Food in The Hobbit

Article taken from
Thanks to Joshua Robertson for finding and sharing this one!  And as a present day tea drinker, Mrs. Beeton’s instructions from 1861 on properly making tea are still totally right!
Enjoy this fun post everyone. 🙂


An Unexpected Party – Image Copyright Artist John Howe

“Gandalf Tea Wednesday. Or at least this is what Bilbo should have written down … Some called for ale, and some for porter, and one for coffee, and all of them for cakes . . . A big jug of coffee had just been set in the hearth, the seed-cakes were gone, and the dwarves were starting on a round of buttered scones . . . ‘And raspberry jam and apple-tart,’ said Bifur. ‘And mince-pies and cheese,’ said Bofur. ‘And pork-pie and salad,’ said Bombur. ‘And more cakes — and ale — and coffee, if you don’t mind,’ called the other dwarves through the door. ‘Put on a few eggs, there’s a good fellow!’ Gandalf called after him, as the hobbit stumped off to the pantries. ‘And just bring out the cold chicken and pickles!’” An Unexepcted Party, The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien.


Placing The Period Of The Shire In Middle-Earth

So how does a Food Historian go about placing the culinary period and location of The Shire in Tolkien’s fictional book, The Hobbit …

Tolkien’s obvious enjoyment of food and drink at communal meals with friends, family and colleagues at Oxford, is very much translated into his works. Many of the scenes featuring food are intended to lift the mood, and do so successfully; yet Tolkien also uses them to indicate many other things: the history of the place, the level of development reached, the status of a person (and the dwelling) and any relationship dynamics which are important to highlight; this is only to mention just a few of Tolkien’s uses in describing scenes featuring food and drink. This is in fact everything a Food Historian really needs to reach conclusions about the food served.

For instance, Tolkien tells us that Hobbits are fond of six meals a day, including two dinners, if they can get it, while in the Prologue to ‘The Lord of the Rings’ he points out, they “eat, and drink, often and heartily … [while] growing food and eating it occupied most of their time.”

And pin-pointing the food history ‘period’ of The Shire in the Hobbit gets even easier because of the tone and word choice of the descriptions and names Tolkien uses, ‘Porter and Ale’, ‘Pork Pie’, ‘Buttered Scones’ etc. and not just of the food and drink, but the whole atmosphere within the scene. From these elements (which are all there in the book) a British Food Historian could tell you exactly what was served … but luckily we also we have Professor Tolkien’s own words to help guide us …


“But, of course, if we drop the ‘fiction’ of long ago, ‘The Shire’ is based on rural England and not any other country in the world, (Tolkien’s Letters, 250 #190) … [The Shire] is in fact more or less a Warwickshire village of about the period of the Diamond Jubilee, (Tolkien’s Letters, 230 #178) … There is no special reference to England in the ‘Shire’ — except of course that as an Englishman brought up in an ‘almost rural’ village of Warwickshire on the edge of the prosperous bourgeoisie of Birmingham (about the time of the Diamond Jubilee!) I take my models like anyone else — from such ‘life’ as I know, (Letters, 235 #181)”.

In effect then The Shire was an idealized version of the rural England of Tolkien’s childhood and we can pinpoint this still further: Warwickshire village life (near Birmingham) in 1897 Victorian England.


This certainly fits with the descriptions and images of The Shire in both the Hobbit and the prologue to theLOTR, ‘Concerning Hobbits’. Yet to truly understand Bilbo and his home it helps if we think of another great figure from literature, ‘Mr. Bennet’, a country gentleman of moderate fortune in Jane Austen’s, ‘Pride and Prejudice’. Mr. Bennet is living in rural Hertfordshire, (just north of London) and he, like Bilbo, is a bit quirky, “so odd a mixture of quick parts … and peculiarities”.

And although ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is set in the early 1800’s, it is this ‘hang-over’ from a pre-industrialised rural community that Tolkien still remembers from his childhood. In other words … what Mr. Bennet has stocked in his larder and pantry, we can be sure Bilbo had stocked in his (Mr Bennet’s numerous children making up for a bachelor Hobbit’s appetite).

Now we know where and when, we can couple that with what was served, and we can faithfully recreate that same Tea Party that Bilbo, Gandalf and the Dwarves so enjoyed. Well maybe not Bilbo … at first.

Final note: anachronistic or not to the rest of the fictional world described in the LOTR, The Shire is at a level of sophistication and development that mirrors rural Victorian England, not only is it plainly aparent from the descriptions in the books, but Tolkien himself has firmly told us this; and so the food and ingredients used must reflect this ‘period’ and this ‘place’ and no other. Food previous to this ‘period’ may be included, but why should they be? Apart from simple, unchanging recipes like bread, culinary dishes of ‘history’ to the Hobbits would be for them like Tudor dishes are to us, somewhat old-fashioned.


To be understood before setting the scene in the chapter ‘An Unexpected Party’

A lot of people (if not most) have the wrong idea about what a Victorian (1800s) ‘high-tea’ is, when people say high-tea, they actually mean low-tea … it has been wrongly termed for nearly 70 years because to us ‘high’ sounds more upper class than ‘low’ … Yet high-tea was a working man’s hearty tea and supper after a long, hard day of manual labour. It was the combination of afternoon tea and the evening meal, of various dishes and cold cuts of meat and cheese, eaten on a high table, (usually the only table in the house).

Afternoon tea on the other hand would often be served for guests sitting around smaller, lower tables in the parlour with dainty desserts and fine china on them, and was always referred to as low-tea. This was the tea preferred by the upper classes, who had a much later evening meal in the separate dining room on the higher tables.

What Bilbo started out hastily arranging when the bell rang was low-tea, for an important wizard, although to his dismay it ended up being a high-tea, for common ‘coal miners’ – this then is the underlying humour of the entire chapter, ‘An Unexpected Party’. Tolkien would have understood these strict conventions from his Victorian childhood, and he obviously (and thoroughly) enjoyed standing them on their head.



PORK-PIE: | Melton Mowbray Pork Pie Recipe | Traditional Pork Pie Recipe | As a child and living so close Tolkien might perhaps have been a fan of the properly made and commercially sold Melton Mowbray Pork Pie. There really is no other pork pie quite it’s equal. Melton, in Mowbray, Leicestershire, is the area located from where these famous Victorian pies were first sold (from the 1830’s). Made with a hot water crust pastry and proper pork ‘jelly’ this would have been a firm favourite taken at tea. Today, when people say pork pie, this is the standard pie they think of. We would make a large, round, hand-raised pie for this, following the recipe given.

Melton Mowbray Pork Pie

SEED-CAKES: | Seed Cake Recipe | “Seed-cake if you have any, … Lots! Bilbo found himself answering”. This may be one of the cakes Tolkien remembers fondly from his childhood days. It was very popular in Victorian England because it lasted many days kept wrapped and could be relied upon to serve several guests and large families, while the ingredients in the recipe were not expensive and were plentiful. We have directions from the book to make them ‘beautiful and round’ and we also know Bilbo had baked two that very afternoon. One of the most famous Victorian recipe books of this period was Mrs Beeton’s and this is where we shall get the recipe for seed-cake.

BUTTERED SCONES: | Buttered Scone Recipe | What more English tea-time treat could you get than a buttered scone? These would have been kept wrapped in a box or tin in the pantry, they are simple to make and so very tasty freshly made, but if dried out, from being kept too long, they were also wonderful toasted in front of the fire. These would have been fresh, baked tall and served uncut, ready for the person eating them to cut them in half and spread on a little butter, and perhaps some jam and even some clotted cream. The best advice to give is to make sure they rise, making them tall, rather than squat, (note: these would not be fruit scones, or drop scones, these are the Victorian buttered scones, always served prompt at 4 pm for tea). The inclusion of this food item served at ‘Tea’, if nothing else, tells you what period ‘The Shire’ is set in.

RASPBERRY JAM: | Raspberry Jam Recipe | Called for by Bifur. Raspberries make a wonderful jam, both on bread and on scones. This is a traditional Raspberry Jam recipe of the 1800s, and it is still made and recommended today.

APPLE TART: | Apple Tart Recipe | The recipe calls for an apple tart, rather than an apple pie. A subtle difference, but one we must acknowledge. Traditionally a pie filling is enclosed under a pastry lid, while a tart is open (called having an open face) – although this distinction can and is blurred – yet in British cooking another major difference between a tart or pie is down to the shape, size and height of the dish or tin used to bake them – a tart tin reflects in its shape and size the hand-raised, hot water crust pastry tart or flan cases of the medieval period.

Porter Cake

‘MORE CAKES’: | Porter Cake Recipe | Treacle Cake | Stout-Hearted Cake Recipe | Westmorland Pepper Cake | When the rest of the Dwarves start arriving and calling for more cakes Bilbo would have had to go into his store rooms (pantries and larders) to fetch them. Tolkien makes it clear that Bilbo has more than one food store room in Bag End, and at each deeper level of store room you would see food stuffs that could be left to mature and be preserved for many months. These ‘more cakes’ would be much larger than the ‘extra cake or two’. These would be big round cakes or long cakes from which you would cut off a slice and eat, perhaps with a little butter spread on them. These would be like the fruit porter cake which has natural preservatives in it, and so Bilbo would have had a store of these types of cakes all wrapped up and sealed to call upon, enough to feed the Dwarves and Gandalf.

COLD CHICKEN: | Roast Chicken Recipe | Leave the bones on the bedroom mat! sang the Dwarves, telling us that it was a whole, cold chicken and not just a few off cuts off a discarded carcass from yesterday’s meal. You can make an argument for the cold chicken to have been broiled, but in Britain the tradition is to roast, and cold roast meats, leftover from the day before were a savoury treat, particularly from the Victorian age placed in a sandwich. Something that would certainly appeal to Hobbit and Wizard tastes.

‘AN EXTRA CAKE OR TWO’: | Queen Cakes Recipe | Cherry Turnovers | Griddle Cakes | Lemon Cake Recipe| When Bilbo first hears the door bell, expecting it to be Gandalf, he rushes around and puts out an extra cake or two to eat. These would be individual type cakes (when the doorbell goes for a second time they had hardly reached the third cake) reminiscent of taking a Victorian ‘tea’, although with a more rustic and rural charm than an upper class Victorian tea invitation. What we think of as modern, trendy ‘cupcakes’ were actually first seen from the 1700’s, when cakes were baked in a tea-cup. A mixture of individual cakes were usually served to guests so they could have a selection to chose from.

BREAD: | Seeded Bread Recipe | Manchet Bread Recipe | Maslin Bread Recipe | Bara Brith | Although not asked for by the Dwarfs or Gandalf, (it was probably part of the ‘things’ piled up on trays and brought out) it would have been a very strange tea and supper without it, it being the staple part of the British diet at almost every meal for over 800 years. It would have gone with the butter, jam, cheese etc. The Bara Brith recipe is Welsh, but a fruit-loaf baked in exactly the same way was also very common in England. Recipes for baking your own bread have not changed for centuries, what changed was how it was baked, by the late 1800’s bread was common to be bought in ‘loaves’ baked in loaf tins, and not as it had been since the Medieval era as large round loves with a flat bottom. These would have been baked fresh that day, or the day before, bread does not keep well without artificial preservatives.

MINCE-PIES: | Mince Pie Recipe 1 | Mince Pie Recipe 2 | We have a dilemma with this food item. Are these mince-pies made with, or without, real minced meat? (in this period beef). We give both recipes here. The reason for being unsure is because this Victorian period in British food history (discussed by Tolkien as being the inspiration for The Shire) was the exact turning point in terms of the ingredients used in mince-pies. This is when they started to become fruit based only, and real minced meat was beginning to be left out. For hundreds of years these mince-pies had been made with minced beef or lamb, or tongue and tripe, while for the last hundred years they have been made without, and only fruit used as a filling. So you get to choose, what would a Hobbit do? We think fruit based only, tying in with the cakes Bilbo is serving.

BISCUITS: | Plum Heavies | Jeannie Maitland Cakes | Excellent Small Cakes | Poor old Bilbo, his appetite quite deserted him, if all he was doing was nibbling on a biscuit in the corner, he must have been very upset and put out. Note: the name biscuit is quite modern, many of the old ‘biscuit’ recipes still retained the name ‘cakes’.

CHEESE: To buy a cheese Bilbo would have served we would have to assume it was of the ‘hard’ variety, easily made, stored and would last without spoiling for over a year. Around Warwickshire of 1897 there are three cheeses still made today that fit the bill perfectly. 1) Fowler’s Original Little Derby 2) Fowler’s Original Sage Derby 3) Barber’s 1833 Vintage Reserve Cheddar. When serving cheese at Bag End for several tea/supper guests one thinks of a large partially started round truckle, (a ‘wheel’ of cheese).

SALAD: A simple salad of leaves and herbs, with boiled eggs was typical in the Victorian period. However note, Tolkien removed tomatoes from the second print edition, see explanation in ‘pickles’ below, therefore this salad should not have any tomatoes in it. Mrs. Beeton’s ‘Summer Salad’ calls for: 3 lettuces, 2 handfuls of mustard-and-cress, 10 young radishes, a few slices of cucumber. It may be garnished with hard-boiled eggs, cut in slices, sliced cucumbers, nasturtiums, cut vegetable-flowers, and many other things that taste will always suggest to make a pretty and elegant dish.

PICKLES: Tolkien altered the text from the first edition, to the second edition of the Hobbit. In the first edition Gandalf calls for chicken with tomatoes, in the second and subsequent editions Gandalf calls for chicken with pickles. To Tolkien’s ‘ear’ tomatoes did not sound right and play no more part in The Shire menu.

HAM: | Dry Cured Ham Recipe | Honey-Glazed Ham Recipe | Although mentioned as part of the breakfast order, hams were able to be dry cured to last for many many months and honey glazed to last over a week. Ham would no doubt have been one of the ‘things’ piled up on trays and brought out of the storage pantries to feed such large numbers of guests. They would go well with the salad and on bread with butter, cold meats were very typical of the Victorian tea/supper. Most larders in a moderately well off house hold would have a ham or two hanging up.

EGGS: Bilbo was asked to put ‘some eggs on’, these would have been hard boiled for the salad and fried for the supper. Thorin asks for them to be poached in the morning.

Recommended Beer And Ales


If you do not want to brew your own beer then you should buy it in. To replicate the beer/ale which would be a lighter ale of the classic ‘British Bitter’ variety buy either 1) Theakston’s, Old Peculiar 2) Shepherd Neame’s, Bishop’s Finger 3) Greene King’s, IPA 4) Worthington’s, White Shield 5) Bass’ Finest Ale. While for the Porter buy either 1) Fuller’s, London Porter or 2) Titanic’s, Titanic Stout. Note: there are some great cask conditioned ales and porters served in ‘real-ale’ British pubs, but the ones listed are excellent, and can be bought in bottles, and most of them are exported the world over.

BEER, ALE & PORTER: | Home-Brew Beer Recipe | Elder-Ale Recipe | When Tolkien uses the term ‘beer’, ‘ale’ and ‘porter’, these are interchangeable terms for the same ‘type’ of drink, (these are top fermenting beers known as ales, more modern bottom fermenting beers are called lagers). However when he says ‘Porter’ he is differentiating between a lighter ale/beer and a darker ale. Porter is akin to the modern day stout (like Guinness). We therefore only need to brew 2 different ale drinks, not three: a beer/ale which is paler and a porter which is darker. By using the first recipe listed we can make both a light ale and a dark ale, this would be a classic ‘Bitter Ale’, golden brown in colour and a ‘Porter’, dark brown near black in colour. All you have to do is follow the same brewing methods outlined, but vary the type of grains that go into the grist which make up your mash.


We know Bilbo has a cellar of maturing ale in barrels and he uses a pint-mug and not a tankard, these all point to the more sophisticated level of ale brewing seen in the Victorian age, (hence a ‘Porter’ is called for) and not earlier. However, if you want your ale to be from a much older British period then use the second recipe, which is for an Anglo-Saxon ale flavoured with elderberries and elder flower, this is not matured for long and has no hops added and therefore is a sweeter ale which has not been cleared using ‘finings’ so it remains cloudy and full of body.


This would have been brewed from freshly ground coffee beans, use Brazillian ones as these dominated the coffee trade to Britain right up to the Edwardian period. He is brewing it in a coffee jug set on the hearth,very typical of this period. The earliest coffee houses in London date from the mid1600’s, while in Victorian London Charles Dickens describes one of his night walks, in 1860, “There was early coffee to be got about Covent-garden Market … Toast of a very substantial quality, was likewise procurable”. Serve the coffee black (with an option of adding in cream and sugar) with a ‘substantial’ toast at a Bag End tea/supper, this was quite usual.

Maria Eliza Rundell in 1808 has this to say about coffee:

Put two ounces of fresh ground coffee, of the best quality, into a coffee-pot, and pour eight coffee-cups of boiling water on it; let it boil six minutes, pour out a cupful two or three times, and return it again; then put two or three isinglass-chips into it, and pour one large spoonful of boiling water on it; boil it five minutes more, and set the pot by the fire to keep hot for ten minutes, and you will have coffee of a beautiful clearness.

Fine cream should always be served with coffee, and either pounded sugar-candy, or fine Lisbon sugar. If for foreigners, or those who like it extremely strong, make only eight dishes from three ounces. If not fresh roasted, lay it before a fire until perfectly hot and dry; or you may put the smallest bit of fresh butter into a preserving pan of a small size, and, when hot, throw the coffee in it, and toss it about until it be freshened, letting it be cold before ground.


I would recommend a loose leaf ‘Earl Grey’, a very popular Victorian blend from the 1800s. Although, in well off house-holds a stronger blend was usually drunk in the morning, and a weaker blend in the afternoon, Bilbo would probably not have been so fussy, drinking his favourite blend all day. Bilbo serves the tea in a cup and saucer from hot water boiled in a kettle, (presumably like the coffee jug placed on the hearth). The tea itself would be made and poured from a tea pot (silver or ceramic) through a tea strainer into the cup. Milk or cream and sugar would then have been added seperately to taste.

Mrs Beeton in 1861 has this to say about tea:

There is very little art in making good tea; if the water is boiling, and there is no sparing of the fragrant leaf, the beverage will almost invariably be good. The old-fashioned plan of allowing a teaspoonful to each person, and one over, is still practised. Warm the teapot with boiling water; let it remain for two or three minutes for the vessel to become thoroughly hot, then pour it away. Put in the tea, pour in from 1/2 to 3/4 pint of boiling water, close the lid, and let it stand for the tea to draw from 5 to 10 minutes; then fill up the pot with water. The tea will be quite spoiled unless made with water that is actually ‘boiling’, as the leaves will not open, and the flavour not be extracted from them; the beverage will consequently be colourless and tasteless,—in fact, nothing but tepid water.


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