A Them-Days Jamie Oliver

Celebrity chefs are common-place nowadays – the likes of Gino Sheffield Di Campo, Ainsley Harriott and Jamie Oliver.

But let’s turn back the clock and look at the very first ‘sleb cook whose grave is one of the most impressive funerary monuments in the country. A true story of love and devotion: one of the people who lies beneath it would also be providing me a recipe for my dinner one evening…

Soyer

What’s the story here?

This is the grave of Alexis and Elizabeth Emma Soyer.

Let’s start with Emma, who was one of the most popular portraitists of the early Victorian era. The Victorians loved symbolism and her talent is reflected in the architectural detail of the monument – note the easel and brushes.

Elizabeth-Emma-Soyer-ne-Jones
(Elizabeth) Emma Soyer (née Jones)
by Henry Bryan Hall, after (Elizabeth) Emma Soyer (née Jones)
stipple and line engraving, mid 19th century. © National Portrait Gallery, London 2018

She was a child prodigy who exhibited at the Royal Academy at the age of 10. By her mid-twenties, Emma’s artistry was special enough to exhibit not only at the Royal Academy but the Paris Salon, where her work was greatly admired.

The First Celebrity Chef

The husband: Alexis Soyer. He was a passionate, effusive man who was one of the most recognisable characters of the day. He cooked in his lavender suit – complete with floppy hat and cravat and married Emma in 1837 after meeting her through her step-father.

His story began in France at Meaux-en-Brie on the Marne in France. Apprenticed to a cook near Grignonn (close to Versailles), within a few years he was chief cook over twelve men and rapidly progressed to become the second cook to Prince Polignac at the French Foreign Office.

Events of the July Revolution in France in 1830 had him escape to London and quickly his services were snapped by the various members of the aristocracy – in 1837 he was appointed chef at the Reform Club at the age of 27, which would be where he developed his food empire.

Remarkable Culinary Feats

This is a man who single-handedly fed two-thousand people to celebrate Victoria’s coronation the following year. His ingenuity in feeding the poor, work with Florence Nightingale and Mary Seacole in the Crimea as well as numerous inventions (such as a stove that the British Army used until the 1980’s) made him a household name. He worked with Reform Club (and Houses of Parliament architect) Sir Charles Barry to turn his kitchen into the most advanced kitchen on the planet.

RB.23.a.12919, 609
A typical menu from Soyer’s kichen. Have the Rennies on standby – via the British Library.

Tragedy

Every love story ends in tragedy and for the Soyers it was no exception. After meeting Emma through her stepfather, they were married at St George’s Hanover Square. He took a major role in promoting her work and hung her paintings in his kitchens and club.

Queen Victoria’s Uncle, Ernest 1st, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg, was such a fan that he reckoned an introduction to the King of Belgium would get her a hefty commission. Emma however was of a fragile disposition and there was no way she could have made the trip herself – so Soyer, his wife’s greatest fan, offered to go on her behalf.

Whilst he was away a dreadful thunderstorm took place. Emma was terrified of them and on top of her pregnancy, the stress proved too much for her; she died two hours after having an early night to avoid the ruckus of the storm.

Alexis Benoît Soyer, after Robert Thomas Landells, published in the 'Illustrated Times' 28 August 1858 - NPG D45910 - © National Portrait Gallery, London
Alexis Benoît Soyer
after Robert Thomas Landells. It’s interesting to note that Soyer designed his own clothes. © National Portrait Gallery, London 2018

Soyer, upon hearing the news, rushed out of the kitchen at the Reform Club and tried to kill himself. If it wasn’t for his assistants wrestling the knife out of his hands, he probably would have succeeded.

Cookbooks

There are plenty of his recipes to be found online, but I wanted to try one out for myself. I settled on a recipe from his book ‘The Modern Housewife‘, published in 1849 as an assortment of meal ideas for ladies who cooked for their families.

The opening pages of ‘A Modern Housewife’. It;s interesting to note that Soyer used an image of him based on an image created by his wife; as he grew older he begun to resemble this picture less and less.

TMH is not in the form of a conventional recipe book, though. Soyer wrote it as a series of letters between the model housewife Hortense and the wanting, couldn’t-boil-an-egg Eloise L. Soyer was able to tap into the class war that was emerging at the time and framed the book between someone who wanted to improve themselves and someone who had been ‘redeemed’ through cooking.

Will a Victorian recipe stand up to the refined palette of today?

Maigre (Skinny) Soup – serves 5

Prep 2

Ingredients

  • 2 Onions
  • Sorrel (or Kale if it’s not available – add a dash of lemon juice too)
  • 1 pint of milk
  • 1 Tbsp of Flour
  • Sugar
  • Salt
  • 2 Egg Yolks
  • Cream
  • 2ozs of Butter
  • 1 French Baguette (6 inch preferably)

Method

  1. Warm a pan on a medium heat with 2 oz’s of butter and finely chop 2 onions into small cubes; the fry them in the butter.
  2. Add three or four handfuls of leafy veg (which has been cut into ribands) and add the tablespoon of flour, mixing with a pint of milk and 0.95 litres of water.
  3. Cook on a simmering heat for 20 minutes and stir regularly.
  4. Season with a teaspoon of sugar and salt, remove from the hob and mix in two egg yolks with a 1/4 pint of milk.
  5. Leave to settle for five minutes. Cut the baguette into sections, a la garlic bread.
  6. Serve the soup as desired.

*I added some pancetta, which I sprinkled on top for presentation and taste.

Prep 1.jpg

The result is delicious, but then that’s not really surprising considering that it’s essentially leafy greens poached in butter, milk and cream. A light dinner it is not! It also doesn’t seem to keep well, so adjust your portion sizes accordingly!

I washed it down with a nice bottle of Italian Pinot Grigio. Try it yourself and raise a glass to the portraitist and the chef!

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