/or flour. This would have been accomplished with the use of a dredger.
Vinegar and oil were usually set out on the dining table along with the other condiments. These were typically served in cruets, small stopped bottles with narrow necks, and, in many cases, a looped handle. Cruets were most commonly made of glass, either cut or molded, but they might have silver fittings, particularly if they were of the more expensive cut glass. By the late eighteenth century casters and cruets had joined forces and were often made in matching sets, which included a frame or stand to hold the group of vessels. Some of these condiment sets also included mustard pots and salt cellars or boxes.
In the early nineteenth century, these condiment sets gave up their frames to take their place as part of the evolving epergne, which held pride of place at the center of most upper-class formal dining tables. Placement on the epergne ensured that all condiments were readily available in a central location through all the courses of a meal. This placement also ensured that they did not take up precious table space at a time when each course of a meal constituted a large number of dishes which all must have a place on the table at the same time. Households which could not afford an epergne might still have a condiment set in a frame which was centrally placed on their dining table during a meal. But that condiment stand would most certainly have included at the very least a pepper caster and quite probably both mustard and sugar casters as well. Most private dining rooms in the better inns would also be furnished with a fully equipped condiment stand.
Casters survived well into the early twentieth century, and in some cases are still part of family silver collections. Casters from the seventeenth century through the twentieth centuries can still be found in various antique shops and at auction, both online and in the real world. But beyond a pair of salt and pepper shakers, very few of us have them on our dinner tables now, in the twenty-first century. How many of us feel the need to sprinkle powdered mustard over our dinner these days? Yet a full compliment of casters, cruets, mustard pots and salt boxes would have been de rigueur on any formal dining table anywhere in Regency England.
It has occurred to me that a well-equipped condiment stand could provide potential weaponry for the heroine of a Regency novel. Imagine that young lady, forced into dining tête à tête with the villain, desperately seeking escape. A caster-full of pepper, or better still, powdered mustard, tossed in his face might be just the thing to incapacitate him long enough for her to make her getaway. If he has henchmen, the cruet of oil spread on the floor near the door could hinder them long enough for her to elude them and escape. Or, perhaps the heroine wishes to teach the hero a lesson after he had been particularly arrogant or high-handed. A surreptitious sprinkling of powdered mustard on his breakfast eggs, in his tea or even his brandy might be just the thing. There are so many possible ways to make use of the resources available in the Regency condiment stand.