What Phileas Fogg Ate At The Reform Club
Image Credit: Reform Club

Jules Vernes' classic Around The World In 80 Days begins with a description of its protagonist Phileas Fogg’s daily habits. When not at his Saville Row residence, Fogg is to be found at the Reform Club, the only London establishment of which he is known to be a member. Unusually reticent and restrained in his manner, Fogg passes his time reading or playing whist (with his winnings always donated to charity) at the club. His breakfast and dinner too are had here, “at hours mathematically fixed, in the same room, at the same table, never taking his meals with other members, much less bringing a guest with him”.

But if Fogg’s description so far has stressed on his austerity, the details become more extravagant when referring to his dining at the Club. 

Vernes writes: “When he breakfasted or dined all the resources of the club — its kitchens and pantries, its buttery and dairy — aided to crowd his table with their most succulent stores; he was served by the gravest waiters, in dress coats, and shoes with swan-skin soles, who proffered the viands in special porcelain, and on the finest linen; club decanters, of a lost mould, contained his sherry, his port, and his cinnamon-spiced claret; while his beverages were refreshingly cooled with ice, brought at great cost from the American lakes.”

While Vernes was known for his science fiction that had people journeying to the centre of the earth, captaining submarines that could descend to hitherto unheard of oceanic depths, and travelling in flying ships, this passage on Fogg’s dinners at the Reform Club was wholly based in fact. 

The Reform Club’s stately edifice is on the southern side of Pall Mall, among London’s toniest streets. Started in 1836 as a private, members-only club (open to gentlemen until 1981) it is known even today for its longstanding tradition of culinary excellence. One imagines Fogg seated in the stately dining room, with its lofty ceilings, soaring columns, and elegant wooden tables laid out with fine glassware. 

The Reform Club’s culinary reputation resides on the achievements of its first-ever chef, the legendary Alexis Soyer. The Frenchman had been a rising star in Paris until the violence of the July Revolution led him to flee to England in 1830. After serving various noble families and aristocratic households, he was persuaded to take on the role of chef de cuisine at the Reform Club. His salary would be a princely £1,000 per annum.

Soyer immediately got to work, consulting with architect Charles Barry on how the Club’s spanking new kitchens should be best designed. Many of the things Soyer wanted were considered new, untested technology, but he persevered in his vision. Cooking with gas, refrigerators cooled by cold water, ovens with adjustable temperatures — Soyer’s kitchen was a marvel, and unsurprisingly, was a popular pit-stop for guests hoping to take in the new age London attraction. Among his milestones at the Club was the breakfast he served for 2,000 diners on Queen Victoria’s coronation in 1838.

A menu from Soyer’s era lists two types of fish (salmon and red mullet), stuffed capons with foie gras, anchovy salad, mutton cutlets, veal sweetbreads with a puree of cucumbers, Windsor cheese crackers, truffles with essence of Madeira, demi-glazed wild boar’s head, lobster stew with plover’s eggs, Italian marinated tuna — and that doesn’t cover even a quarter of the dishes. (That’s all we could translate from the French, working off tiny print.) This was Soyer’s menu for a May 1846 dinner for 10. The mutton cutlets alluded to must have been the signature dish he was famous for: “Lamb Cutlets Reform” — “breaded cutlets served with a sweet-sour sauce based on a classic poivrade sauce”.

Soyer’s stint at the Reform Club ended well before our (fictional) Phileas Fogg’s membership would have commenced. (Soyer became very interested in the problem of feeding the poor, starting soup kitchens and publishing recipes meant for lower-income households. He also worked on improving meals and catering for members of the armed forces.) But with Soyer's influence looming large in the kitchens he built and the menus he designed, is it any wonder that even one as sedate as Phileas Fogg couldn't help but succumb to the Reform Club’s gourmet charms?