Mayonnaise In the Regency:   A Luxury Sauce

Despite some apocryphal tales to the contrary, most food scholars agree that the version of this creamy sauce which we enjoy today originated in the early years of the nineteenth century, probably in France. There were also multiple versions of the name, but it is believed by many that it was given its final name by the first celebrity chef, based on the effort needed to make it. However, during the Regency, this now ubiquitous cold condiment was barely known in England, and where it was, it was considered the height of luxury. The middle and lower classes of the Regency were certainly not slathering this elegant dressing on their sandwiches or salads.

Mayonnaise in the Regency . . .

The most persistent of the mayonnaise origin myths is that it was devised by the personal chef of the Duc de Richelieu during the Seven Year’s War. According to the most widely told version of the tale, the Duc was part of a French force which invaded the British island of Minorca, off the Spanish coast, in June of 1756. After the French drove the British out of the port of Mahon, the island’s capital city, Duc de Richelieu asked his chef to prepare a dinner to celebrate the victory. There was a shortage of cream on the island, so the chef decided to make a creamy sauce for his celebratory meal by blending olive oil, egg yolks and spices. The resulting sauce is supposed to have been named "mahonnaise," in honor of the French victory over the British capital.

There are several problems with this mayonnaise origin story. First, sauces consisting of a blend of olive oil and eggs are known to have been used throughout the Mediterranean as early as ancient Roman times. In addition, there was already a similar sauce which had long been in use on Minorca, and was known in Spanish as salsa mahonesa by the locals. But the most telling fact is that there are no European or British cookbooks published before the early nineteenth century which included any recipes for mayonnaise or any similar cold emulsified sauce. Another interesting fact is that, according to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, the word "mayonnaise" cannot be documented as appearing in the English language until more than a half century after the French victory at Mahon on Minorca.

The earliest known print appearance of the word mayonnaise in French was in 1806, in the phrase saumon à la mayonnaise. In 1808, Alexandre Balthazar Laurent Grimod de La Reynière, the French gastronome and food critic, was certain that this sauce had native French origins. He wrote that this elegant sauce must have come from the French town of Bayonne, at that time, a noted center of food innovation. Grimod de La Reynière was of the opinion that the sauce was originally called bayonnaise. He wrote:

The purists are not in agreement about the name of these kinds of sauces: some say "mayonnaise," others "mahonnaise," and others "bayonnaise." The first of these words is not French; and the second refers to a town where nothing is renowned for its good food; it is this which makes us decide for "bayonnaise," for which the etymology lies in the name of a town that contains many inventive gourmands, and which, in addition, gives birth each year to the best hams in Europe.

However, the famous French chef, Antonin Carême, who often included this luscious sauce in his very grand and elegant meals, preferred to call it magnonnaise, based on the French verb, manier, which can be translated as "to manipulate" or "to blend." This seems to be because this sauce took a great deal of manipulation, particularly brisk stirring, in order to prepare it properly. It seems that the pronunciation of Carême’s version of the name was apparently interpreted to be "mayonnaise" in England and eventually came to be spelled that way.

Louis-Eustache Ude was a French chef who had been working in France for Napoleon’s mother for several years. Not long after Napoleon Bonaparte’s first abdication, in 1814, Ude left France and emigrated to England. Soon after his arrival, he took the position of chief chef for Lord Sefton and remained with Sefton for the next twenty years. During that time, Ude updated his carefully researched and popular cookbook, The French Cook, which he had first published in 1813. The next edition of this cookbook, published in Britain, in 1815, included a recipe for mayonnaise, by that name and with that spelling. Mayonnaise was also included as an ingredient in a few other dishes in that revised edition of the cookbook. According to the online edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, this was the first appearance of the word "mayonnaise" in print, in English.

Mayonnaise, particularly as it was known during the Regency, is an emulsified sauce, very similar to Hollandaise sauce, except that mayonnaise was prepared at room temperature and served with cold dishes, while Hollandaise was prepared over heat and served with hot dishes. Essentially, mayonnaise was made by beating olive oil into raw egg yolks until the mixture became thick and creamy. Then vinegar or lemon juice, plus salt, spices and/or herbs may be blended in to complete the sauce. In some French recipes, mustard is also used to flavor the sauce, as well as adding an additional emulsifying agent. Whether or not mustard was added, mayonnaise in the Regency was a pale to a rich yellow color, depending upon the color of the egg yolks which were used to make that particular batch. The nearly white color of the mayonnaise produced today on a commercial scale seems to be the result of the mechanized process and public preference. Hand-made mayonnaise will always have a yellow color, whether it was made in the Regency or today. The small batches of mayonnaise made during the Regency could also vary significantly in flavor, based on the spices and herbs used to flavor each of them.

In a sense, heat was also a factor in the preparation, storage and service of a good batch of mayonnaise, just as it was with Hollandaise sauce. Though mayonnaise was not prepared over heat, like Hollandaise sauce, the olive oil used to make it must be fully fluid. That could be a problem if a room was too cool and the olive oil began to solidify. In that state, it could curdle the egg yolks instead of blending with them. It seems that in most kitchens in large homes or institutions, this was not usually a problem, since such kitchens typically had at least one open fire or substantial stove or range operating at all times, keeping the room warm enough to make mayonnaise. In the kitchens of smaller houses, the chef or cook might prepare a batch of mayonnaise near the hearth, in order to ensure their olive oil remained fluid and could be easily blended into the egg yolks. However, once the mayonnaise was completed, it did have to be kept cool to ensure the oil would not separate from the egg yolks. Even when kept cool, it could only be stored for a day or two before it would spoil. If the mayonnaise was to be served as a sauce on the side, it was usually placed in a dish which was then nestled in a bowl of ice. When mayonnaise was used as a dressing for a dish, that dish was also served cold, and might also be served on ice, or kept chilled until moments before it was placed on the dining table.

Mayonnaise in the Regency was a very elegant sauce, typically only made by French chefs and served in the best homes for very important or significant meals. When served as a sauce on the side, it might be listed in the menu by its principal seasoning, such as garlic, herb or mustard mayonnaise. The word "mayonnaise" also became an adjective when it was used as part of the name of a dish made with it. Mayonnaise was used as a sauce in a number of cold dishes, including cold meats and fish, as well as hard-boiled eggs. Thus, a menu might list chicken mayonnaise, lobster mayonnaise, or salmon mayonnaise, any of which would usually be served as part of a group of a cold dish course during the meal. Because mayonnaise required expensive ingredients and was very labor-intensive to prepare, it was not the ubiquitous condiment it has become today. During the Regency, only the affluent upper classes would have enjoyed mayonnaise, and usually only during a grand or special meal.

Dear Regency Authors, though mayonnaise is now a commonly available and inexpensive sauce, during our favorite period it was rather scarce and quite costly. In fact, it was considered a luxury and was a special treat for most people who were lucky enough to enjoy it. Might some of the aspects of the early history of mayonnaise provide some interesting plot points in a Regency romance? Perhaps the heroine, a governess in a middle-class home, the daughter of a French chef and a friend of the family’s cook, prepares a mayonnaise dish for a meal, attended by the hero? Will he suspect there is a French spy in the house, or that some member of the family might be involved in some illegal, but lucrative, activity? Or, a character new to the upper classes might be very surprised and delighted to enjoy a mayonnaise dish at a grand meal. So much so that they make a spectacle of themselves? Then again, for those of you who seek the dark side of a plot bunny, since mayonnaise was made from raw egg yolks and was never cooked or heated in any way, there was the risk of Salmonella, which could result in food poisoning. Are there other ways in which mayonnaise can be used to dress a Regency story?

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About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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8 Responses to Mayonnaise In the Regency:   A Luxury Sauce

  1. you can’t beat the flavour of a fresh home made mayo, but it’s a so-and-so to make. I generally serve it with chopped chives in it if I go to the effort, as a dip at a bbq. I expect all the Regency chefs would like to scrag me for such a come-down …. it’s also nice with parsley on fishy vol-au-vents.
    I can’t help thinking that salmonella might be an anachronism. You never heard of salmonella before chickens were factory farmed and fed dead chicken to bulk them up. Rather like mad cow disease. Plot bunny which occurs to me is a young girl who is orphaned who tries to make mayonnaise by following that French recipe book, because her guardian is half French and she wants to thank him for taking her in, but she makes a disaster of it.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I wonder which is more work to make, homemade mayonnaise or homemade Hollandaise?

      By name, Salmonella is certainly an anachronism. From what I understand, the bacteria was not identified until the 1880s and was not officially named until about 1900. But the bacteria itself had existed long before that. So, it would be possible for a batch of Regency mayonnaise to give someone food poisoning, though they would not know what caused it, or, would not be able to identify it by name.

      I like the plot bunny, though I hope all comes right in the end, even with a spoiled batch of mayonnaise.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • Mayonnaise is far easier to make than Hollandaise. As long as you pour the oil in a very thin stream it should emulsify on the first try, even with a hand whisk. Hollandaise depends on the heat of the butter as well as the speed at which you add it, and it’s really hard to do by hand.

        I love this blog! Great topics and information.

        • Kathryn Kane says:

          Thank you for the sauce-making information. I should have known Hollandaise was harder to make. I love Hollandaise, but I can take mayonnaise or leave it. I will certainly have much more appreciation for a good Hollandaise sauce from now on!

          Thank you also for your kind words with regard to the Redingote. It is always nice to know one’s work is appreciated.

          Regards,

          Kat

    • Summer says:

      In Domestic Medicine (1798), William Buchan notes that “Animal, as well as vegetable food, may be rendered unwholesome by being kept too long. All animal substances have a constant tendency to putrification, and, when that has proceeded too far, they not only become offensive to the senses, but hurtful to the health.” He also goes on at some length about the health of animals raised for slaughter “crammed with gross food but not allowed exercise nor free air” and the “abominable custom of butchers of filling the cellular membranes of animals with air, in order to make them appear fat… from the lungs of a dirty fellow, perhaps labouring under the very worst diseases.” The medical understanding was a little shaky, but food poisoning as well as poor food production and handling are not new things.

  2. Thank you so much for sharing! I love posts about the history of cooking.
    As a plot bunny food poisoning actually was the first thing to come to my mind. A disease is always so helpful to bring hero and heroine together.
    And then, mayonnaise-related ‘accidents’ at the table involving the hero’s necktie also might be an option, when e.g. a child is present at a family dinner.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I am glad you liked the article. I think food is something which connects people, even across the centuries. However, I am sorry to put a wrinkle in your plot bunnies.

      Young children were seldom allowed at table in upper-class homes. They typically took their meals in the nursery until they were in their teens and had learned good manners. However, young children might dine with the rest of the family in middle- and lower-class homes. The problem there was that very few of those households would have enjoyed mayonnaise during the Regency.

      There was also little chance of a Regency hero’s neckcloth coming into contact with any dish on a dining table, since they were tied in complex and fashionable knots which did not hang down as low as modern-day neckties. However, there was always the chance that an inept servant might drop mayonnaise on a guest while serving at a meal. Such an accident might serve a similar purpose.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • I am reminded of that wonderful book, “Unknown Ajax” where Crimplesham and Polyphant are almost coming to blows in Hugo’s room, with one of them, I forget which, accusing the other of permitting his man to come to dinner with iron mould [rust] on his neck cloth and the disclaimer that it was a spot of soup.

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