19th century Victorian England saw a rapid growth of population and urbanisation stimulated by the Industrial Revolution. The elite became more wealthy and the poor became poorer. Eliza Acton noted in her book published in 1845, that soups or pottage was hardly eaten by the English. The poor didn’t have means to heat up the dish that had sustained them for centuries, and often they didn’t even have access to the ingredients to make a soup. This was an era of slum housing, starvation and disease.
Alexis Soyer, who was chef at the prestigious Reform Club and regarded by many as Britain’s first celebrity chef, saw the horrendous poverty of the lower class and took it upon him to do something about it. He invented a soup kitchen and went to Ireland to give out his ‘famine soup’ during the Great Irish Famine in 1847. During his time in Ireland he wrote ‘Soyer’s Charitable Cookery’ and gave the proceeds of the book to various charities.
His book, ‘A Shilling Cookery for the People’ was a recipe book for ordinary people who could not afford the modern kitchen utensils or large amounts of ingredients.
In it he writes about how he goes around London and sees the poor attempt to cook but can’t quite manage because of a lack of knowledge. He takes it upon him to teach an old lady to cook an ox cheek in her one precious pot, over a coal fire. The old lady learns and is surprised to find out that the ox cheek is tender and that there is even enough liquid to make a soup from it. After tasting it and approving it, she said she would teach her neighbours how to do it. Soyer, possibly very pleased about this, said to her that if she would do that, he would sent more recipes for her to learn and teach to her neighbours.
Of course the old lady was illiterate and Soyer realising that he might have sent a useless bit of paper to her, went to see her and found ‘six elderly matrons and an old man holding council together’, trying to make out Soyer’s writings. He then read the recipes to them.
Of soup he says that he finds it is no wonder that people have abandoned this dish as the recipes in most cookery books are complicated and expensive. Many contemporary cookery writers like Mrs Beeton made notes on how to cook economically but showed their ignorance by not grasping the fact that most lower class families were lucky to have some kind of roof over their heads, so a kitchen or fire would most probably been a luxury they could only dream of.
Soyer saw that knowledge was the next big in the poor being able to feed themselves and had the dream of opening a school to teach the poor how to cook. On this notion he remarked “Some of the money spent on our new palace prisons would be much better employed for this purpose.”
As my local farm doesn't offer ox cheek - although they probably would if I asked - I made Soyer's oxtail soup instead. I had been saving these oxtails - which are always sold out at the farm so quite precious - for a special occasion. Since I finished the first part of my book, I thought, let's get out the Oxtail! That's how it is with meat you buy straight from the farm, you treat it with the utmost respect and it becomes so much more valuable.
I had Soyer on my mind, because this week there is a fabulous lecture about him at the Guildhall Library in London. Sadly because of the book deadline I couldn't spear a day to head over to London to attend this lecture, but at least I have now eaten his oxtail soup.
To make this into a main dish for your supper, you can add dumplings, I give you here the recipes as adapted from Soyer's book The Modern Housewife or Menagerie.
Some might find this soup bland, this might be so for our modern palate, this dish is not laden with salt - sweet - spicy like we are so used to today. Give it a go, and try to taste. It really is lovely to have these pure flavours. And then after you've tasted it, make it again and use white wine instead of water.