Alexis Soyer: The people's chef

Alexis Soyer cooked for Queen Victoria, saved soldiers' lives - and kept London's clubland happy. Mark Hix updates his classic 19th-century recipes
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Celebrity chefs are nothing new. One who really was the Jamie Oliver of his time, was Alexis Soyer. He was involved with charity work as well as being a popular figure on the culinary circuit, chef de cuisine of the Reform Club and author of many cookery books. During the potato famine of 1847 he went to Ireland to help victims by setting up soup kitchens - he claimed he could provide 100 gallons of soup for £1 including expenses.

Like high-profile chefs today he was often asked to cook for large numbers at prestigious events and in June 1838 rose to the challenge of cooking breakfast for 2,000 people for Queen Victoria's coronation. He designed the Reform Club's kitchens, installing advanced technology gas ovens, which became a bit of a tourist attraction and source of envy among his peers. I had never been there, but recently made my first visit for the launch of Relish, The Extraordinary Life of Alexis Soyer, Victorian Celebrity Chef, by Ruth Cowen.

This biography tells the story of Soyer, whose influence on what we eat and on catering remains to this day. After his mercy mission to Ireland, he risked his life travelling to the Russian Peninsula to sort out catering for troops in the Crimean war, which saved thousands of soldiers from malnutrition. He invented the clever campaign stove - so small that soldiers were able to carry it on their backs and set it up in the trenches to steam, boil and bake food without sending up clouds of smoke alerting the enemy to their presence.

I'm proud to own a few first and second editions of his books Menagère and Pantropheon and pay tribute to him this week with recipes of his adapted for today's cooks.

Water souchet

Serves 4-6

In the days of whitebait feasts in Greenwich and along the Thames, a soup called water souchet - made with the larger fish such as flounder caught in the whitebait nets - formed part of the meal.

In all the recipes I've found, even fairly recent ones, it seems a watery affair with lots of parsley. I've played around with the recipe, adding vegetables like leek and fennel and a few potatoes to thicken it a little, and served the improved result as part of a whitebait feast at our newish restaurant the Rivington in Greenwich. You can make it with cheap species like flounder and whiting to achieve a white-fish British version of soupe de poisson.

60g butter
1kg whole whiting, chopped into pieces, washed
1 leek, trimmed, roughly chopped and washed
1 small onion, peeled and roughly chopped
1 small head of fennel
2 cloves of garlic
250g floury potatoes, peeled and chopped
100ml white wine
2.5 litres fish stock (use good quality stock cubes if you haven't any other stock)
1 small bunch of parsley, stalks removed and reserved and leaves chopped
Salt and freshly ground white pepper

Melt the butter in a large, thick bottomed pan and cook the whiting, vegetables and garlic on a low heat with a lid on for 4-5 minutes. Add the potatoes, parsley stalks, wine and stock, season, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Remove the chunkiest bits of fish, put to one side and leave to cool. Simmer the soup for 45 minutes, stirring every so often.

Ladle out about one third of the soup, bones, vegetables and all, and blend until smooth in a liquidiser. Add it back to the soup and return to the heat for another 10 minutes. Strain the soup through a medium meshed sieve, pushing it through with the back of a ladle and discarding the debris.

Remove any bones from the fish pieces you took from the pot earlier. Add the chopped parsley to the soup and simmer for 5 minutes, reseasoning if necessary.

Put the fish pieces into warmed soup bowls and pour the hot soup over. Serve with crusty or toasted bread.

Lamb cutlets Reform

Serves 4

Soyer invented this dish at the Reform Club - the late arrival of a tricky and hungry club member and an ingenious chef who had to make the most of what he had in his kitchen might explain the creation of this somewhat strange concoction. But the tangy sweet and sour sauce works and is one of Soyer's best-known dishes. It's in danger of becoming a forgotten classic, but I think it's worth reviving. When I was at catering college we'd often have to make dishes in breadcrumbs like this one. I guess it goes back to the days of disguising inferior cuts of meat - the gentleman's club equivalent of the fish finger or fried chicken, I suppose.

The recipe has been altered over time - I've even seen black truffle included - but this is pretty close to the original. I wouldn't suggest using cheap meat of course, but coating the cutlets in breadcrumbs keeps them juicy and seals in the flavour. I quite like to keep the garnish separate so it can be eaten as it is or mixed into the sauce.

8or 12 lamb cutlets, French trimmed (ie. with the fat taken off) and flattened slightly
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 eggs, beaten
50g cooked ham, very finely chopped
1tbsp chopped parsley
60-70g fresh white breadcrumbs
Vegetable oil for frying
A good knob of butter

for the sauce

2 large shallots, peeled and finely chopped
Half clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
A good pinch of cayenne pepper
60g butter
2tsp flour
1/2tsp tomato purée
2tbsp tarragon vinegar
1tbsp redcurrant jelly
300ml beef stock, made up from a good stock cube will do fine
40g sliced tongue or ham, or both, cut into thin 3cm strips
1 small cooked beetroot weighing about 70g, peeled and cut into strips like the tongue
2 large gherkins cut into strips like the tongue
White of 1 large hard boiled egg, shredded into strips the same size as the tongue

First make the sauce: gently cook the shallots, garlic and cayenne pepper in half of the butter for 2-3 minutes, stirring every so often. Add the flour and tomato purée and stir well. Add the vinegar and redcurrant jelly and simmer f for a minute, then add the stock, bring to the boil and simmer gently for 15 minutes. Season to taste, and whisk in the remaining butter.

Meanwhile, mix the breadcrumbs with the ham and parsley. Season the lamb cutlets and pass through the egg then the breadcrumbs. Heat a couple of tablespoons of the vegetable oil in a frying pan on a medium heat and cook the cutlets for 3-4 minutes on each side until golden, adding the butter towards the end.

To serve, add the shredded tongue, beetroot, gherkin and egg white to the sauce, or mix and serve separately. Eat with potato dauphinoise.

Red mullet en papillotte

Serves 4

This way of cooking fish in paper would be typical of the times, but it's a simple and healthy method that suits today's tastes. In his recipe Soyer instructs the cook to cut a sheet of foolscap paper into a heart shape, but these days we can use greaseproof or silicone paper instead. Or use a clear roasting bag as I've done, which you can get in most supermarkets.

4 red mullet fillets, weighing about 130-150g, pin bones removed
Half small leek, trimmed, finely shredded and washed
1 small carrot, peeled and finely shredded
A few sprigs of dill or fennel
A few sprigs of thyme
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
1-2tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 clear oven bags or 4x30cm rounds of greaseproof/silicone paper and a little egg white

Pre-heat the oven to 180C/gas mark 5. Season the mullet fillets and top the skin side with the shredded carrot, leek and herbs. Drizzle with olive oil. If you're using an oven bag designed to fit a chicken it'll be too big for the fish. Tie the bag up with string 7-8cm from the end of the fish and trim off any excess. If you're using greaseproof paper, place the fish just off-centre and fold the paper over. Brush the edges lightly with egg white and crimp them by just turning them and overlapping until the edges are completely sealed. Place the bags on a tray and cook for 10-12 minutes. Serve with a salad or new potatoes.

Macaroni and almond croquettes with raspberries

Serves 4

I came across this in Soyer's book, The Modern Housewife or Menagère, written in 1849 and full of recipes for breakfasts and entrées, as well as household management advice.

As well as these macaroni croquettes there are others made with rice. They contain eggs to thicken, but in those days no cream.

80g macaroni
Half vanilla pod, split lengthways
500g milk
80g caster sugar
200ml double cream
2 egg yolks
Oil for deep frying

for the coating

3tbsp flour
Whites from the 2 eggs, briefly beaten with a couple of teaspoons of water
30g ground almonds mixed with 30g flaked almonds (broken into pieces)

for the sauce

150g raspberries
60g sugar

Cook the macaroni in boiling water for 10 minutes then drain, cool a little and chop into smaller pieces. Put them in a pan with the milk and vanilla and simmer for about 30-40 minutes until tender, stirring every so often so that they don't stick to the bottom. Add the cream and sugar and continue to cook until the liquid has reduced and made a thick sauce that just coats the macaroni.

Remove from the heat and stir in the egg yolks, then return to a low heat for a minute or so, stirring until the sauce thickens again. Remove from the heat and transfer to a shallow container or dish. Leave to cool then cover and leave in the fridge overnight to set.

Meanwhile make the sauce: put the sugar in a pan with a couple of tablespoons of water and stir on a low heat until the sugar has dissolved, then simmer for about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and blend with 50g of the raspberries to a smooth purée then strain or keep as it is.

With a dessert spoon, scoop out nuggets of the macaroni mixture. Carefully put them through the flour shaking off any excess, then through the egg white and finally through the almond mixture.

Pre-heat about 8cm of oil to 160-180C in a large thick-bottomed saucepan or deep fat fryer. Fry the croquettes in two or three batches for 2-4 minutes until golden, then drain on some kitchen paper and dust with icing sugar. To serve, spoon some sauce into coupes or large glasses, arrange the croquettes and raspberries inside and spoon more sauce in. You could also serve ice cream with this.

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